Executive Summary

Since around 2015, the importance of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, in the affairs of countries in the Horn of Africa has been growing. At the same time, Turkey, which made a political choice nearly two decades ago to ‘open towards Africa’, has also strengthened its presence in the region. While the Horn of Africa is not the top foreign policy priority for the Gulf states or Turkey, its geographical proximity—part of the Gulf’s ‘near abroad’—means that the region demands consistent attention, particularly from a (maritime) security perspective.

In addition, the Horn of Africa is included within broader strategic agendas, particularly related to investment in long-term food security, tackling the influence of Iran,./. and the development of humanitarian and development sectors. An inconsistent US position in the Middle East over the last decade has created the space—perhaps even the necessity—for such middle powers to assert their influence in the wider Red Sea region.

Gulf state economies also benefit from long-term strategic investments in African food, agriculture, energy, and real estate. As a consequence, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have targeted Ethiopia and Sudan—both of which have great potential as agricultural and energy suppliers—with most investment in the region, although the strategic positioning of the ports in Djibouti has also made it a target for Gulf investment, particularly from the UAE. Ethiopia, the most populous country in the region, and the second-largest in Africa, also has a large consumer market that GCC countries are keen to exploit. The (more limited) Qatari investment profile has deeper roots in Sudan, although these relations have been disrupted by the 2019 revolution. While Ethiopia is an increasing priority for Qatar, its investment approach is still in an early, and tentative, phase.


For countries in the Horn of Africa—principally Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea— the growing involvement of these more powerful, wealthier powers in their economies and foreign relations has offered opportunities, although not without some risks. Relations are clearly asymmetrical, or unbalanced, in nature. While the countries in the Horn are relatively poor, politically volatile, and affected by conflict, their partners across the Red Sea are comparatively wealthy, more politically stable, and increasingly asserting their positions as proactive middle powers. This has meant that the Gulf states and Turkey have quickly become some of the most important external players in the competitive political marketplace of the Horn, despite no clear individual or collective plan for this to happen.

From the perspective of governments and other political elites in the Horn of Africa, the increased engagement and the resources brought to bear offer the chance to drive domestic (or personal) agendas and to continue a long history of avoiding capture by those of global powers, such as the US, China or European players. However, while the scale of resources brought to bear by Turkey and the Gulf states in the Horn of Africa is substantial (relative to the economic strength of the region’s states), this does not necessarily correspond to the priority afforded to the region by policymakers in Turkey and the Gulf, or indeed much experience or expertise in the affairs of the region. This means that Gulf and Turkish engagement may be significant, but it is not always effective and has become instrumentalized by the Horn of Africa’s astute and experienced political players for their own ends.

Saudi and Emirati assertiveness

In 2015, when his father acceded to the Saudi throne, Mohamed bin Salman’s (MBS) elevation to Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister marked the start of a more assertive regional security strategy for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Principally, this has been driven by the desire to contain Iran—with which the Obama administration was then negotiating a deal (JCPOA) on nuclear issues—amid the continued fallout from the Arab Uprisings. The Saudi turn, supported by the UAE under the consolidated leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has precipitated several other major security shifts in the Gulf region. This started with the Saudi and Emirati-led war in Yemen (a response to perceived Iranian backing of the country’s Houthi rebels) and the 2017 Gulf states crisis, which between mid-2017 and early 2021 saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain seek to isolate Qatar, drawing in Turkey, as well as the sates of the Horn of Africa.

While the Horn of Africa’s states have only been minor players in these larger regional events, all the states of the region have been put under considerable pressure to choose sides, with uneven effects. For Somalia, Saudi, and more significantly Emirati pressure to cut ties with Qatar led to a break in Somalia-UAE relations from early 2018. Abu Dhabi maintains strong relations with Somaliland and has cultivated influence in the Federal Member States, especially Puntland and Jubbaland, seeking to destabilize the FGS.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, is of sufficient size to withstand pressure to take sides, instead of adhering to its tendency to maintain relations, leveraging its position as Africa’s diplomatic capital. This has happened despite growing ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi since Abiy Ahmed came to power as prime minister in 2018, and Saudi-Emirati support for the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement the same year.

Pursuit of maritime security interests has also driven Emirati and Saudi engagement with Eritrea, which has hosted an Emirati military base in Assab used to support operations in Yemen. Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia are also members of the fledgling Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (Red Sea Council), which has shown an early focus on maritime security since its charter was adopted in January 2020 in Saudi Arabia.

Sudan’s 2019 transition has created challenges for Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari engagement. All three states had functional relations with the former Bashir regime, and Sudan has long been a target for agricultural and (to a much lesser degree) real estate projects from the Gulf. Qatar lost influence and access with Bashir’s overthrow, amid pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE on various elements within the transitional elite, particularly various security services. The UAE enjoys closer connections to General Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which had joined the Yemen operations, and now wield considerable power in the post-Bashir politico-security landscape.

Turkey and Qatar: an alliance of convenience?

The 2017 eruption of the Gulf States crisis reinforced a trend towards cooperation between Turkey and Qatar that had emerged since the Arab Spring, as the two countries found their foreign policy agendas had some resonances and overlapping interests. In the context of the embargo, Turkish support was important for Qatar, while competition between Turkey and the UAE escalated, including in Somalia, Sudan, and Libya. Turkey has pursued a broader project focused on cultivating its own economic and political influence since a turn away from Europe in the late 1990s, while Qatar’s agenda is more pragmatic and opportunistic than ideological, focused on maintaining its independence from its larger Gulf neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

The states of the Horn of Africa, especially Sudan and Somalia, have been affected by the competition. The 2019 revolution in Sudan, in particular, exposed the fragility of Qatar’s and to some extent Turkey’s position in the competition for influence in the Red Sea. In the last two years, the Horn of Africa has lost strategic weight within the framework of Turkish foreign policy. This deprioritization is due to the policymakers’ beliefs that in the context of regional competition (in the wider Middle East and North Africa) there is less gain in the Horn of Africa than in other areas.

Humanitarian and cultural diplomacy, migration, and soft power

In terms of soft power, restrictive and sometimes abusive migration policies in the Gulf breed resentment in the Horn of Africa, particularly when these coincide with periodic waves of expulsion and employment nationalism in the Gulf. The Covid-19 epidemic has added strain to this already fraught relationship. The policies in the Gulf also contrast sharply with Turkey’s educational and humanitarian engagement, including scholarships and language training. While the proximity of the wealthier economies of the Gulf to the Horn of Africa leads to higher migration rates than Turkey experiences, the difference in Turkey’s overall approach benefits Ankara in terms of its accumulation of soft power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are home to sizeable diaspora populations from the Horn of Africa.

The UAE, especially Dubai, has emerged as an increasingly significant player in international humanitarian architecture. Over the past two decades, Dubai has sought to position itself as a key player in the global humanitarian system, particularly through the expansion of the International Humanitarian City—the largest humanitarian hub in the world—close to many aid recipients and key financial backers in the UAE. However, Emirati bilateral aid policy increasingly marries military relief and humanitarian intervention. Aid recipients are required to open their markets to state-led investment. Market expansion is an explicit goal of UAE humanitarianism and return-on-investment is central to state discourses around development assistance, whether this is market access, the establishment of profitable partnerships for future investment or keeping competitors out. Since 2011, Gulf donors have shifted from giving small-scale humanitarian aid to giving large-scale grants designed to stabilize economies and support struggling governments, thus ultimately hoping to prevent further crises.

Cultural diplomacy has become a central asset of Turkish policy in Africa. The involvement of non-state actors, in some cases before the involvement of government, has prepared the ground for the development of political and economic relations. Turkish humanitarian and cultural diplomacy have built up around the civil society–state nexus. A key question raised by the dynamics of the Turkish opening to Africa, especially since 2016 and the post-coup intensification, relates to the degree to which policy towards Africa is embedded in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), rather than the institutions of the Turkish state. Key players in Turkey’s Africa engagement increasingly have links to the ruling party (and specifically President 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.

Implications for the Horn of Africa

Shifts in the priorities of the Gulf states over the last five years have had several observable consequences for states in the Horn of Africa. The rapprochement within the Gulf States in early 2021 seems unlikely to result in cooperation between Qatar and the other Gulf States in the short term. Some of the most significant areas of interest are outlined below:

Under the Transitional Government in Sudan, there has been an effort to redefine national interests in the Nile and the Red Sea, where the elites have historically seen themselves as caught between the competing interests of Egypt and Ethiopia, and more recently the Gulf States. On the Nile, in particular, Sudan has taken a more assertive position. The escalation of the border dispute with Ethiopia may signal a tougher stance on negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. However, this may not play into the interests of Egypt. Despite its fragile economic position, multiple factions within the Transitional Government seek to assert Khartoum’s position. This may result in more astute leverage of competition for influence in Sudan to secure benefits for the country but also risks instability if different factions compete for external support. The situation presents a quandary for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have increased ties with Ethiopia but retain interests in supporting Egypt’s government. Turkey, and Qatar, appear set to be marginalized in Sudan in the short term.

Somalia’s government 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. Turkey’s relations with Mogadishu have weathered two handovers of power, and Ankara is likely to be hedging its bets to ensure continued influence. Given its commercial, security, and humanitarian engagement, as well as cultural linkages, continued access seems likely, regardless of the outcome of the current constitutional stalemate. The split in the Gulf States has Doha retaining influence with President Farmajo’s administration in Mogadishu while Abu Dhabi has maintained closer ties with Puntland and Somaliland. Qatar’s relations with Farmajo are under strain, in particular over reports that Doha financed the training of Somali fighters in Eritrea. The highly transactional and volatile dynamics of Somali politics have lent themselves to the Gulf States’ pattern of engagement. The incoming administration will face the same dynamics.

The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region illustrates the degree to which the profile of the Gulf states has risen in Ethiopia. The TPLF and opponents of the government’s offensive have claimed that the UAE supported the Ethiopian government with drone attacks on the TPLF. The presence of Emirati military assets at the Eritrean port of Assab lends plausibility to accusations of its involvement, even if Ethiopia denies it. Ethiopian authorities claimed on 3 February 2021 to have disrupted a plot to bomb the Emirati embassy in Addis Ababa, potentially illustrating the risks to the UAE of perceived involvement in Ethiopia’s conflict. The UAE (and Saudi Arabia) are further challenged by the escalating border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia that the Tigray conflict has exacerbated.

Eritrea occupies a difficult position within the Horn’s shifting regional dynamics. Since its independence, the country has been exposed to pressure from larger and better-resourced neighbors. Currently supporting the Ethiopian government’s war in Tigray (officially denied by both governments), Eritrea risks being drawn into a long conflict on its southern border. Asmara managed to navigate the 2017-21 Gulf States rift without severing its ties to Doha, but nevertheless remains caught between larger state agendas in the Nile basin and in the Red Sea. Its main aim is to avoid being overwhelmed by external pressures, key among which must be Ethiopia’s continued internal stability, or the intensification of conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan. Turkey and the Gulf States have limited influence with Asmara. Cooperation with the UAE over the Emirati naval base in Assab is the most significant external security engagement.

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