Relations between the countries in the Horn of Africa and their partners in the Gulf and wider Middle East are asymmetric in nature. While the Horn countries in focus for this study—Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia—are relatively poor, politically volatile, and affected by conflict, their partners across the Red Sea are comparatively wealthy, largely stable (at least internally), and increasingly asserting their positions as more proactive middle powers. For these middle power Gulf states, relations with global powers (principally the United States, the EU, and China) remain their geopolitical priority. Nonetheless, expansion into areas such as the Horn of Africa, where they can assert their (growing) political, financial, and military strength, has become an increasingly important objective of foreign policy. Moreover, the gap left by diminishing US interest in the region over the last decade, coupled with the decades-long decline of the UK—the former colonial power—and the more hesitant role of China, particularly in Sudan, has created space for these new Gulf actors to re-assert their influence over a region where they have historically close cultural and economic connections.

The scale of resources brought to bear by Turkey and the Gulf states in their business and humanitarian ventures in the Horn of Africa is substantial. This does not, however, necessarily correspond to the priority given to the Horn of Africa by policymakers in Turkey and the Gulf. Motivated by security concerns, especially maritime security in the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean, the Gulf states, in particular, consider the Horn of Africa as part of their near abroad and a natural area of influence, albeit one where their interests sometimes intersect with the agendas of global powers, such as the United States or China.

Horn of Africa agendas

These asymmetries are also reflected in the agendas of the states of the Horn of Africa in their region, and vis-à-vis the Gulf states and Turkey.



Under the transitional government in Sudan since the overthrow of al-Bashir in 2019, there has been an effort to redefine Sudanese interest in the Nile and the Red Sea. Historically, Sudanese elites have perceived themselves as caught between the competing interests of Egypt and Ethiopia, and more recently, the Gulf states. On the question of the Nile, Sudan has taken a more assertive position, despite its fragile economic situation. The escalation of the border dispute with Ethiopia may signal a tougher stance more generally on negotiations over the GERD. This may not play into the interests of Egypt. Nonetheless, this more assertive Sudanese approach may result in a more astute leveraging of competition for influence in Sudan in order to secure benefits for the country.

At the same time, this approach creates risks for Sudanese stability, especially if projects associated with different factions are competing for external support. At a minimum, for example, the situation presents a quandary for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have increased ties with Ethiopia but retain interests in supporting the Egyptian government. In the short term, Turkey and Qatar appear set to be marginalized in Sudan, despite significant influence before 2019. The rapprochement within the Gulf states in early 2021 also does not seem likely to result in cooperation between Qatar and the other Gulf states in the Horn of Africa in the short term.


Internal stability in Ethiopia challenges the ability of the country to defend its interests in regional context. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali since 2018, Ethiopia had been reorienting its regional security framework, in particular by restoring relations with Eritrea and increasing (at least rhetorical terms) cooperation between Asmara, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu. The conflict in Tigray, drawing in Eritrea and enflaming border tensions with Sudan, as well as exacerbating humanitarian concerns and straining relations with traditional donors to the country, has put additional strain on the fragile Ethiopian economy.

Tensions in the Nile basin also complicate relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been increasingly helpful Ethiopian partners in terms of foreign investment and balance of payments support, both of which are under pressure from the global economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the importance of Cairo for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Ethiopia cannot rely on ready support from its Gulf partners. Economic and monetary volatility is also a concern for Turkey, which has substantial investments in industrial parks and logistics in Ethiopia. With elections due later in 2021, the internal contradictions in Ethiopia are coming to a head at a time when its external partnerships are in flux.


Asmara straddles a difficult position in regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa. Since its independence, the country has been exposed to pressure from much larger and better-resourced neighbors, which has led to conflicts. Current Eritrean support to the Ethiopian government against the TPLF risks Eritrea being drawn into a long conflict on its southern border. Asmara managed to navigate the 2017–2021 Gulf states rift without severing its ties to Doha (despite tensions) but nevertheless remains caught between larger state agendas in the Nile basin and in the Red Sea.

The main agenda in Eritrea seems to be avoiding being overwhelmed by external pressures. Key among these pressures must be continued internal instability in Ethiopia and the intensification of conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan. Turkey and the Gulf states have limited influence in Asmara. Cooperation with the UAE over the Emirati naval base in Assab is the most significant external security engagement in Eritrea.


The federal government in Somalia is caught up in the latest dynamics of its transition towards a democratic constitutional order. The rapprochement in the Gulf states is unlikely to alter the short-term dynamics of external influence from Turkey and the Gulf states. Turkish relations with the federal administration in Mogadishu have weathered two handovers of power. Ankara is likely to be leveraging its connections to ensure a continued presence in the country. Given Turkish commercial and security engagements, as well as substantial humanitarian and cultural linkages (including direct flights to Istanbul), continued access seems likely, regardless of the outcome of the current constitutional stalemate.

The split in the Gulf states, with Doha retaining influence with President Farmajo’s administration in Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi maintaining closer ties with the federal member states (especially Puntland, along with important ties to Somaliland) is set to continue. Qatari relations with Farmajo appear to be under some strain, however, in particular over reports that Doha financed the training of Somali fighters in Eritrea, as well as rumors that some of these fighters may have been deployed in Tigray with the Ethiopian military. The highly transactional and volatile dynamics of Somali politics have lent themselves to the pattern of Gulf state engagement. The incoming administration will likely face the same dynamics.

Turkish policy beyond the AKP?

A key question raised by the dynamics of the Turkish opening to Africa, especially since 2016 and the post-coup intensification of Turkish engagement, relates to the degree to which policy towards the Horn of Africa (or Africa more broadly) has been embedded in the AKP, rather than the institutions of the Turkish state. The AKP has dominated politics in Turkey for nearly two decades. Key players in the Turkish engagement in the region increasingly have links to the ruling party (and to some degree, specifically the circle around President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). As such, there are questions as to the degree that relations between Turkey and the Horn of Africa will be affected in an eventual post-AKP landscape.

Sudan underscores the degree to which the integrated approach Turkey takes to commercial, diplomatic and cultural engagement fed into local perceptions of a clear agenda targeting the country as a priority, up until the revolution in 2019. This also came with assumptions about the connections between the AKP as an Islamist party analogous to then-President Omar al-Bashir’s Ingaz regime in Sudan, along with assumptions that the natural affinities between the two leaders helped reinforce Turkish engagement in the country. While this overstates the degree to which the AKP (or even the National Congress Party in Sudan) is an Islamist party, Sudanese perceptions stem from the degree to which Turkish support for Sudanese business ventures and aid projects was streamlined by support from the government in Anakara. A backlash against the AKP that results in a change of power in Turkey might catch up with Turkish engagement in Africa. If not, the penetration of state institutions with AKP political appointments raises questions about capacity and experience in maintaining relations with the Horn of Africa for a future government.

Gulf states pivot: middle power reactivity

As in Turkey, the COVID-19 pandemic has already brought fiscal challenges and some adjustment to the foreign policy agendas of the Gulf states, as hydrocarbon revenues, and tourism and airline traffic (both key earners) have taken a hit. Moreover, late 2020 brought a significant shift in terms of US engagement in the region, with President Joe Biden’s win in the November presidential election, which saw Gulf states respond. The Trump administration had worked to reverse the approach the Obama administration had to Iran, aligning the US position more with the Saudi vision of Mohamed bin Salman and facilitating the assertive posture of the Saudi government in the region, including tacit (if inconsistent) US support for the Qatar embargo. The Biden administration has signaled both its intention to re-engage with Iran and its skepticism of Saudi security engagement, especially in Yemen.

In December 2020 and January 2021, the Gulf states adjusted to the new dynamics in Washington, one important upshot of which was the end of the Qatar embargo. Since 2017 when the Qatari embargo began, the rift it caused is one of the central cleavages that has shaped Gulf state engagements and competitions in the Horn of Africa. Since 2015, the Saudi security agenda has also sought to draw in Horn of Africa states. The prospect of cooperation between Riyadh and Doha in the Horn of Africa seems unlikely. Nonetheless, it could be that the prospect of lowered US–Iran tensions results in Riyadh putting more energy and resources into the development of the Red Sea Council as a platform to counter any Iranian agenda (perceived or real) in the region. Efforts to scale down the military operations in Yemen—which did not start as a theatre for Saudi– Iranian competition but evolved into this—could reinforce the need in Riyadh for the Red Sea Council agenda to move more quickly.

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