The Red Sea and the Horn of Africa: A New Power Arena for the Gulf States…

The Gulf States are heavily investing in the Horn of Africa, and their influence and money have upended politics in Somalia and Sudan in particular, and often for the worst today. This region of Africa became a new power arena, its closest point is 10-15 kilometers from Arabian Peninsula, like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, particularly, Oman and Kuwait to a lesser extent. Since the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East and other essences in and among the Gulf States, particularly leadership vacuum in the Middle East that many of the traditional leaders of the Middle East states like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were weakened significantly in 2011 and 2012. There was a sense from the Gulf States that they had not only the opportunity to step up and play a leadership role but in fact, the obligation and they felt that they were the only ones who could push the Middle East in a different direction. However, there is grinding frustration that all of the conflicts in the Middle East was sort of stuck and were not making a lot of headway in Syria. Additionally, Gulf states have lost influence on Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, and many places throughout the region. Therefore, they needed a competing space to demonstrate their leadership but lacked the geography in which to do so. 

Hence, they began to look for a sort of new space and turned to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa as new places where they could rebalance the equation in their favor. The Gulf States are not united among themselves by any means. in addition, the Gulf States feeling that if they had this leadership role, they wanted to cut out their rivals from having a similar position in the Horn of Africa.  The prominent setting in the direction of the region and the final piece of that related be enormous economic potential the horn of Africa offers to the gulf states and tied with the world of China in northern Africa. Hence, all the gulf States improve their relationships with China and seeing horn African will do economic cooperation.

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey: If you go through these countries one-by-one and what they see as strategic objectives and what they are really going for to the Horn, there are a lot of correlations and distinct political and security policies of each country. For instance, Saudi Arabia and so all Gulf states and Turkey without exception, their primary goal in the horn of Africa is stability, but how they define that is diametrically opposed. Saudi Arabia and UAE tend to prefer short-term stability so that to control political dissent and use economic growth to address the grievance as driving political instabilities. Turkey and Qatar on the other hand, tend to see a popular mobilization as an opportunity both to address long-standing grievances, and also more to empower some of their allies in the region.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Saudi Arabia has engaged in the Horn of Africa through “Islamist” groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin). Saudi’s contemporary role in the Horn of Africa began with its spreading of solid fist their version of Islam, Wahhabism. This also was part of the cold war policy that was linked to U.S. policy to use this ideological component. In addition, cash aid was used to combat socialism and is answered to the Soviet influence in the region. Today, there is underlying Saudi influence in the region that does opposite from religious ideology. UAE and Saudi’s engagement to the Horn is shifted somewhat significantly to counter their primary rival, Iran, in the broader region. Iran had a relatively significant presence in the horn of Africa, and sometimes accessed a military base in Eritrea and close allies with the former government of Sudan. Saudi have tried to counter Iran in the Middle East, and they have also seen it in the Horn of Africa as a place where they can push back, and frankly the only geopolitical arena they have any access in pushing Iran back.  Saudi Arabia had great success in convincing Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea to break ties with Iran all in 2015. They did this primarily by cash-aid and political support in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There is also something very particular about seeing the Horn of Africa as the center of foreign policy apparatus in a way that it has not been in the past. For instance, Saudi Arabia offered financial assistance to Sudan as well as help lifting sanctions and managed to convince the United States. As of result, Saudi Arabis did not just manage to convince Sudan to break ties with Iran but and also send troops to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen where they remain until today. This was a major regional shift of political balance because Sudan had long ties with Iran and have resisted breaking off for a long time. In another more recent instance, we have seen Saudi Arabia supported a peace agreement between long-time warring countries in the Horn, Ethiopia, and Eritrea “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship.” Saudi Arabia and UAE facilitated and helped push along the peace agreement between the two countries, and particularly finance as a sort of incentive for the agreement for both countries to move forward.

In contrast, the Somali government has remained neutral on the 2017-Gulf Crisis after UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to break relations with Qatar, and more urged others to follow their lead with financial incentives. Competing powers of the Gulf crisis in Somalia were the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar and, by extension, Turkey on the other- fanning instability in the region. It is mistaken to put geopolitical calculation on countries in the Horn of Africa in one equation because local populations of Somalia and Djibouti tend to have negative views of Gulf interventions in their affairs. Then, Saudi and UAE’s ambition in the region is facing increasing challenges and evolving geopolitical realities.

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