Horn of Africa carries over tensions from Gulf region



The Qatar crisis, which has seen Doha pitched against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, risks putting Ethiopia, Eri­trea and Djibouti on a path towards armed confrontation as the Horn of Africa comes under pressure to take sides in the inter-Arab rivalry, a commentary by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.

Competition among the Arab powers risks further destabilising Somalia, where Turkey is to open the largest military camp there, Somali Defence Minister Abdi­rashid Abdullahi Mohamed said in a statement in August. Turkey in June sent additional soldiers to its military base in Qatar, whose side Ankara appears to have taken in the Gulf dispute.

Saudi Arabia is leading a boycott of Qatar over allegations Doha sup­ports Sunni Muslim extremists and Shia Muslim groups tied to Iran. Dubai risks damaging its status as a financial centre as a result of the trade boycott of Qatar, Standard Chartered bank warned.

The potential for conflict in the Horn of Africa is worrying many analysts. “It is only a slight exag­geration to say that Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy and the resultant diplomatic crisis with Qa­tar have upset the balance of power among the countries of the Horn,” wrote Berouk Mesfin, a consultant with the Institute for Security Stud­ies.

The diplomatic potential for ad­dressing the tensions and compet­ing interests was limited, however, said Princeton Lyman, a former US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan and now a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace.

“The AU [African Union] and the Arab League have very little interaction and no history of close cooperation around overlapping is­sues. Indeed, the AU is struggling to deal with such crises as South Sudan and Somalia. Outsiders are similarly limited in their structures to address this cross-regional set of developments,” he said.

“For example, the US State De­partment divides this area into two different bureaus. Coordination of policy across them is hampered by the lack of appointees at senior lev­els where such coordination would take place. Unfortunately, the pros­pect of greater instability in the Horn is tragic but real.”

Rivalries in the Gulf are rever­berating across the Horn of Africa, creating a complicated mosaic that could fall apart under pressure.

Ethiopia and Djibouti are strate­gic allies and 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 Qatar’s Gulf adversaries, said the ICG commentary called “A Dangerous Gulf in the Horn: How the Inter-Arab Crisis is Fuelling Re­gional Tensions.”

“Despite Djibouti’s protests and calls for intervention by the UN Se­curity Council and the African Un­ion, 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,” said the com­mentary, written by Rashid Abdi, project director for the Horn of Af­rica at the ICG.

“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.”

Ethiopia has a long-running ri­valry with Egypt, which has close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Eritrean and Egyptian officials claim their naval cooperation is for “counter-piracy” purposes only but some Ethiopian commentators dispute this, ac­cusing Cairo of trying to isolate or destabilise Ethiopia through “stra­tegic encirclement,” said the ICG.

Egypt and Ethiopia are at log­gerheads over the allocation of Nile waters and Addis Ababa’s construction of the Grand Ethio­pian Renaissance Dam. In June, a meeting of the Nile Basin countries broke down, a reflection of growing Egyptian and Ethiopian tensions.

Somalia, an extremely fragile state, risks further polarisation. “Until recently, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the two most promi­nent rival players in Somalia,” said the ICG. “Now Qatar and the UAE have emerged on the scene. All these powers actively support rival Somali politicians, further deepen­ing its culture of clientelism.”

Somalia risks losing vital Saudi and UAE military and financial aid. “We are very worried. The Gulf says it will cut aid to Somalia unless it sides with them against Qatar and this would be extremely bad for So­malia,” said a senior UN official.

This comes as the Yemen con­flict grinds on while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have signed military cooperation agreements that sig­nificantly increase their military presence in Eritrea, Djibouti, So­maliland and Somalia. The Gulf powers are driving to take con­trol of the Yemeni coastline and increase attacks against Yemeni Houthi rebels.

“Centuries of shared faith and commerce have placed the Gulf and the Horn among the world’s most interdependent regions. Gulf powers view the region bordering Africa’s Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as their natural sphere of in­fluence,” said the ICG.

“Today’s scramble for influence is driven by both geo-economic and geo-security imperatives: Se­curing a post-oil future and prepo­sitioning for a potential future con­flict with Iran.”

Sharmila Devi is a former British correspondent in the Middle East and writes extensively on political and social issues in the region.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.