Donor and humanitarian engagement

In addition to conventional investment activity, which is often promoted through government incentives, the Gulf states and Turkey are seeking to expand their influence in the Horn of Africa through development and humanitarian engagement. This comes in different forms but these approaches may be usefully contrasted with Western development and humanitarian agendas in the Horn of Africa region.

Turkish humanitarian diplomacy and soft power projection

Ankara believes that fostering people-to-people relations and tools will ultimately bring strategic and material gains.[187] Consequently, the Turkish strategy in the Horn of Africa is to revive elements of the second phase of its opening towards Africa, which focuses on humanitarian efforts and public diplomacy. These operate in support of three main objectives: 1) to build a role as a global player; 2) to increase business volume; and 3) to counter the propaganda promoted by the Gülen movement.[188] To pursue these objectives, Turkish policymakers are aware that soft power tools are needed more than anything else.

According to several interviewees, there is a wide misrepresentation of the Turkish role in the African context.[189] While Turkey is often portrayed as a rival power to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa (and more widely), Turkish ambitions transcend this regional context. Turkish policymakers consider their country as a rising power, comparable to other international emerging players such as India. In a delicate transitional phase towards a new global order, Turkey is seeking its role both in the international hierarchy and in global governance.[190]


As with all emerging powers, Turkey has adopted a status-seeking policy, identifying humanitarian diplomacy as a niche sector in which it can distinguish itself. Investment and efforts in the humanitarian sector contribute to narrowing the gap with other international competitors that are more powerful in terms of economic and military capabilities. The Turkish humanitarian intervention structure is simple: It reduces the distribution chain to the direct passage of support from donor to beneficiary without intermediation.[191] This practice raises many doubts among practitioners but it has had great success among African populations.[192] In quantitative terms, Turkish aid is not greater than that of other donors but the impact of this aid on people is direct and tangible. As is evident in Somalia, the Turkish approach is much more direct and less bureaucratic, which has allowed for greater efficiency and rapidity in project development.[193] This fosters the positive perception of African communities.[194]

Furthermore, Turkey presents itself and feeds its image as a power that operates in a completely different way from other extra-regional actors.[195] It has the advantage that it does not have a colonial past. The Ottoman period, which could prompt doubts and criticism, has been reinterpreted in a positive light as evidence of long-lasting historical ties. Similarly, neo-Ottoman rhetoric is exploited in the African context as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist discourse.[196] Turkey has played the card actively to build a positive image in the eyes of African peoples, and to consolidate trust with the elites and constituencies of the countries through humanitarian assistance and populist public statements.[197]

The Turkish humanitarian sector commitments reflect a twofold need. First, it reflects the quest to gain international visibility. Second, it reflects the need to nurture the relationships established between the AKP government and Turkish civil society actors, particularly entrepreneurs and conservative NGOs. The concept of humanitarianism (İnsaniyetçilik) that links state and non-state actors on the ground seems to be a synthesis of the traditional approach to humanitarian aid and deep religious meaning (Islamic humanitarianism).[198] In other words, the value that Islam assigns to charity constitutes the ideological glue of the nexus between state and civil society.[199] The Turkish humanitarian approach is therefore characterized by religion. Turkey predominantly but not exclusively (Tanzania and Ethiopia are notable exceptions) focuses on Muslim majority countries because they are easier to deal with (due to cultural proximity) and more justifiable in the eyes of the Turkish public, especially the conservative AKP constituency.[200] Confessional affinity allows Turkish governmental and non-governmental agencies[201] to better integrate with the local population by establishing relations on a mutual basis. From the Turkish perspective, the religious element helps boost the image of a country that positions itself in a horizontal way as a partner to Horn of Africa countries.[202] There is, however, an evident mismatch between rhetoric and practice. That is, despite intentions and statements, the Turkish people involved in humanitarian activities tend to have a savior-like approach.[203]

The Turkish humanitarian intervention framework mirrors the nexus between the state and civil society. Several NGOs (mainly faith-based), including the Human Relief Foundation (İHH), Yeryüzü Doktorları, Dost Eli Foundation, Türkiye Dyanet Foundation, Deniz Feneri, Sema Foundation, and Cansuyu, are involved in humanitarian activities and are boosting both the quality and quantity of Turkish humanitarian assistance. A notable commitment is also provided by the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay), the largest charity in the country. The constant presence of TİKA on the ground has allowed for the development of a cooperative engagement, as in the case of the Africa Cataract Campaign initiated by TİKA and İHH, which culminated in the opening of several cataract surgery centers. Similar projects have been initiated by TİKA and several other NGOs, such as Doctors of Hope and the Kimse Yok Mu aid foundation—affiliated with the Gülen movement. All these projects provide free health check-ups, circumcisions, cataract surgeries, and free medicines and medical supplies to African people. All the efforts and actions of these stakeholders are coordinated from Ankara and on the ground by TİKA.

Although these humanitarian efforts aim to gain international exposure and credibility and to achieve support within international organizations, they are also is interlinked with the second Turkish strategic priority of increasing the presence of Turkish companies on the continent. Turkey seeks to gain priority in the exploitation of energy resources in the Horn of Africa and to position Turkish enterprises at the top in terms of obtaining significant public contracts with huge financial implications, notably in the domain of infrastructure.[204] Economic relations between Turkey and the Horn of Africa are growing but compared to total trade with Africa, this seems to be weaker than elsewhere on the continent: The top two Turkish trading partners are still South Africa and Nigeria. Yet, there are strong prospects for the growth of economic ties with the Horn because of the economic potentials of this area. In particular, Somalia can be an important hub for Turkish business on the continent.[205] Among private companies, an important share of Turkish business in Africa is carried out via large conglomerates such as Koç (the largest Turkish group involved in energy, insurance and banking), Sabanci (cement, energy, banking, telecommunications and textiles), and Doğan or Doğuş (banking, construction and tourism). Nonetheless, small-to-medium enterprises are increasingly acquiring influence and market shares as a result of both their growing importance to the Turkish economy and tighter ties with Turkish politicians. Finally, the Horn of Africa is an important market for the export of military hardware, a sector in which Turkey has invested heavily in recent years.

Gulf humanitarian and donor engagement

Gulf donor organizations are increasingly important players in the humanitarian landscape in the Horn of Africa. In particular, the UAE is an increasingly significant presence in multilateral humanitarian organizations. The 2009 establishment of the UAE Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid is a clear attempt to enhance its international credentials as a reliable, regular, and transparent donor.[206]

The Horn of Africa has been a site of international humanitarian engagement for decades, due to its large populations of internally displaced persons and refugees, and recurrent food security challenges. As such, the humanitarian sector has presented Gulf states with an additional entry point for their engagement in the Horn of Africa. At the same time, transactional diplomacy continues to be relevant for understanding the impact of the Gulf states in the Horn of Africa.

Engagement in Sudan offers a clear example. On top of the USD 3 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia to Sudan after the removal of then-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019, the UAE pledged further funds through the World Bank–World Food Programme initiative. This exemplifies a trend among Gulf donors to channel more money through multilateral mechanisms in order to benefit from association with higher levels of international legitimacy. From a Gulf perspective, however, until multilateral institutions are more willing to accommodate the development priorities of the Gulf states, as well as more willing to accept Gulf development actors as partners, the use of multilateral donor instruments will remain limited. The governor of the UAE central bank sums up the situation in his response to an IMF request for extra funds in 2009: ‘[We] will not be providing funds without extra voice and extra recognition’.[207] This may also reflect the Emirati stance on humanitarian aid to multilateral organizations.

Over the past two decades, and especially since the Arab Uprisings, Dubai has sought to position itself as a key player in the global humanitarian architecture, particularly through the expansion of the International Humanitarian City (first established in 2003), which is now the largest humanitarian hub in the world, marketing itself in terms of its pivotal geographical location and its proximity to key financial backers in the UAE.[208] The rapid expansion of Dubai in the humanitarian sphere also parallels the UAE’s increasingly interventionist foreign policy, which is directed towards ‘efforts to tackle religious fundamentalism and Iranian influence and to promote security, stabilization and reconstruction in war zones where the UAE security forces are in coalition or coordination with the US-led international coalition forces’.[209] Abu Dhabi is the main driver of overall Emirati foreign policy, especially since the negative impacts of the 2008 global financial crisis on Dubai’s economy.

Beyond this twinning of humanitarian relief with military intervention, the conditionalities underpinning UAE engagement also rest on two expectations of recipient countries.[210] First, aid recipients are required to open their markets to state-led investment. Market expansion is an explicit goal of UAE humanitarianism and the return-on-investment rhetoric is central to state discourses around development assistance, whether this is market access, the establishment of profitable partnerships for future investment or market domination to keep other Gulf competitors out. Second, aid recipients are expected to adopt the Emirati brand of secular Islam. Since the Arab Uprisings, 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 in the region.[211]

The UAE effort to monopolize the humanitarian logistics sector is arguably a politically driven attempt to bolster the UAE’s reputation as a stable commercial hub and altruistic nation while providing the country with conduits into new markets and political opportunities—neither being angles the Emiratis are likely to deny.[212] Serving as a logistics hub for commercial, humanitarian and military products enables each strand to reinforce the other. For example, the majority of humanitarian aid from the UAE to Yemen (where UAE is the largest donor) is concentrated in two areas: 1) minimizing the negative publicity of the UAE and Saudi forces after they blockaded Yemeni ports; and 2) rebuilding transport infrastructures to bolster port capacity and connect these back to the UAE for future economic and political gain. As one commentator points out, ‘By framing the reconstruction of Yemeni ports and their tighter linkages to the UAE as aid, the UAE is set to powerfully shape post-conflict trajectories in Yemen for years to come.’[213]

Qatari official development assistance and charities

Each Gulf state is pursuing a slightly different humanitarian identity, oriented as much towards domestic agendas and appeasing Western states as towards winning favor among governments in the Horn of Africa. Qatar has opted for an identity as a humanitarian peacemaker, with a commitment to conflict mediation enshrined in its 2003 constitution. Its financial autonomy and independence from regional consensus-led humanitarian agendas has enabled it to undertake higher risk conflict interventions, which have for the most part been positively received by Western multilateral institutions.[214]

Figure 7. QFFD development projects and initiatives in African targeted countries (2017/2019–2020) (USD million)

Turkey And The Gulf States In The Horn Of Africa Fluctuating Dynamics Of Engagement, Investment And Influence -Table 2
Source: Compiled from Qatar Fund for Development’s Annual Reports 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.

Unlike the UAE, Qatar has increased its contribution to multilateral humanitarian organizations much more quickly over the past few years, particularly after the blockade. In 2017, 43 percent of Qatari disbursements were made through multilaterals.[215] In 2018, Qatar signed the ‘QC4HCR’ agreement with the UNHCR to expand opportunities for partnership, collaboration, and coordination between Qatar Charity and the UNHCR[216] and it is very publicly channeling funds (albeit quite small amounts) through other UN bodies; for example, UNICEF.[217] Qatar also remains a significant player in terms of its bilateral assistance in the Horn of Africa. Data from 2017–2019 provided by the Qatari Fund for Development (QFFD), the main official development assistance agency, shows that among targeted countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan and Somalia are top recipients of Qatari aid (see Figure 7). In 2017, for example, a (roughly) USD 200 million packages was agreed by Qatar for development initiatives in Somalia.[218]

Between 2010 and 2012, Eritrea and Djibouti ranked number 8 and number 10, respectively, in the top 10 recipients of Qatari official development assistance.[219] Between 2012 and 2017, Qatar was also the main Arab aid donor to Sudan. The Gulf crisis has presumably hindered humanitarian and aid initiatives supported by Doha.[220] Nevertheless, Sudan still remains the primary target for Doha in sub-Saharan Africa. The Doha peace initiative in Darfur has been skillfully coupled with post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Improving local socio-economic conditions is seen as a way to enhance diplomatic and political gains. This approach was exemplified somewhat by Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud, a Qatari diplomat, who chaired both the implementation follow-up commission of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), and the Darfur Reconstruction and Development Board—until 2017.

In 2016, eight QFFD projects were underway in Darfur—out of a total of 15 in sub-Saharan Africa.[221] In 2017–2018, the QFFD approved a USD 70 million packages for a second set of development and reconstruction initiatives in Darfur.[222] Beyond development assistance, Qatar long supported Bashir’s regime with substantial lifelines. In 2012–2013, for example, Qatar vowed to acquire USD 2 billion in Sudanese multi-sector treasury bonds to bail out Khartoum, which was in dire economic difficulties in the aftermath of South Sudanese independence in 2011.[223]

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