By Charlie Mitchell
It was 1991 when Somali President Siyad Barre was ousted, catapulting the country into disarray and prompting emboldened warlords to cleave the country apart.
Although an internationally-backed government was established in 2012 following interventions by Ethiopia and the African Union, the country remains fractured – bedeviled by humanitarian crises and a protracted struggle against Al Shabaab militants.
In practice, the authority of the central government does not extend far beyond the capital, Mogadishu. It is within this context that Somalia’s recent row with the UAE should be dissected.
Ten months have passed since the Arab quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. Hugely reliant on foreign investment and aid, Somalia has imported the crisis.
On April 8, amid rising tension, Somali security forces stormed a UAE jet at Mogadishu airport, seizing $9.6 million (Dh35.3 million) in cash destined for the Puntland Maritime Police Force, an anti-piracy unit of the Somali army-backed since 2014 by the Emirates.
In response to the breach of diplomatic protocol, the UAE abruptly ended its military training programme in Somalia. Sheikh Zayed hospital in Mogadishu suspended operations.
Immediately thereafter, Qatar donated 30 buses and two cranes to Mogadishu regional officials. “That is not coincidental,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The gesture is emblematic of international pressures weighing on Somalia, thanks to pre-existing relationships and its proximity to the Gulf.
Turkey operates a military base of epic proportions in Mogadishu, whose lucrative port is run by Al Bayrak, a Turkish corporation. Ankara was an early investor in Somalia, though analysts say popular support for Turkey’s presence is dwindling.
Turkey’s ally, Qatar, whose airline immediately used Somali airspace when the boycott began last year, has sought to involve itself in Somali politics, according to Faisal Roble, a leading Somalia expert.
Saudi Arabia, which imports 80 percent of Somalia’s livestock, donated $50m in 2016 after Mogadishu severed ties with Iran. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed visited Riyadh less than a fortnight after his inauguration last year for his first official trip.
Meanwhile, the UAE, which has been training and paying the salaries of 2,407 Somali troops, is most active in the autonomous region of Puntland, whose government yesterday appealed to the Emirates to remain engaged.
“There is a common understanding that Puntland doesn’t get the support it requires from the government,” said Mr. Abdi. But the involvement of international players “has driven a wedge between Mogadishu and the different regional states,” he added.
As Somalia’s fortunes have faltered in recent years, economic imperatives have compelled its regions to accept aid and investment from different players. After the Gulf dispute, such investment brought into question the central government’s promise to remain neutral in the Gulf dispute.
The stunning plane seizure follows months of deteriorating ties between Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu.
Somali politicians reacted with fury to the tripartite deal between Dubai’s DP World, the government of breakaway Somaliland and landlocked Ethiopia over control of a strategic port at Berbera. The UAE is also constructing a military base in Somaliland, just 260 km from war-torn Yemen, which contains Africa’s longest runway.
Somali politicians, powerless to dictate Somaliland affairs, claimed the deal was a violation of its sovereignty.
On the other side, Mogadishu’s failure to disavow Qatar may have caused irritation in the UAE. “There are many people here in the UAE who feel deeply invested in Somalia’s future and stability and are saddened by developments,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Arabian Peninsula analyst at ICG.
Somalia’s geopolitical importance and internal fragility has unwittingly sucked it into a regional dispute, jeopardizing vital aid and investment. It is a lesson for volatile nations across the Horn and beyond.