After a race to invest in the Horn of Africa, Gulf ambitions in the region are facing increasing challenges and evolving geopolitical realities. The COVID crisis, a new administration in Washington, as well as a series of setbacks, are forcing them to recalibrate their positions, explains Camille Lons.
Over the past decade, Gulf countries have been very active and invested significantly in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa region. Booming consumer markets, natural resources, but also a strategic location along one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, make the region appear ripe for investment. More importantly, the Red Sea has recently re-emerged as a geostrategic space in which competing global and regional players have sought to project influence.
In this context, Gulf countries have sought to reassert their interests on their Western flank, embarking on a flurry of political engagements and economic investments with countries of the Horn. Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, have intensely competed to counter each other’s influence, projecting their rivalries on to the politics of the Horn. In January 2020, Saudi Arabia founded the Council of the Countries of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but the existence of this multilateral platform has not yet helped to overcome the political divisions and short-term zero-sum calculations that have often shaped regional dynamics.
After years of fierce competition, Gulf countries might, however, be cautiously recalibrating their respective roles. The COVID-19 crisis is putting significant strain on their financial resources. The drawdown in Yemen is reducing the immediate need for a military foothold in the Horn, and the UAE has already started downgrading its presence on its Assab base in Eritrea. GCC countries have also been careful to appear as constructive and reliable partners to the new US administration, adopting a more pragmatic approach on regional issues, with notable signs of détente with Qatar and Turkey.
GGC states weigh up the costs of their interventions
GCC states’ projects in the Horn have been far from straightforward. Many of the infrastructure projects announced in recent years have been slow to materialise. The UAE downgraded its ambitions to establish a military base in Berbera, Somaliland, to a renovation of the port and airport. A port-development project at Bosaso, Puntland, has been on hold since the CEO of the Dubai-owned company was assassinated in opaque circumstances in January 2019. The development of the port of Hobyo, in Galmudug, undertaken by Qatar in 2019 and later Turkey, has dragged on with few tangible results. A plan for a Saudi military base in Djibouti is still in its infancy, five years after its announcement.
Gulf attempts to intervene in Horn politics, meanwhile, have generated mixed results. Overall, the significant financial and political investments made by Gulf states in the region have done little to reshape the strategic calculations of Horn policymakers. Across the region, local populations tend to have negative views of Gulf interventions in their affairs. Policymakers have only accepted Gulf financial support to better achieve their own objectives. Such setbacks, as well as their eagerness to appear as constructive partners to Washington, are leading Gulf states to consider a more careful approach.
After intense intra-Gulf competition to influence Somalia’s 2012 and 2017 elections, Gulf powers have taken a more wait-and-see position on the country’s 2021 elections. In February, when Somalia was plunged into a political crisis after elections were delayed, Qatar and Turkey, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo’s most loyal backers, chose to distance themselves from him. Doha’s outreach to Somali opposition leaders and to Somaliland in May 2021 demonstrated this more cautious approach. Despite this, Qatar’s influence in solving the Somali political crisis remained limited, and its efforts the same month to mediate a maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya ended up in failure. While some reports suggest that Farmaajo might have tried to reach out to the UAE for support, Abu Dhabi also remained hesitant.
In Sudan, Saudi and Emirati efforts to shape the political transition after Omar al-Bashir’s ousting in April 2019 led to partial successes but also significant difficulties. While they managed temporarily to sideline their rivals Qatar and Turkey, their influence came under significant scrutiny from both the Sudanese population and the international community. The June 2019 massacres that took place just a few days after General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo or ‘Hemedti’, the Deputy Head of the Transitional Military Council, visited Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi had an especially severe reputational cost for Gulf countries. In April 2021, Khartoum restored diplomatic relations with Qatar, despite Emirati and Saudi pressures not to do so.
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, behind whom the UAE and Saudi Arabia had thrown their support, is now facing a major political and security crisis. After international condemnation of Ahmed’s intervention in Tigray, the UAE, which had allegedly provided Ethiopia with armed UAVs, started showing signs of hesitation in its support to Abiy Ahmed, partly driven by fear of the reputational costs of being associated with war crimes. And significant financial packages from Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not prevent Addis Ababa from engaging with Ankara in early 2021.
Finally, the impasse over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is putting Gulf states in a difficult position as they try to balance their relations with the three parties involved: Egypt is a key ally, but they have significant interests, notably agricultural investments, in Sudan and Ethiopia. The UAE’s perceived lack of support to Egypt in the GERD dispute has significantly strained relations with Cairo over recent months. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, among others, timidly offered to act as mediators in both the Sudan–Ethiopia border issue and the GERD dispute. Only the Emirati mediation proposal for the Sudan–Ethiopia border dispute, reportedly sweetened with a generous financial package, was met with cautious approval from Sudan. Two months on, however, May 2021 reports suggested that the UAE had withdrawn from the mediation effort for unclear reasons.
Can GCC in-roads in the Horn play to Western interests?
Gulf involvement in the Horn of Africa is going through a steep learning curve. The US and the EU can see GCC countries as useful partners in the Horn, providing the conditions are right. They have capital to invest that Western powers lack, as well as good personal networks. Western players also see the Gulf states as potential partners to counter the influence of China and Russia in the Red Sea.
The EU and the US have tried to ramp up their engagement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Horn of Africa in recent years. They encouraged Gulf countries to offer significant investment packages in water and electricity infrastructure to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as an incentive for the settlement of the GERD dispute. In early April 2021, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa Alexander Rondos visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to obtain Gulf support in the Horn crises. Despite statements of goodwill, Gulf interlocutors also acknowledged their lack of leverage with Horn leaders.
As Gulf states recalibrate their involvement in the Horn, Western powers might find an opportunity to push for greater coordination and constructive engagement with their own stabilisation efforts. But Gulf objectives in the Horn remain quite different from Western understanding of stability and sustainable development in the region.