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.