Small Wars Journal

The Middle East’s Complicated Engagement in the Horn of Africa

The Middle East’s Complicated Engagement in the Horn of Africa

Has the involvement of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey helped or hurt East Africa?

Omar S. Mahmood

The Gulf states increased assertiveness in the Horn of Africa has garnered substantial attention of late, particularly the proliferation of military installations and ports and the increase in military and economic aid. Less attention has been paid, however, to the role Middle Eastern countries have played in attempting to resolve some of the Horn’s most intractable conflicts, efforts that in some cases pre-date the more recent security and economic engagements.

Middle Eastern nations are often criticized for the destabilizing aspects of some interventions in the Horn—notably in Sudan, following the overthrow of Bashir, and in Somalia. Yet, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey—the four most engaged countries—have all been involved in conflict resolution in various capacities, indicating a broader interest in the Horn beyond narrow commercial and military interests.

Qatar has the longest standing involvement in peacemaking efforts in the Horn, facilitating talks beginning in 2008 between the Sudanese government and rebel movements in Darfur, among various Somali factions in the mid-2000s, and between Eritrea and Djibouti after the outbreak of a border conflict in 2008. This wide-ranging involvement has produced different outcomes, such as the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur in 2011, and the deployment of a peacekeeping mission in a disputed area between Eritrea and Djibouti. Qatar’s approach has been unique—for example, the Eritrea-Djibouti peacekeeping mission committed ground troops in support of a political process. 

Turkey was the next actor of this group to ramp up its involvement in conflict resolution efforts, leveraging the establishment of a special relationship with Somalia in 2011. Ankara became the venue for discussions between Somalia and Somaliland, which resulted in a series of meetings between 2013-15. Those talks have since faltered, but Turkey has shown an interest in reviving them, appointing a special envoy in 2018 to spearhead the effort.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the latest entrants to this scene, they are associated with the most recognized breakthrough. The exact nature of their role in the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord remains opaque (for example, Eritrea issued a blistering critique of recent comments made by a senior Saudi official claiming credit for his country’s involvement). Yet the intentional, visible engagement of both nations is evident: Emirati officials have lauded their engagement, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed visited Addis Ababa as the rapprochement was unfolding and deposited $1 billion to Ethiopia’s central bank, and the UAE awarded both Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki the Order of Zayed, its highest civilian honor. The follow-up to the July 2018 peace accord was also signed in Jeddah in September 2018.  While it seems neither nation held a substantial mediation role, they likely acted more as behind-the-scenes facilitators and provided some economic incentives for cooperation.

What is driving this engagement?

The economic and security interests of Middle Eastern actors involved have been quite clear at times. The reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea provides the UAE an opportunity to minimize opposition to its existing military facility in Assab, Eritrea by reducing disapproval from Horn actors like Ethiopia and because the lifting of U.N. sanctions on Eritrea removes obstacles to financial and military support. It also provides potential economic opportunities to connect Eritrean ports to the world’s most populous landlocked country in Ethiopia—though little concrete activity has materialized to date.

Political considerations have been a prominent theme as well. Qatar’s roles in Horn conflict resolution ties into efforts to position itself as a global peacemaker. Additionally, involvement in some peacemaking efforts has also ensured support for actors more ideologically aligned with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, such as in Somalia in the mid-2000s. Ultimately, Qatar’s conflict resolution investments have been the most extensive and varied.

Similarly, Turkey’s role in the Somalia-Somaliland talks is intertwined with its development of a special relationship with Somalia, which has manifested itself through political, economic and security linkages, and forms part of a wider strategy to engage Africa. Ankara’s ambition to position itself as a leader of the Muslim world further incentivizes its efforts, with Somalia serving as a key test case. While both Turkey and Qatar have also supported Muslim Brotherhood networks in the Horn, this has not translated into coordinated conflict resolution efforts between the two to date.

Finally, there have also increasingly been considerations that the Horn and Arabian Peninsula experience certain shared security threats, especially along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden corridor, as noted by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash in a recent speech. This may in turn also influence Middle Eastern involvement in the Horn, in order to mitigate potential negative spillover.

Overall, these interventions have been driven by a combination of national interests and foreign policy objectives. Recently there is also an element of competition, especially as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis—which erupted in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed a blockade on Qatar—has dragged on. The participation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord, for example, could also be seen as a geopolitical attempt to isolate Turkey and Qatar ahead of the shifting regional dynamics. In addition, while Turkey has been championing a re-start of the Somalia-Somaliland discussions, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Somalia reportedly recently expressed interest in hosting any future discussions.

What has the impact been?

Despite these wide-ranging interventions, impact has been mixed. Most interventions have not produced groundbreaking results. Qatar’s peacekeeping mission along the Eritrean-Djiboutian has largely kept the peace, but resulted in no lasting settlement. Rather, Doha’s hasty 2017 withdrawal, after both Djibouti and Eritrea sided against Qatar in the wake of the GCC crisis, left a vacuum.

In Darfur, despite years of negotiations and various accords, implementation has been problematic, the underlying drivers of the conflict remain unaddressed, and violence persists. Qatar’s process also appears to be overtaken after the swearing in of a new government in Khartoum in August 2019, with South Sudan now playing host to ongoing discussions with armed actors.

Turkey’s facilitation efforts between Somalia and Somaliland stalled in 2015, without producing substantial results, and Somaliland criticized Turkey for perceived biases in favor of Mogadishu. Accordingly, Somaliland has argued for the wider involvement of other actors prior to resuming the process.

And while initially a promising development, implementation of Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement has also largely stalled, raising further questions as to the ability of Middle Eastern nations to serve as effective guarantors.

In other interventions less overtly focused on conflict resolution, Middle Eastern involvement in the Horn has exacerbated existing disputes or fostered new tensions. The UAE’s fallout with both Djibouti and Somalia is an example of the latter. Furthermore, the GCC dispute placed weaker Horn countries under significant pressure to choose sides. In Somalia, this was especially apparent as some countries bypassed the federal government in Mogadishu in a bid to enhance relations and influence with regional member states. This worsened center-periphery tensions, as Mogadishu struggled to proceed with a foreign policy that its member states opposed. Prior to the breakthrough with Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s engagement with Asmara was also a source of concern for Ethiopia, demonstrating the potential for Middle Eastern engagement to aggravate tensions.

In Sudan, following the overthrow of Bashir, Saudi and Emirati involvement initially risked playing more of a spoiler role, backing the Transitional Military Council (TMC) over the civilian protest movement. Driven by a combination of interests to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood does not gain a foothold in the post-Bashir era, to retain Sudanese troops for the war in Yemen, and to contain spillover of popular movements on the domestic front, support like the provision of economic aid to the TMC was less focused on conflict resolution, and more to bolster one side. Yet the involvement of Western nations like the U.S. and public backlash following the violent break-up of the protest sit-in ultimately played a role in helping moderate this behavior in favor of a more balanced outcome.

Regardless of success or the lack thereof, the resurgent engagement between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa demonstrates that the relationship between these two regions is likely to endure.

What implications can be drawn from the interventions?

Middle East states’ involvement in conflict resolution efforts in the Horn has demonstrated their assertiveness in the region, underpinned by a host of national interests and an argument for the need to promote stability. Yet, this record is mixed—going forward it will be critical to amplify the factors driving positive engagement, while minimizing the more negative implications.

Diplomatic action by Middle Eastern countries has provided some momentary breakthroughs. Yet these have not been able to overcome entrenched local opposition or shifting geopolitical dynamics, demonstrating limitations when it comes to exerting influence on the ground. One frequent critique has been the incorporation of biases or misunderstandings of local dynamics in Middle East efforts in the Horn. In addition, at times there has been a tension in the approach of Middle Eastern actors and institutions like the African Union, which has placed a stronger focus on multilateralism, institutionalization and democratic values. This tension was apparent through the backing provided by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to the military in the initial phase of Sudan’s transition.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a multilateral institution with a mandate on peace and security issues in the Horn, is also likely to change significantly in the near future, with new leadership focused on organizational reforms. A reformed and more effective IGAD could impact external actors continued involvement in conflict resolution efforts, especially when there is a clash of approaches as initially seen in Sudan.

Finally, Middle East states also must be wary that their interventions do not inadvertently cause more harm than good. This has been especially apparent when pursuing narrow interests or competitive policies, such as the machinations in Sudan after Bashir or the extension of the GCC crisis to the Horn of Africa. There is great potential for a positive and enduring relationship between the Horn and the Middle East in the realm of conflict resolution and beyond, but some pitfalls that have affected past interactions will need to be managed going forward in order to truly achieve the stability those involved are seeking. 

This article is cross-posted here with the permission (on agreement) from the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author(s)

Omar S. Mahmood is a Horn of Africa researcher, mostly recently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).