The Horn of Africa region bordering the Gulf of Aden and overlooking the southern entrances to the Red Sea has become the arena of heightened international competition in recent years, potentially threatening Arab and Egyptian interests, writes Mohamed Abdel-Wahed

The Horn of Africa is an extremely important strategic region in terms of the world’s geopolitical divisions. In both ancient and modern history, the region has long been crucial to maritime communications and transport. It also possesses numerous factors that attract powers from outside the region, such as its natural resources and the interplay between its political and cultural contradictions, as is the case with all the world’s strategic regions.


The Horn of Africa is much larger and more influential geopolitically than it is geographically. Geographically, it is made up of only Somaliland, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. Geopolitically, it also includes many countries and political forces whose patterns of influence make the Horn of Africa a vast territory that stretches beyond the easternmost projection of Africa to an area which protrudes into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and overlooks the southern gateways to the Red Sea up to the borders of Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia as well as Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Horn of Africa derives a significant amount of its strategic value from its close connections to the Red Sea, which as a crucial link between East and West is one of the most important maritime routes in the world. This value naturally increased with the discovery of oil in the Gulf, Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, and with the use of the Red Sea to transport this to the West. The Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have thus naturally become an arena for international conflict because they are key to controlling petroleum shipping routes as well as the movement of naval fleets between the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

The region has experienced developments of great international importance, especially relating to the repercussions of the UN intervention in Somalia and the right claimed by the international community to intervene for humanitarian purposes. The UN has begun to play a new role in various crises in the region, indirectly contributing to the secession of South Sudan from the rest of Sudan and the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia.

The pace and intensity with which many countries have moved forces, established bases, and deployed fleets in the region have made their stated tasks pale in comparison to their purposes in establishing their presence. Numerous governments have troops based in Djibouti to fight terrorism in East Africa. NATO forces have arrived with a mandate to protect humanitarian aid in Somalia. The largest force in the external military history of the European Union has set up a base in the region in order to fight piracy.

In the midst of this intense international military presence one does not find only the major powers, however, since regional forces have also begun to assert themselves forcefully in the region since the Arab Spring revolutions, among them Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Iran. Saudi Arabia, for example, has obtained the right to use a military base in Djibouti to support its military operations in Yemen. The military agreement between the two countries, signed in December 2017, provides for a joint committee to meet every few months to study developments, military cooperation, and ways to strengthen Djibouti’s army.

The UAE has built a base in the Eritrean port of Assab also for use in the war in Yemen. In addition, the Emiratis, via the DP World Company, have signed a 30-year concession with the government of Somaliland for the port of Berbera, again to support operations in Yemen. The Emiratis have pledged $440 million to develop this port located in the west of the country overlooking the Gulf of Aden. They have also signed another 30-year agreement to develop the port of Bosaso in Puntland in Somalia at the cost of $336 million to expand and modernize the port.

Sudan has invited non-Arab regional powers to its coasts on the Red Sea, signing a strategic alliance with Turkey and leasing the port of Suakin for 99 years. Prior to that, Sudan also invited Iran to establish a military presence on the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE brokered the Ethiopia-Eritrea Reconciliation Agreement that was signed in Jeddah in mid-September, highlighting the influence of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the framework of the new peace strategy for the Horn of Africa. The agreement was hailed as a success in the light of the complicated relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which had fought each other both directly and by proxy in Somalia and which had hosted opposition factions from the other side.

As a result of the agreement, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted the terms of the Algiers Agreement delimiting the borders of the two countries and recognizing Eritrea’s right to the area of Badme.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also brokered the Somali-Eritrea Reconciliation Agreement, during which Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo visited Eritrea in July. Previously, Eritrea had used Somalia to stage operations against Ethiopia and taken advantage of the prevalent anarchy in Somalia for its own ends.

THE STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT: Developments in the Horn of Africa over the past four decades have been closely connected to developments in the larger world order.

Beginning in the 1960s, the region became highly polarized as a result of Cold War rivalry between the US and the former Soviet Union. Both sides exploited disputes between the countries of the Horn of Africa and especially between Somalia and Ethiopia. These centered around border problems inherited from the colonial era, and they flared into fierce armed conflicts in 1964 and 1977. The superpowers’ utilization of these disputes internationalized the conflict in the Horn of Africa and rendered it contingent upon fluctuations in the global conflict between the two superpowers.

The conflicts have been extremely complex because of their multi-dimensional nature. This has been evidenced clearly in border conflicts that condense fierce disputes between rival ethnic groups, such as in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, cultural, religious and economic factors, and the effects of wars of independence, civil wars, and military coups. Most conflicts in the Horn of Africa can be attributed to two main sources: the legacies of colonialism and crises of national cohesion.

The artificial borders imposed by the former colonial powers on the region were detrimental to Somalia in particular, which was split into five parts, the north being occupied by the British, the south by the Italians, Djibouti by the French (as French Somalia), western Somalia by Ethiopia, and eastern Kenya which the British annexed to Kenya before the latter’s independence. Since independence, Somalia has reiterated its desire to reunify these five regions, which it calls “Greater Somalia”. However, it has been unable to take steps towards this end.

To the north, the pro-Ethiopian bias of the European colonial powers made it possible for the former Haile Selassie regime to annex Eritrea in the framework of a federal system in 1952 and then to incorporate it into the Ethiopian Empire in 1962. The purpose was to give Ethiopia a maritime outlet onto the Red Sea, but it ignored the natural rights of the Eritrean people and ignited a brutal war that lasted 30 years and only ended when Eritrea won its independence.

Crises of national cohesion have been the main causes of internal conflict in the countries of the Horn of Africa, most of which are a compilation of national, ethnic and tribal groupings with incompatible primary allegiances. As a result, a tribalist spirit has continued to prevail over notions of common citizenship, and this has been aided by national assimilation programmes in which the ruling regime, inevitably in the hands of one or other national or ethnic group, excluded other national and ethnic groups from power and political participation. Government investment, expenditure, and state resources were typically channeled towards meeting the needs of the dominant national or ethnic group.

This was particularly evident in Ethiopia under first imperial and then Marxist rule, when the ruling Amhara elites mistreated other national groups. Somalia, which is ethnical, religiously and linguistically homogeneous, was also not spared such crises. Government policies under former president Siyad Barre were governed by a tribalist spirit since Barre gave control of all the major political centers in the country to members of his own Darod-Marehan tribe and then narrowed the scope of political participation to members of his own family who controlled key government and military posts.

The resultant sense of discrimination felt by the other tribal/clan groupings in the country led to insurrections against the regime that escalated into tumultuous waves of civil war that sometimes threatened the very existence of the state.

The weak military capacities of the Horn of Africa countries have been one of the repercussions of the bloody domestic conflicts in these countries, as have the decline in conflicts between these countries due to their weak standing armies. The economic deterioration that now grips the countries of the Horn of Africa has also hampered the allocation of sufficient resources to the military.

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION: Long attracted to the Horn of Africa for its geopolitical advantages, the major powers during the colonialist era raced to acquire maritime stations along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in order to safeguard their shipping routes between East and West.

Some of these powers established bases along these coasts, as did Britain when it occupied Egypt, Sudan, Aden, Socotra and Somaliland (northern Somalia), France when it occupied Djibouti, and Italy when it occupied Assab (in Eritrea) and southern Somalia.

During the Cold War, the region experienced another form of competition for influence and control. The former Soviet Union sought to establish its presence in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa to accomplish political, economic, military and ideological ends. It succeeded in asserting its control over the whole of the Horn of Africa from 1977 to 1986, exploiting outbreaks of armed conflicts, such as the Ethiopian-Somali War during which it established military bases on the Eritrean islands, and gaining control over the southern Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait.

It also sustained a heavy presence in the Gulf of Aden, the Berbera port in Somalia, and South Yemen. It only withdrew from these areas as part of the policies that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced to cut back on military and government expenditures.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the US took control of world affairs. This was marked in the Middle East by the US-orchestrated Arab-Israeli Peace Process which unfolded under the conditions of a balance of power heavily tilted in favor of Israel. In Africa, Washington began to resolve conflicts there in ways tailored to Western interests and those of the US in particular. In the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region, the power balances shifted towards the US and its Western allies as Washington moved to intensify its direct military presence in the region, which in turn altered the interplay of regional forces.

After the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the US and its allies escalated their drive to bolster their military and intelligence presence in the region, fabricating justifications such as the threat of terrorism in East Africa, the need to protect humanitarian aid in Somalia, and the worsening of piracy, in order to add a gloss of legitimacy to this intensive presence.

When the US prepared to launch attacks in different parts of the world in response to the 11 September attacks, it homed in on the need to eliminate terrorism in East Africa to keep it from becoming a refuge for terrorist groups. Washington feared that the conditions of instability and conflict on the continent could facilitate terrorist infiltration. The bombings of its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 were also still on its mind.

The US determination to fight terrorism in East Africa was consistent with its interests in this strategically located region, which also offered it the opportunity to control international maritime trade. The East African countries hastened to declare their solidarity with the US campaign against terrorism. In December 2000, the former Bush administration received the then Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi and former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, and in January 2003 it received Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. Both Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared that their countries were also plagued by terrorism.

Various counter-terrorist mechanisms were put into play. One was to promulgate anti-terrorist laws, passed by the Tanzanian and Ugandan parliaments in 2003. The Kenyan government issued an international crimes act in 2003 and a law to protect witnesses to terrorism in September 2004. It also established a National Counter-Terrorism Centre.

Among the most important instruments at the level of US-African cooperation was an Initiative to Combat Terrorism in East Africa (2003), the establishment of a US military base in Djibouti, the creation of a Horn of Africa Joint Working Force, and the exchange of intelligence. Governments in the region froze the assets of organizations accused of funding terrorism (such as the Taqwa and Baraka organizations), closed the offices of the Al-Haramein Organization, and responded in varying degrees to the US demands to cut back religious education. In 2006, US forces took part in joint military maneuvers with forces from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The fight against terrorism in East Africa had repercussions on the development and stability in the region. Most of its countries allocated large chunks of their budgets to security. The conditions of the region’s Muslims, accounting for 49 per cent of the population and already suffering from political and economic hardships, worsened as a consequence of the counter-terrorism operations, especially in areas where they were a minority and more vulnerable to falling under the shadow of the counter-terrorism laws and human rights violations perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism.

CONSEQUENCES OF COUNTER-TERRORISM: The counter-terrorism strategies in the region have largely ignored the cultural and religious make-up of the inhabitants of East Africa and relied on military and security instruments that have precipitated clashes with various political forces, as has occurred in Somalia.

As terrorism has no clear legal definition, each side has used it in order to settle political scores. The fight against terrorism has made it possible for Israel to augment its presence in the region, for example, and it has participated in the search for terrorist operatives in Somalia and interrogated detainees in collaboration with US security agencies.

The counter-terrorist measures in East Africa have not succeeded in eliminating groups suspected of terrorism, while popular hostility towards the US has increased. Islamist takfiri groups continue to exist in Somalia, some affiliated with Al-Qaeda and others with the Islamic State (IS). This confirms that the US criteria for branding groups as terrorist are not objective and that they are shaped by the nature of US interests in the region.

The East African coast and the Bab Al-Mandeb area are also intrinsically linked to Egyptian national security, and as a result competition among international and regional forces in the region has sometimes turned it into a source of threat to Egyptian national security. This has made it necessary to search for better methods of ensuring the security of the Red Sea in a manner conducive to the interests of the Arab and African countries on its shores. However, in order to do this, it is essential to understand the motives of the competing forces and to transcend an analytic approach confined by the mere geographical dimensions of the Red Sea. Instead, we should broaden our parameters to the geopolitical dimensions described above that lure countries having expansionist agendas to the region.

In accordance with its new vision for the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, the US intends to assert its military and political hegemony in the region to protect US and Israeli interests and to neutralize potential threats. It intends to ally with countries from the region and friendly countries outside of it, with the intensive US and Israeli presence casting its shadow over the regional balances of power and Arab-African transactions.

The growing US and Israeli role in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region, combined with the decline of the European role, carries numerous risks for the security of the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Zionist influence over US policy is no longer confined to the Palestinian question, but now extends to other parts of the world and is working to rearrange regional balances in a manner that serves the US and Israeli interests at the expense of Arab parties.

The mounting international and regional rivalry to establish military bases in the Horn of Africa, combined with the contest to win political influence, poses a great challenge to Arab national security and to Egyptian national security in particular, especially since such increased foreign military presence erodes the sovereignty of the countries of the Horn of Africa.

Mohamed Abdel-Wahed

The writer is an expert in national security affairs.

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