UAE and Saudi Arabia are bringing the Horn of Africa closer to the Gulf

As the prominence of the Gulf states has grown on the global stage, their influence has expanded across the broader Middle East and beyond. Nowhere is this presence more significant and complex than in the Horn of Africa. For that reason, when this year’s UAE Security Forum – annually hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington – convenes on Thursday, it will specifically examine relations between the countries from these two regions.

Given the proximity of Arabia between Africa across the narrow Red Sea, Gulf states have age-old relations with the Horn. They have also ended up cooperating and competing with other regional players – as well as each other – in the region. In addition to trade, as well as linguistic and cultural ties, large diasporas from the Horn now live and work in Gulf countries and their remittances are a significant source of revenue for local economies.

Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries have contributed to religious and cultural institutions in the region. In the 80s, the Saudis led Gulf investment there by buying and leasing arable land in an ongoing quest for food security. More recently in 2015, Saudi-led Arab intervention in support of the internationally-recognised government of Yemen created an imperative for the governments in Riyadh and the UAE to develop strategic positions on the Red Sea coast of Africa to support their campaign.

The geographical and historical links, the desire for trade and regional security, and the quest for food security all provide a solid bedrock for relations across the Red Sea. Extensive investments in the region have securely tied several Gulf countries to Africa. The strategic interests of Gulf countries in the area, whether in cooperation or competition, are broad-based and far-reaching. After the waters of the Gulf itself, the Red Sea is the most strategic maritime area for the Gulf states, thereby drawing significant attention and collaboration from them.

A striking example of Gulf cooperation, and its growing diplomatic heft, was the central role the UAE and Saudi Arabia played in brokering the historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2018. Adding to its already strong ties to Eritrea, Emirati diplomats also gradually developed closer relations with Ethiopia – largely through deployment of much-needed investment and financial opportunities. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, held crucial meetings with Ethiopian and Eritrean officials that helped end two decades of conflict. This was backed by $3 billion in support for Ethiopia from the UAE, in addition to existing aid to Eritrea, and sealed with a high-profile signing ceremony in Jeddah.

Gulf states also see strategic risks in leaving the Horn to potential adversaries. The presence of the Iranian-backed Houthis at the vital Bab El Mandeb choke-point at the southern end of the Red Sea provided another significant incentive for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to establish their presence on both sides of the strait to maintain maritime security. The campaign in Yemen was undoubtedly a crucial factor in drawing Gulf countries deeper into the Horn, although a potential de-escalation in the war is unlikely to yield a concomitant pullback from the eastern African coast.

In 2016, Sudan and Eritrea formally broke diplomatic and military relations with Iran. Meanwhile, the UAE was mindful of the need for counterterrorism and anti-piracy capacity and it built on training maritime law-enforcement forces and military cooperation in Berbera, in Somaliland, and Bosaso, in Puntland.

During the same period, Qatar and Turkey also developed closer ties to Somalia. And as tensions peaked in June 2017 between Qatar on one hand and the Arab Quartet on the other, they reverberated in the Horn. Gulf states strengthened their ties with various African governments and local partners.

In Somalia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia focused their attention on potential local partners in Somaliland and Puntland. The UAE has continued this effort by moving to establish a free-trade zone in Berbera and closer bilateral ties with Somaliland, which has declared itself an independent republic but is generally considered an autonomous region of Somalia by the international community.

Sudan has also been a site for Gulf engagement and rivalry. The government of former president Omar Al Bashir was thought by many to be moving towards Doha and Ankara, having signed major projects to develop a strategic island with the two regional powers. However, that multibillion-dollar project appears to be on hold after the overthrow of Mr Al Bashir and the delivery of new aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the transitional government in Khartoum. The two countries also helped facilitate the deal between the military and civilian groups for a historic transition to democracy, which was agreed upon in August.

For all these reasons and more, the AGSIW has chosen to dedicate this year’s security forum to a salient – but often overlooked – aspect of Gulf foreign policy, and the role of the Horn of Africa in their evolution as major international players.

By: Douglas A Silliman

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