A military armoured personnel carrier patrols during the opening ceremony of the new Turkish embassy in Abdiazizi district of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

September 26, 2017

The Gulf Contest for the Horn of Africa

Effects of the Qatar crisis have not been contained to the Gulf. The crisis has diplomatic and financial implications for states in the Horn of Africa, where we have observed a competition for influence among the Gulf States and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the Horn of Africa as a strategic opportunity to enhance their capabilities in the Gulf of Aden to support operations in Yemen. Turkey diverges from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in its Horn of Africa priorities: instead of expanding its military presence in the region, Turkey’s strategy involves a combination of heavy investments and commercial contracts, hoping to boost its economic competitiveness in the region. Qatar has largely aligned with Turkey and prioritized a humanitarian response to the drought in Somalia. Long-term, all four countries are looking to counter Iran’s intent to expand its naval capabilities in the region.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut formal ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, resulting in the withdrawal of ambassadors and bans on trade and travel. Saudi Arabia also expelled Qatar’s contingent from the coalition fighting in Yemen. The conflict has bolstered relations between Qatar and Turkey, which has responded to the crisis by providing food aid and recommitting to providing Qatar with increased Turkish military presence.[1] Saudi Arabia originally presented Qatar with a list of thirteen demands, including ending diplomatic and military ties with Iran, cutting ties to all terror organizations, and shutting down Al Jazeera. The list has since been shortened to six demands, but mediation efforts by the US and Kuwait have made no progress in ending the dispute.[2]

Implications for Somalia

Somalia’s strategic location and complex ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states placed Somalia at the center of negotiations, with both sides in the Qatar conflict persuading the nation to abandon its neutral stance.[3]  

Qatar and Turkey can leverage political ties and substantial humanitarian aid commitments to pressure Somalia to maintain its neutral stance. 

  • Qatar maintains close ties with Somali President Farmajo, whose chief of staff previously worked on his campaign as a liaison with Qatar.[4] The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia has previously accused Qatar of influencing Somali electoral outcomes through its financing of preferred candidates. Qatar has subsequently lobbied these government officials to support policies that increase Qatar’s commercial competitiveness in Somalia.[5]
  • Both Turkey and Qatar have had long-term commitments to humanitarian aid in Somalia and have increased their support in recent months in response to the drought.[6]
  • Qatar has attempted to hold talks between Gulf States and Somalia, where it encouraged Somalia to maintain its neutrality in the Qatar conflict.[7] Turkey has also been in talks with UAE and Saudi officials, advocating for an end to the embargo on Qatar before the end of Ramadan (which did not occur).[8] Somali officials, however, remain committed to neutrality in the conflict.[9] Somali’s federal government recently criticized the semiautonomous regions of Galmudug, Puntland, and Hirshabelle for cutting ties with Qatar.[10]

The Saudis are leveraging financial aid to pressure Somalia to cut ties with Qatar.

  • Saudi Arabia pledged $50 million in aid to Somalia in January 2017 on the same day the Somali government announced it was cutting ties with Iran.[11]
  • Saudi Arabia offered $80 million to Somalia on June 11 in an attempt to persuade the country to dissolve diplomatic relations with Qatar and reportedly warned Farmajo that it may withdraw all financial aid if Somalia maintains neutrality in the conflict.[12]

The UAE could leverage commercial contracts to influence Somalia’s stance, but it is unlikely to hold much weight as Farmajo already disapproves of the contracts with Somaliland and Puntland. The UAE is more likely to withhold support for Somali defense entities.

  • The UAE recalled its ambassador to Somalia and reportedly deported Somali citizens as public disapproval of Somalia’s neutral stance in the Qatar conflict.[13]
  • The UAE opened a new training center in Mogadishu to train Somalia’s counterterrorism forces in May 2015. It has also provided armored vehicles to Somali forces and pledged in October 2015 to pay Somalia National Army (SNA) salaries.[14] The UAE has no official military presence on the base.

Saudi and Emirati influence secured support from northern Somalia.

  • Both Somaliland and Puntland announced support for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. On June 10, the Government of the Republic of Somaliland issued a resolution in support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and assertion of its independence from Somalia.[15] Somaliland’s stance might only exacerbate tensions between the Emiratis and Farmajo, who rejects the legitimacy of the contracts. The Puntland administration announced on August 16 that it supported the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and it called on the Somali Federal Government to reconsider its neutral stance.[16]
  • The UAE operates in the Puntland region of Somalia through funding the Puntland Maritime Police Force and Puntland Intelligence Agency.[17] Former Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid of Puntland has been a strong advocate for Somalia to cut ties with Qatar.[18]
  • The Somaliland parliament approved an agreement with the UAE to establish a base in the port of Berbera in February 2017.[19] The base is still under construction, but UAE ships have docked at the port and reportedly intend to use the base for air support in Yemen.[20]
  • Dubai-based port developer DP World has signed contracts to manage the commercial ports in Berbera and Boosaaso Port in the Puntland region.[21] Somali President Farmajo has publicly shown disapproval for the contract with Somaliland and Somali MPs have introduced parliamentary motions against the Berbera Port agreement.[22]

Broader contest for influence in the Horn

Saudi Arabia and the UAE

The two states' presence in the Horn of Africa indicates broader shifts in their strategic goals. Saudi Arabia prioritizes countering the  Iranian-backed al Houthis in Yemen and setting conditions to declare victory and end the war. The UAE has used the collapse of the Yemeni state and the war to project its influence further into the Gulf of Aden.

  • The UAE reportedly warned Saudi Arabia to abandon its support for Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi or the UAE will abandon the coalition.[23] Relations between the two states are strained by a combination of UAE skepticism toward prospects of a military victory and the UAE’s aversion to political Islamists in the north.[24] These tensions were bolstered by former governor of Aden Aydarus al Zubaidi’s attempted declaration of southern independence, as the UAE has been accused of secretly supporting the secessionist movement.[25]
  • The forced departure of Qatari troops from Yemen could further hinder Saudi progress in Yemen.[26]
  • Sudan’s proximity to the Red Sea is likely too far from the Bab al Mandab for GCC states to see Sudan as worthy of maritime investments. However, GCC states are pursuing strategies in Sudan similar to those in the Horn: Saudi Arabia is prioritizing military aid, while Turkey focuses on humanitarian aid.
  • Sudan severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 after Iran executed a Saudi cleric.[27] A Saudi deposit of $1 billion into Sudan’s central bank further supports the conclusion that Sudan has shifted its support to the Arab states under Saudi Arabia. Remittances from hundreds of thousands of Sudanese living in Gulf States likely factored into Sudan’s change in position as well.[28]
  • Saudi Arabia has also looked to counter Iranian influence through military assistance. In February 2016 Saudi Arabia diverted military aid from Lebanon to Sudan, amounting to $5 billion.[29]

Saudi Arabia envisions Djibouti as the future center of its operations in the Horn of Africa.

  • Saudi Arabia has had access to Djiboutian airspace and the airfield at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti since October 2015 to support operations in Yemen.[30]
  • The Saudis announced in December 2016 their intentions to upgrade to a full military base there to act as a launching point for operations in Yemen and for interfering with Iranian attempts to supply Houthi forces.
  • Saudi Arabia likely chose Djibouti for its base in part due to the presence of other forces for the purpose of power projection, and as preemptive assertion against Iranian interests in the region.[31]
  • Djibouti has not cut ties with Qatar completely, but “downgraded” its relationship with Qatar, claiming “solidarity with the international coalition combating terrorism and extremist violence.”[32]

The UAE previously operated out of Eritrea, but shifted focus to new military projects in Somaliland.

  • The UAE began construction on the Port of Assab in eastern Eritrea in September 2015.[33]
  • The UAE was previously operating out of Djibouti, but the two states broke off diplomatic relations in April 2015 over a lease conflict, resulting in the withdrawal of Saudi and Emirati troops from the country. The Djiboutian port had been leased to the Saudi coalition for operational support in Yemen.[34]
  • The base has been used in operations to retake Aden, as well as training Yemeni counterterrorism forces, blockading Houthi-held ports, and sending humanitarian assistance into Yemen.[35]
  • Eritrea previously had relatively close ties to Qatar but followed Saudi Arabia and the UAE in distancing themselves from Qatar. Qatar withdrew peacekeepers from the Eritrea-Djibouti border, and Eritrean forces promptly took control of Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island. The UN Security Council is mediating discussions between the two states.[36]
Qatar and Turkey

Turkey diverges from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in its priorities. It has expanded its military presence in the region in a limited way, while focusing on a combination of heavy investments and commercial contracts to boost its economic competitiveness in the region.[37] 

  • In Somalia, Turkey has worked with both the TFG and the semi-autonomous government in Somaliland but has indicated a preference for a unified Somalia. Turkey’s largest investment in Somalia is the management of Mogadishu’s seaport and airport. These ports are the source of 80 percent of the Somali government’s revenue.[38]
  • Ethiopia receives the largest percentage of Turkish direct investment in Africa (so far has attracted over 40 percent of such investments). Recently, Turkey loaned Ethiopia funds for the Awash-Woldiya railway, and Turkey is investing in manufacturing, power generation, and food security.[39] In return, Ethiopia is Turkey’s fourth largest trading partner in Africa. Turkey established an industrial zone in 2015 that provided 33,000 jobs to Ethiopians.[40]
  • Ethiopia has committed to remaining neutral in the Qatar dispute, but officials from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have met with Ethiopian officials since the start of the crisis, likely in attempts to pressure Ethiopia to declare alliance to one side.[41]
  • Qatar has no military presence in the Horn of Africa and is unlikely to compete with Turkey in the region after accepting a deployment of Turkish troops.
  • Qatar has invested heavily in Sudan, becoming its largest foreign donor in hopes of ending economic and military cooperation between Iran and Sudan. It acquired farmland to enable its own food security and pressured Sudan to influence its rough relationship with Egypt.
  • Turkey is pursuing a similar strategy in Sudan and Somalia. The Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) have launched aid campaigns in Sudan to target those affected by drought.[42]

The buildup of GCC presence in the Horn of Africa could indicate broader anti-Iranian posturing in the region.

  • Iran has indicated that it intends to strengthen its naval presence in the Indian Ocean.[43]
  • Turkey also plans to open a military base in Mogadishu in May 2017 for the purpose of training SNA soldiers. It is set to be Turkey’s largest foreign base, meaning that Turkey likely possesses ulterior motives, most likely for anti-piracy efforts but possibly including countering Iranian posturing in the region.[44]
  • The UAE utilizes the Port of Assab for blockades of Houthi-held ports in the Red Sea, preventing Iranian support to the Houthis.[45]
  • Saudi Arabia pledged $50 million in aid in January 2017 to Somalia on the same day Somalia announced it was cutting ties with Iran.[46]
  • The base in Djibouti will serve Saudi Arabia’s interests by enabling interference with Iranian attempts to supply Houthi forces and preemptively asserting Saudi influence against Iranian interests in the region.[47]

[1] Rufiz Hafizoglu, “Turkey to Send Humanitarian Aid to Qatar Through Azerbaijan,” Trend News Agency, July 18, 2017, https://en.trend.az/world/turkey/2778550.html.

[2] Krishnadev Calamur, “Qatar Crisis: Are There Signs of a Potential Deal?” Atlantic, July 19, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/07/qatar-blockade/534117/.

[3] Hassan Islow and Mohammed Dhaysane, “Senior Diplomat: Somalia Will Not Sever ties With Qatar,” Anadolu Agency, June 12, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/africa/senior-diplomat-somalia-will-not-sever-ties-with-qatar/839677.

[4] Abdi Latif Dahir, “War-torn Somalia Could Become Tangled in the Wealthy Gulf States’ Diplomatic Spat,” Quartz Africa, June 6, 2017, https://qz.com/999709/as-somalia-allows-increased-qatar-airways-traffic-in-its-airspace-it-could-become-tangled-gulf-nations-spat/.

[5] Malkhadir Muhumed, “Qatar’s Influence in Somalia Edges Out Traditional Arab Power-house in Egypt,” East African, November 1, 2017, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Qatar-s-influence-in-Somalia-edges-Egypt-/2558-2056248-65m7lhz/index.html.

[6] “Turkish Envoy Hands over Aid Ship to Somali Government,” Shabelle Media, June 17, 2017, http://allafrica.com/stories/201706190237.html.

[7] Dahir, “War-torn Somalia Could Become Tangled in the Wealthy Gulf States’ Diplomatic Spat”.

[8] Kamila Aliyeva, “Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia Discuss Qatar Crisis,” Azer News, June 12, 2017,


[9] “Somalia is Committed to Developing Its Relations with Qatar,” Midnimo, June 13, 2017, https://midnimo.com/2017/06/13/somalia-somalia-committed-developing-relations-qatar/.

[10] “Somalia Rebukes Its States for Breaking With Qatar,” VoA, September 21, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-rebukes-states-breaking-with-qatar/4039039.html,

[11] “Somalia Received Saudi Aid the Day It Cut Ties with Iran: Document,” Reuters, January 1, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-saudi-iran-idUSKCN0UV0BH.

[12] Dahir, “War-torn Somalia Could Become Tangled in the Wealthy Gulf States’ Diplomatic Spat”.

[13] “UAE Expels Somali Competitor in the Dubai International Quran Award as It Recalls Its Ambassador,” Dalsan Radio, June 12, 2017, http://allafrica.com/stories/201706130464.html.

[14] “UAE to Assist Somalia in Armed Forces Salaries,” Garowe, October 18, 2015, http://www.garoweonline.com/en/news/somalia/uae-to-assist-somalia-in-armed-forces-salaries.

[15] “Somaliland Sides with Saudi Arabia and UAE Against Qatar,” National, June 10, 2017, http://www.thenational-somaliland.com/2017/06/10/breaking-somaliland-sides-saudi-arabia-uae-qatar/.

[16] “Statement on the Gulf Crisis,” Garowe Online Twitter, August 16, 2017, https://twitter.com/radiogarowe/status/897826944225595394.

[17] A. Abdirahman, “Somalia: UAE Pledges Continued Support for Puntland Marine Forces, Horseed Media, March 28, 2014, https://horseedmedia.net/2014/03/28/somalia-uae-pledges-continued-support-puntland-marine-forces/.

[18] “Somalia: Why Farmer Somalia Prime Minister Supported Cutting Ties to Qatar?” [sic], Midnimo, July 8, 2017, https://midnimo.com/2017/07/08/119650/.

[19] Shazar Shafqat, “UAE to Open Second Military Base in East Africa,” Middle East Eye, February 13, 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-eyes-military-expansion-eastern-africa-2028510672.

[20] Abdulaziz Osman, “Somaliland Says UAE Can Launch Attacks from New Base,” VoA, May 29, 2017, http://allafrica.com/stories/201705290331.html

[21] Neil Ford, “Horn of Africa: Ports in Puntland & Somaliland to Compete,” African Business, May 24, 2017. http://africanbusinessmagazine.com/region/east-africa/horn-africa-ports-puntland-somaliland-compete/.

[22] “Farmaajo Seeks Saudi Arabia Intervention in Controversial Berbera UAE Military Base,” Dalsan Radio, February 24, 2017. http://allafrica.com/stories/201702240588.html; Liban Ahmad, Somalia: Unscrupulous MPs Shouldnt Waylay President Farmaajo,” Horseed Media, May 25, 2017, https://horseedmedia.net/2017/05/25/somalia-unscrupulous-mps-shouldnt-waylay-president-farmaajo/.

[23] “UAE to Saudi: Abandon Yemen’s Hadi or We Will Withdraw Our Troops,” Middle East Monitor, March 7, 2017, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170307-uae-to-saudi-abandon-yemens-hadi-or-we-will-withdraw-our-troops.

[24] Peter Salisbury, “The UAE’s Yemen Pivot Could Make Difference with Riyadh Unbridgeable,” World Politics Review, June 28, 2016, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/19184/the-uae-s-yemen-pivot-could-make-differences-with-riyadh-unbridgeable.

[25] Omair Anas, “The Saudis and Emiratis Are on a Yemeni Collision Course,” Middle East Eye, May 19, 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/yemen-s-southern-council-end-game-crisis-saudi-arabia-90299838.

[26] “Gulf Rift Deepens: Saudi Suspends Qatar Troops’ Involvement in Yemen War,” Business Standard, June 5, 2017, http://www.business-standard.com/article/international/gulf-rift-deepens-saudi-suspends-qatar-troops-involvement-in-yemen-war-117060500280_1.html.

[27] Berouk Mesfin, “Qatar’s Diplomatic Incursions into the Horn of Africa,” Institute for Security Studies, November 15, 2016, https://issafrica.org/research/east-africa-report/qatars-diplomatic-incursions-into-the-horn-of-africa.

[28] “Why Has Sudan Ditched Iran in Favour of Saudi Arabia?” Guardian, January 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/12/sudan-siding-with-saudi-arabia-long-term-ally-iran.

[29] “Saudi Arabia Gives Sudan $5 Billion in Military Aid,” Sudan Tribune, February 23, 2016, http://dev.sudantribune.com/NorthSudan/Article/Index/2-23-2016-Saudi-Arabia-gives-Sudan-5-billion-in-military-aid-/58095; Shaul Shay, “The Alliance of Saudi Arabia and Sudan,” IPS Publications, January 2017, http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/ShaulShay23_1_17.pdf.

[30] Alex Mello and Michael Knights, “West of Suez for the United Arab Emirates,” War on the Rocks, September 2, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/09/west-of-suez-for-the-united-arab-emirates/.

[31] Joseph Braude and Tyler Jiang, “Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti,” World Post, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-braude/why-china-and-saudi-arabi_b_12194702.html.

[32] “Qatar Withdraws Troops from Djibouti-Eritrea Border Mission,” Reuters, June 14, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-qatar-djibouti-idUSKBN1950W5.

[33]“Analysis of the UAE Military Base in Assab – Eritrea,” Stratfor, December 8, 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/uae-joins-exclusive-club?utm_term=independence&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=pepperjam&utm_campaign=43737.

[34] Mello and Knights, “West of Suez for the United Arab Emirates.”

[35] Ibid; Nadav Pollak and Michael Knights, “Gulf Coalition Operations in Yemen (Part 3): Maritime and Aerial Blockade,” Washington Institute, March 25, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/gulf-coalition-operations-in-yemen-part-3-maritime-and-aerial-blockade.

[36]  Conor Gaffey, “Eritrea Becomes Latest African Nation to Side with Saudi Arabia in Spat with Qatar,” Newsweek, June 14, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/qatar-crisis-eritrea-saudi-arabia-625356; Abdullahi Yussuf, “Effects of Gulf Crisis on African Countries,” Star, 15 July 2017, http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2017/07/15/effects-of-gulf-crisis-on-african-countries_c1586458.   

[37] Ramon Ruiz, “UAE Launches Dh500m Mission of Mercy to Somalia,” National, April 11, 2017, http://www.thenational.ae/uae/uae-launches-dh500m-mission-of-mercy-to-somalia; Tesfa-Alem Tekle, “Ethiopia Africa’s Top Investment Destination for Turkey: Official,” Sudan Tribune, March 27, 2016, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article58451; Nezaket Yalman, “Horn of Africa Region Attracts Most of Turkey’s Foreign Investments in the ‘Dark Continent’,” Middle East Observer, November 25, 2016, https://www.middleeastobserver.org/2016/11/25/horn-of-africa-attracts-turkeys-most-foreign-investments-in-the-dark-continent/; and Afyare Abdi Elmi, Transnational NGOs Creative Connections of Development and Global Governance, Aalborg University Press, 2015.

[38] Abdi Latif Dahir, “The UAE is Expanding Its Influence in the Horn of Africa by Funding Ports and Military Bases,” Quartz, April 11, 2017, https://qz.com/955585/in-somalia-and-eritrea-the-united-arab-emirates-is-expanding-its-influence-by-building-ports-and-funding-military-bases/.

[39] Tekle, “Ethiopia Africa’s Top Investment Destination for Turkey: Official.”

[40] Yalman, “Horn of Africa Region Attracts Most of Turkey’s Foreign Investments in the ‘Dark Continent’.”

[41] Gaffey, “Eritrea Becomes Latest African Nation to Side with Saudi Arabia in Spat with Qatar.”

[42] Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, “Turkey Launches Aid Campaign for Drought-hit Horn of Africa and Yemen,” Africa News, March 3, 2017, http://www.africanews.com/2017/03/05/turkey-launches-aid-campaign-for-drought-hit-horn-of-africa-and-yemen//.

[43] Mello and Knights, “West of Suez for the United Arab Emirates.”

[44] Oscar Nkala, “Turkey to Open Military Base in Mogadishu,” Defense Web, March 24, 2017, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47244:turkey-to-open-military-base-in-mogadishu&catid=56:diplomacy-a-peace&Itemid=111; “Turkish Naval Forces Combined Task Force (CTF-151),” Turkish Naval Forces Press Release, February 8, 2016, https://www.dzkk.tsk.tr/icerik.php?icerik_id=19&dil=0&ctf=1.

[45] Pollak and Knights, “Gulf Coalition Operations in Yemen (Part 3): Maritime and Aerial Blockade.”

[46] “Somalia Received Saudi Aid the Day It Cut Ties with Iran: Document,” Reuters.

[47] Braude and Jiang, “Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti.”

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