What’s new? The rivalries underpinning the June 2017 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis – particularly between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the one hand and Qatar and, by extension, Turkey on the other – have spilled into the Horn of Africa, notably fanning instability in Somalia. Mogadishu-Abu Dhabi tensions have risen sharply.
Why did it happen? The Somali government of President “Farmajo” says it remains neutral in the GCC rivalry, but the UAE perceives it as too close to Qatar. Abu Dhabi appears to have upped support to Somalia’s regions, or federal states. Farmajo, in turn, has deepened ties with Doha and Ankara and repressed rivals.
Why does it matter? Certainly not all of Somalia’s problems can be pinned on the GCC crisis. But competition among the Gulf powers and Turkey has magnified intra-Somali disputes. As Mogadishu-Abu Dhabi relations unravel, those disputes – which pit the Farmajo government against rival factions in Mogadishu and against federal states and Somaliland – could escalate.
What should be done? The Somali government should remain neutral in the intra-GCC spat and reconcile with Somali rivals. Qatar and Turkey could encourage such reconciliation. The UAE should coordinate with Mogadishu regarding all its aid and investment in Somalia. Abu Dhabi-Mogadishu talks are a priority – Saudi or European Union officials could mediate.
The bitter rivalries underpinning the crisis among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have added a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s instability. Competition between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the one hand, and Qatar and, by extension, Turkey on the other has aggravated longstanding intra-Somali disputes: between factions in the capital; between Mogadishu and the regions; and between it and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. Abu Dhabi’s relations with the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” have tanked. Farmajo’s government accuses the Emiratis of funding its rivals and stoking opposition, particularly in Somalia’s federal states. Emirati officials deny meddling and accuse Farmajo of falling under Doha’s and Ankara’s sway. All sides need to take a step back. Farmajo’s government should abide by strict neutrality in the intra-GCC spat and seek to reconcile with its Somali rivals. The UAE should pledge to coordinate its aid and commercial interests with Mogadishu. Talks between the Somali and UAE governments are a priority.
After the June 2017 Gulf crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a number of allies sever diplomatic relations with and impose an economic blockade on Qatar, President Farmajo, who had assumed office only months earlier, faced intense Saudi and Emirati pressure – reportedly pushing him to cut ties with Doha. Farmajo insisted he preferred not to pick sides. But for the UAE, reports that the president had received Qatari funds ahead of his election and his appointment of officials known to be close allies of Doha belied his claims of neutrality. Abu Dhabi feared that increased Qatari and Turkish backing for the Somali government could embolden political Islamists – whose influence it regards as a threat but to whom Doha and Ankara tend to be more sympathetic – and that, amid intense jockeying for influence around the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, it was fast losing ground to its main geopolitical rivals.
In response, the UAE appears to have stepped up support for other Somali factions and Somalia’s federal states. The Farmajo government in turn has displayed an increasingly authoritarian bent, using rivals’ alleged ties to the UAE to justify crackdowns against them. Long adept at manipulating foreign involvement, politicians across the Somali spectrum have exploited the escalating rivalry for their own ends.
Mounting tension between the UAE and what it perceives as a Qatar- and Turkey-backed government in Mogadishu intersects with a number of Somali fault lines. First, it has amplified disputes between the government and rival factions in the capital, complicating a crisis in the Somali parliament that threatened to turn violent in late 2017. In early 2018, the government raided the homes and offices of two prominent critics, accusing them of receiving Emirati funds. Deteriorating relations between the Somali government and the UAE also may heighten risks of factionalism within the Somali security forces; Somali officials accuse Emirati-backed units of ignoring orders (Abu Dhabi says all troops were under the Somali Ministry of Defence’s command).
Still more perilous is the deterioration in Farmajo’s relations with Somalia’s federal states. As his government refused to distance itself from Qatar, federal states, some of which depend on Emirati investment and chafed at Mogadishu charting a course on the Gulf crisis they perceived as contrary to their interests, took a public stand against his position. Circumventing the capital, some appear to have accelerated negotiations with DP World – an Emirati conglomerate the activity of which is widely perceived as serving Abu Dhabi’s strategic goals – over deals that would see DP World develop and manage their ports. Recent months have seen increasingly heated recriminations between senior government officials and federal state leaders, some of whom have made provocatively timed trips to Abu Dhabi.
A bitter standoff between Mogadishu and the breakaway region of Somaliland could prove as dangerous.
A bitter standoff between Mogadishu and the breakaway region of Somaliland could prove as dangerous. In March, Hargeisa’s finalization of its own contract with DP World, according to which the conglomerate would develop Somaliland’s Berbera port, prompted a furious reaction from Mogadishu. Farmajo’s government protested to the Arab League that the deal violated its sovereignty. The Somali parliament enacted legislation banning DP World from operating in Somalia, thus targeting not only the Berbera contract, but also potential deals between the company and federal states. Somaliland’s leader, Muse Bihi Abdi, referred to Mogadishu’s attempt to block the agreement as a declaration of war.
In April 2018, Mogadishu-Abu Dhabi relations took their worst turn yet, when Somali officials confiscated millions of dollars from an Emirati plane in Mogadishu, citing the money as evidence of Abu Dhabi’s meddling. According to Emirati officials, the funds were destined for Somali security forces whose salaries it has long been paying. Those officials point to years of Emirati subventions to Somali forces fighting pirates and Al-Shabaab – support welcomed by successive Somali governments. Frustrated at the seizure, Abu Dhabi halted aid projects, pulled all personnel from and abandoned the Mogadishu base at which it was training Somali security forces. As relations between the Farmajo government and Abu Dhabi unravel, any one of the intra-Somali disputes – in Mogadishu; between the Farmajo government and the regions; or between it and Somaliland – could escalate.
All sides need to reverse course before that happens. The Somali government should ensure it remains neutral in the intra-GCC spat and adopt a more conciliatory approach to rivals, including by rekindling talks with the federal states and rescheduling a meeting previously planned between Farmajo and Muse Bihi. Gulf powers should not allow the rivalry that has split the GCC to upend weaker states. Abu Dhabi should be ready to enter talks with Farmajo’s government and coordinate its aid and investment across the country. Qatar and particularly Turkey, whose investment in Somalia gives it considerable clout, might nudge Mogadishu toward compromise with its rivals in the capital, the federal regions and Somaliland. Saudi or European Union officials, who appear to enjoy the trust of both Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi, could mediate between the two.
Clearly, Somalia’s troubles today cannot all be laid at the Gulf’s door. The optimism generated by Farmajo’s election win in early 2017 was always likely to run aground on the country’s thorny clan politics and a resilient Al-Shabaab insurgency. But Gulf rivalries have made things worse. The zero-sum politics that the Somali government and foreign powers appear to be pursuing are unlikely to end well. Somalia will always be too factious for any one axis to dominate. The Gulf powers – and even more so the Farmajo government and its Somali rivals – all stand to lose from the instability their competition provokes. The likely winner is Al-Shabaab.
Nairobi/Brussels, 5 June 2018