A Dangerous Gulf in the Horn: How the Inter-Arab Crisis is Fuelling Regional Tensions

How has the Gulf crisis affected security and stability in the Horn?

The Gulf and the Horn are intricately intertwined regions that face common threats and vulnerabilities: armed conflict, transnational jihadism and organised crime, including piracy, human trafficking and money laundering. The current crisis comes at a difficult moment for the historically conflict-prone Horn, much of which is either politically unstable, mired in internal armed conflict or still in a state of fragile post-conflict recovery. Turmoil in the Gulf has sharply escalated the region’s already dangerous militarisation as governments are pressed to side either with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or with Qatar (and, indirectly, Turkey). This has been profoundly destabilising, sowing new regional divisions and rekindling old hostilities. Perhaps most alarmingly, the Gulf crisis potentially could put Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti on a path toward armed confrontation, inflaming the Horn’s most dangerous three-way territorial dispute.

Border tensions rose in June when Qatar removed 400 observers monitoring a ceasefire on the Red Sea island of Doumeira, claimed by both Eritrea and Djibouti, to protest the two countries’ support for its Gulf adversaries. Taking advantage of the pullout, Eritrea swiftly deployed forces to cement its de facto hold on the island. Asmara may have intended to force a resolution of the island’s status, which has remained unsettled since border clashes in 2008. But its actions have increased the danger of serious armed conflict, which would be likely to draw in neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea’s bitterest foe and a strategic ally of Djibouti.

Despite Djibouti’s protests and calls for intervention by the UN Security Council and African Union (AU), Eritrea so far seems unwilling to withdraw its troops and engage in talks aimed at a peaceful settlement. Reports that Ethiopia is massing forces to dislodge Eritrean troops from Doumeira are unverified, yet plausible. Unless quickly contained, renewed regional tensions over Doumeira conceivably could trigger more serious flare-ups on both the volatile Eritrea-Ethiopia border and on the Djibouti-Eritrea frontier.

Attempts by both the AU and UN to promote dialogue have failed so far. Djibouti has called on the AU to insert neutral forces or observers into the disputed areas. Eritrea, which has already blocked a team of AU observers from visiting the island, would probably reject any such intervention, however.

China has offered to deploy troops to Doumeira, but though Beijing has good ties with both Eritrea and Djibouti, it is not clear whether this would be acceptable to either country. In July, China deployed its first contingent of combat troops to its new military base in Djibouti – a signal of its intent to play a more prominent role in the region.

Why are the reactions of Ethiopia, Egypt and Eritrea important?

Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa’s preeminent diplomatic and military power, remains neutral. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, publicly articulated his country’s anxiety on 7 July, telling parliament in a speech broadcast live that the Gulf crisis “must be resolved expeditiously” or it could “destabilise” the entire region. He expressed particular concern about the Gulf states’ increased military presence, reflecting his country’s fears that an emboldened Eritrea, which plays a pivotal role in Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s regional strategies, could use this as an opportunity to boost its military capacity.

The fresh urgency of the “Eritrea Question” in Addis Ababa also is linked to Ethiopia’s rivalry with Egypt, which has close ties to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Egypt is boosting its military cooperation with Eritrea as well as its presence in the Red Sea, deploying a flotilla of combat vessels that include a frigate capable of firing long-range missiles. While Eritrean and Egyptian officials claim their naval cooperation is for “counter-piracy” purposes only, some Ethiopian commentators dispute this, accusing Cairo of trying to isolate or destabilise Ethiopia through “strategic encirclement”.

Behind Ethiopia’s rivalry with Egypt is their long-running dispute over construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam. The Gulf crisis has only magnified Ethiopia’s suspicions regarding Egypt’s ambitions in the Horn, which will almost certainly complicate already delicate negotiations over how to allocate Nile waters. In June, a meeting of the Nile Basin states called by the Ugandan President Museveni broke down, a reflection of growing Egyptian/Ethiopian tensions.

Ethiopian relations with Saudi Arabia remain cordial, despite serious disagreements over the planned deportation of thousands of undocumented Ethiopian migrant workers (see below). The kingdom remains an important source of investment, but the Saudis’ growing military profile in the Horn plays into traditional Christian fears of Arab/Muslim powers.

What makes Somalia vulnerable?

Somalia is a member of the Arab League, and rival Arab powers regard it as part of the Muslim umma. They see Somalia’s strategic location as crucial for protecting the “Arab homeland” and al-amn al qawmi al-Arabi (Arab national security). But Arab powers have competed to maintain influence over Somalia. Until recently, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the two most prominent rival players in Somalia. Now Qatar and the UAE have emerged on the scene. All these powers actively support rival Somali politicians, further deepening its culture of clientelism.

President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo so far has resisted both pressure and financial inducements to back the Saudi-UAE axis and sever links with Qatar. By opting for neutrality, he appears to have enhanced his domestic credibility. Yet the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) risks losing Saudi and UAE military and financial aid. Talks held in early July between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Somali Prime Minister Kheyre were reportedly acrimonious. Jubeir is said to have launched a blistering attack on Mogadishu, warning of dire consequences unless it cut ties to Doha. The UAE allegedly is considering ending its program to pay, train and equip a special forces unit for the Somali National Army. It is not clear whether the UAE-trained Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), Puntland’s coast guard, will be affected, but that would be highly unlikely, not least because of the UAE’s close links with Somali subnational governments.

Some domestic critics allege the government’s “neutrality” is both detrimental to the national interest and ideologically motivated. Farmajo, they claim, is beholden to certain individuals in key positions of authority with close links to Qatar and ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. But the government has also received support from Qatar and, more importantly, from its ally, Turkey.

In mid-June, the prime minister sent out discreet distress calls to Western donors, indicating that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had decided to withhold direct general budgetary support. Loss of Saudi financial support would cause significant harm, disrupting the government’s ability to function. But Somalia’s appeal comes at an inauspicious time for the European Union (EU) and other key donors, which are straining to mobilise funds to avert famine and support the country’s expensive peacekeeping operation.

What has Somaliland gained?

The Yemen conflict and the Gulf’s internal crisis have catapulted Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991, into a position of geopolitical prominence. Both developments enhanced its strategic importance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which means that even as Mogadishu faces the prospect of a potentially crippling cash crunch, Somaliland stands to reap a hefty financial windfall.

The self-declared republic has secured a raft of lucrative military, commercial and infrastructure deals with the UAE. Under a deal to upgrade the port of Berbera, Somaliland will get $442 million from the UAE’s port logistics conglomerate, DP World. Under a separate agreement, Somaliland has granted the UAE a 25-year lease to build a military base and use the Berbera airport. This is expected to spawn some $1 billion in investments to develop and modernise infrastructure.