14.03.2024 Author: Viktor Goncharov

The Horn of Africa in the quagmire of geopolitical rivalry Part Four: Abu Dhabi’s invisible influence and the position of its immediate neighbours

The Horn of Africa. Somaliland

According to The Economist, the UAE, which maintains close ties not only with Addis Ababa but also with Somaliland, played a mediating role in the signing of the memorandum discussed by all. From this point of view, an Ethiopian military base in Somaliland could be another step forward in strengthening Abu Dhabi’s influence in the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf region in general.

It should be noted that Abu Dhabi has been addressing this issue for a number of years. Back in March 2017, the UAE agreed with the Somaliland authorities on the deployment of a military base and the construction of a shopping centre in the Berbera port area at a total cost of $442 million.

Simultaneously, in April of the same year, an agreement was signed with the administration of another semi-autonomous region of Puntland to build the port of Bosaso at a cost of $336 million. Both facilities were to be leased to UAE firms for 30 years.

However, legal obstacles created by the Farmaajo government that came to power that year, with the support of Qatar and Turkey, frustrated Abu Dhabi’s plans and led to a serious cooling of relations. Another stumbling block in Somalia’s relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia was Farmaajo’s refusal to support the decision by the four countries comprising Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar, accused of funding Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

But remarkably, the so-called semi-autonomous Somali states of Somaliland and Puntland sided with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on this issue. It was only after the return of Prime Minister Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to office in 2022 that Somalia’s relations with the said countries returned to normal.

But despite all these vicissitudes, according to the American publication The Responsible Statecraft, this small but wealthy state has become a major political player in the Horn of Africa, which uses its vassals, including separatist organisations, to achieve its goals. The UAE supports and arms not only Ethiopia but also General Hemedti’s rebel Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan. They also control many ports on the Red Sea coast.

At the same time, they act here without regard for Washington. Only recently they have been criticised for supporting the separatists in question. However, despite this, their commander, General Hemedti, toured a number of African capitals on a UAE Royal Airline plane in January this year in an attempt to be recognised as a legitimate political player in Sudan.

Apart from its strategically important geographical location, Ethiopia, as a leading partner in the Horn of Africa, attracts the Emirates with its prospects for demographic and economic growth. In 2022, their trade turnover (excluding oil) with Ethiopia was $1.4 billion. By the same year, their investments in the development of 113 companies in the pharmaceutical, chemical, aluminium, food and beverage industries had risen to $2.9 billion.

One important area of interaction is military cooperation, where Addis Ababa receives military assistance from the UAE to help it maintain its defence capabilities, which is crucial in light of the complex situation in the Horn of Africa, especially as countries such as Egypt and Sudan support Ethiopian rebel groups in the hope of weakening its position in negotiations over the use of the Blue Nile waters.

During UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s official visit to Ethiopia in August 2023, 17 memoranda of understanding were signed to promote co-operation in the fields of economy, finance, agriculture, industry, health, education, environment and other areas, reflecting the “special nature of relations” between the UAE and Ethiopia, according to Sheikh Shakhboot Nahyan Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As for Ethiopia’s closest neighbours, who have actively criticised the Ethiopia-Somaliland memorandum, Djibouti’s position is determined by fears of heavy financial losses. The fact is that Djibouti’s seaport, modernised with technical assistance from Chinese companies, handles, according to various estimates, between 80 and 90 per cent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade turnover, a country with a huge domestic market, and Addis Ababa’s switch to using the Berbera port will lead to a sharp decline in Djibouti’s revenues.

According to one American analyst, while Somalia, torn by internal strife, is largely driven by foreign donors, the leadership of Djibouti, which hosts seven foreign military bases and receives $350 million a year in rent for them, uses its extremely important strategic position to have some discretion in choosing its allies, depending on who will bring the most benefit and regardless of political affiliation.

He cites one notable example. While the Somali elections in 2021 were the subject of sharp criticism from Washington, the United States did not see any violation of American postulates of democracy in the results of the election for the fifth term of Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Guelleh, which was boycotted by most of the opposition. Despite blatant violations of the electoral process, the US officially congratulated him on his re-election.

Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea, which is geopolitically in the orbit of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are more complicated. As for President Isaias Afwerki’s visit to Russia and China in May and July, according to the American Institute of Peace, the purpose of the visit was to seek the support of these great powers in the context of the deterioration of relations with Addis Ababa.

According to experts from the Dutch publication Global Voices, the Eritrean leader, who is trying to position himself as a leading political player in the Horn of Africa, has recently begun training Amhara militias, part of the armed FANO group hostile to Abiy Ahmed, in order to have a tool to influence him in solving the problems of the entire region.

The unexpected strain in relations between the leaders of the two neighbouring states, who were allies in bringing order to the Tigray region about a year ago, is due to the Eritrean president’s perception that he had been sidelined during the Pretoria peace talks and that Eritrea’s interests had not been taken into account, despite its major contribution to the victory.

In assessing the emerging situation in the Horn of Africa, it must be assumed that whereas Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland were once, as researchers have noted, ‘healthily cautious’ in their dealings with external players, they are now enthusiastically welcoming them, expecting to maximise their economic or political benefits by exploiting rivalries between them.


Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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