The involvement of Middle East actors in Somalia, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Turkey, has reached fever pitch recently, underscored both by external and internal dynamics.
Externally, the Gulf Cooperation Council dispute between the Saudi Arabia/UAE camp on one side, and Qatar on the other, has resulted in attempts to divide the Horn of Africa into two. Internally, the Federal Government of Somalia’s handling of recent affairs has exacerbated tensions.
While these dynamics show how Somalia has been subject to external interests, they also highlight that if the country wants to avoid external interference in its affairs, it must unite internally first.
Recent months have been busy for those monitoring Gulf influence in Somalia. When Parliament returned from recess in March, Somalia became embroiled in a dispute over an agreement between the self-declared independent state of Somaliland and DP World to manage the Port of Berbera, with Ethiopia receiving a 19% share. While the agreement and even Ethiopia’s role has been known for some time, the official announcement set off a new course of rhetoric and actions.
The dispute peaked in mid-March when Somalia’s Parliament declared the deal ‘null and void’ and banned DP World from operating in the country (which in Parliament’s eyes includes breakaway Somaliland). This exacerbated divisions between Somalia and Somaliland, and extinguished hopes that new administrations elected in both entities in 2017 could resume a dialogue process that has been stagnant since 2015.
Then in April, Somali authorities seized $9.6 million in cash from an inbound plane from the United Arab Emirates. Somalia claimed it hadn’t been informed about the money previously, while the UAE said it was designated for ongoing security training programmes in Mogadishu and Puntland.
With the Lower House of Parliament embroiled in a no-confidence motion over its speaker, and the frequent doling out of cash during such episodes to secure votes, it’s understandable that authorities were on edge.
Nonetheless, the result was another blow as the downturn in relations led to the disbandment of the UAE’s training centre in Mogadishu. This was worrying given the need to develop the Somali security sector before an eventual withdrawal of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
In May, five of Somalia’s federal member states gathered at their second Council of Interstate Cooperation meeting, a forum created last year for their better representation at a national level.
The federal member states have been upset with Mogadishu’s foreign policy direction since last year, and this has been exacerbated by recent developments. For example, Puntland also benefited from UAE training programmes, while DP World’s sister company P&O Ports had signed an agreement to manage the Port of Bosaso. Thus Mogadishu’s handling of both the Berbera Port deal and the seized UAE money threaten federal member states’ interests, Puntland argues.
The Council of Interstate Cooperation meeting highlighted tensions in the federalisation model. The federal member states complained about a lack of material support from Mogadishu, and being sidelined in the formulation of foreign policy, especially on aspects that affect them. To this effect the final communiqué noted that rather than remaining neutral in the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, Somalia’s government had sided with Qatar, in opposition to federal member states’ interests.
While this complaint isn’t new, one key change involved Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, the Interim Juba Administration leader, who lashed out against the government’s handling of the UAE-Qatar crisis. Madobe had previously served as a more neutral mediator between the federal member states and government in late 2017 when developments reached a tense stage. But the switch in his stance, preceded by a visit to the UAE, signalled a stronger dividing line.
In short, recent developments have led to the suspension of prospective talks between Somalia and Somaliland, the disbandment of a UAE security training programme, and more entrenched divisions between the government in Mogadishu and the federal regions.
Largely a result of the fallout from the divided loyalties between the UAE and Qatar, the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis hasn’t been kind to Somalia. While other Horn of Africa countries have been pressured to choose sides in this dispute, Somalia has suffered the worst consequences.
This is largely a by-product of two related issues – that Somalia’s nascent state-building institutions are still in their infancy and thus struggle to accommodate such outside pressures, and that Somalia itself is inherently divided.
The former relates to Somalia’s slow comeback from state collapse, and the lack of clarity in how roles and responsibilities are delineated within the federal system. Outside actors have contributed to this (like when the UAE hosts federal member states’ leaders who return to Somalia more critical of the government). But it is ultimately the divisions in Somalia that allow this to happen.
Therein lies the predicament but also the solution for Somalia. To ensure external actors don’t cause internal instability, unity must be fostered. The federal member states and government need a common vision regarding Somalia’s future. Much of this has to do with compromises over access to power and resources, with actors jockeying to strengthen their position and preserve their interests.
An agreement at a recent meeting between the federal member states and government to examine these power sharing issues is a start. But without genuine internal consensus on such aspects, Somalia will remain vulnerable to divisions. This has been recently heightened by external developments, but only because Somalia has allowed it to. A failure to address this now will result in more of the same.
Omar S Mahmood, Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa
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