The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is both friend and foe, depending on who you ask. In Nairobi, President William Ruto called them “friends of Kenya” after they gave him an aircraft to use for a State Visit to the US.

State House Spokesman Hussein Mohamed later said the government saved money after the UAE gesture, allowing Kenya to pay just Ksh10 million ($76,923) instead of the Ks200 million ($1.54 million) it would normally cost.

“As explained by the President on Thursday, the cost of the jet he traveled in for the historic and successful US State Visit was offered by friends of Kenya at a relatively low cost. In this specific case, the United Arab Emirates Government offered the aircraft at less than Ksh10 million,” he said.


State House did not explain how the UAE came to offer the jet, considering he had traveled on other official trips recently.

On Friday, the UAE Embassy did not immediately respond to inquiries about the nature of this transaction. But it led to critics to question whether the gesture.

“The UAE are opportunists in this case, but it shows how vulnerable Kenya, and Ruto is in particular, is. But the question is, what did they get in return so that they could donate a jet as though it was petty cash?” posed Macharia Munene, prof of History and International relations at the United States International University (USIU) Africa.

Prof Munene thinks accepting the offer was a risk to Kenya’s reputation. But it could also damage Kenya’s role in regional peace bids.

Kenya has been pushing for peace in Sudan, backed by the US to have warring parties lay down the arms.

“It complicates his role in Sudan because now he appears friends with those who are accused in Sudan of backing rebels and hence warmongers there,” he added, referring to UAE’s dalliance with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), one of the warring factions in Sudan.

Just before he went to the US, Ruto had met with civilian groups and armed factions who are not aligned with either the RSF of the ruling junta, the Sudan Armed Forces (Saf). The idea, sources indicated, was to generate a third track of non-violence and use local civil groups to persuade warring sides to end the violence.

This movement, known as the Coordination of Democratic Civil Forces (Taqadum) is led by Abdallah Hamdok, a former prime minister deposed in October 2021 in a joint bid by SAF and RSF before they themselves clashed.

In Nairobi, they signed a declaration with the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) calling for a ceasefire, seeking a federated Sudan and opening door for dialogue. The SLM controls large swathes of Darfur, making them a crucial player in the war.

But the UAE was lurking behind the scenes. Some of these leaders of these movements stay in the UAE and Abu Dhabi itself has been fingered for supporting the RSF with arms supply. RSF was recently accused by Washington of committing war crimes in Sudan.

Lately, American diplomats have been telling journalists they have upped their pressure on the UAE to stop arms supply.

Friend Or Foe? President Ruto Admission Exposes UAE’s Hand In Horn Of Africa
President William Ruto speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast at Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya on May 30, 2024. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

“We do know that both sides are receiving support, both with weapons and other support to fuel their efforts to continue to destroy Sudan. And yes, we have engaged with parties on that, including with our colleagues from the UAE,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Ambassador to the Un told journalists.

Yet some critics think the UAE enjoys some form of soft treatment by the US. Gathering in Ghana this month, the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) said the warring sides have been let on even as they destroy channels of free expression including the media and internet.

“The Federation is worried about the continued support that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is receiving from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). FAJ states that RSF is responsible for egregious violations of journalists’ human rights,” they said in a declaration.

“The federation condemned this international interference, which only prolongs the conflict, increases the suffering of the Sudanese people, and exacerbates the plight of Sudanese journalists, both those still in the country and those now in exile.”

FAJ said it was calling for dialogue but conditions for peace won’t come if weapons keep flowing in. Yet Sudan’s junta seems to have taken advantage of the open gates to RSF to also seek to bolster itself, by looking up to Russia and Iran. This week, they signed an arms deal with Russia and are negotiating a logistical base to be set up in Port Sudan, for Russia.

“We can see that Sudan is still hedging between both US and Russia. On the side with Russia I am sensing they want weaponry, and the same time to cut off Russian support for RSF. Also they want to use Russia to pressure UAE to stop it’s support for RSF,” Dr Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese political analyst and honorary research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK, told the Nation.

“With the US the Sudanese officials want the US to recognize them as the only authority, isolate the RSF, drop their support for democracy in favor of stability.

“The stake here is pressing the international community of the US and its allies to focus on stability rather than democracy. So far Burhan’s deputies and their allies believe time is on their side,” he explained, referring to Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of SAF who has been campaigning against RSF on international stage, including at the UN.

As long as UAE is there arming RSF, he argued, the prospect for peace is minimal because the rebels will believe only in armed solution.

That in turn forces Saf to keep seeking arms supply, and hence reject the prospect of dialogue.

This week, Washington placed a call on Burhan, urging him to resume dialogue under what is known as Jeddah Process, supported by Saudi Arabia, the US and regional bloc Igad. But Burhan said they won’t step there.

“We will not go to Jeddah, and whoever wants that must first kill us in our country and take our bodies to Jeddah,” said Malik Agar, Burhan’s deputy, an opening session of what is known as The Community Reconciliation and Permanent Peace Conference based in Port Sudan. According to him, SAF are the only qualified force to defeat RSF.

“This war has four parts, its roots are Sudanese, it was planted and grew on American soil, it was presented in the European Union, it was collected by workers from the UAE, and it was returned to Sudan. The world that made this war this war does not want Sudan to have sovereignty over its lands with their various wealth.”

The UAE, however, is not just in Sudan. Its roles have often included a donation of $60 million worth of food to the war in Tigray to training and paying soldiers in Somalia. Both of which have been controversial. In Ethiopia, the donation was made after also delivering drones to support the government forces.

In Somalia, a plane load of cash was detained in April 2018 after then President Mohamed Farmaajo’s government claimed they were a fund for political disruption. The money, $9.6 million, was later shipped back to Abu Dhabi, four years later. These tools help them achieve their needs, analysts say.

“The regional attitude towards the UAE is a mixed bag. They have trained the Somali army, provided stipends, delivered humanitarian aid and at times advocated for Somalia’s interests in international for a. The current president of Somalia (Hassan Sheikh Mohamud) once praised them as the best friend Somalia could ever have,” said Dr Adam Aw Hirsi, Director of Mogadishu-based public policy think-tank, Foresight for Practical Solutions.

“However, some politicians and analysts are pointing out a number of conflicts in the region that they Emiratis are involved in.” The UAE had been supporting security operations in Puntland, a federal state in Somalia. But Somalis have also publicly accused the UAE of siding with breakaway region of Somaliland. In January, it signed a controversial deal with Ethiopia to lease a naval base to Addis Ababa.

Somalia later cut diplomatic ties with Ethiopia in protest. But the US has supported backchannels from Nairobi to help calm the tensions between the two sides.

By Aggrey Mutambo and Mawahib Abdallatif