Soft power: Cultural diplomacy and diaspora networks

Cultural diplomacy is a growing feature of Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa, with perceptions in the region that this creates a comprehensive approach to the Turkish agenda. Aid and investment projects tend to involve more interaction between Turkish and host country staff, and connections are reinforced by Turkish language training and scholarship programs that bring Horn of Africa nationals to Turkey before returning to the region. Turkey also has a growing Horn of Africa diaspora population at a time when the Gulf states are struggling with their migration management policies, despite a long history of labor movement between the Horn and the Gulf. In terms of soft power, restrictive and sometimes abusive migration policies in the Gulf breed resentment in the Horn of Africa, especially when these coincide with periodic waves of expulsion. The COVID-19 epidemic has added strain to this already fraught relationship.

Horn of Africa diasporas in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar

The presence of a substantial Horn of Africa diaspora across the Gulf states dates back decades and reinforces long-standing cultural and economic linkages between the two regions across the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates host significant Horn diasporic communities, especially from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia. For the most part, however, it is difficult to obtain reliable and accurate data on diaspora populations because of limitations associated with Gulf national data but some estimates are presented in Table 5.

The 100,000-strong Somali diaspora in the Emirates—mostly present in Dubai—plays a significant role in the domestic economy of Somalia. Following the downfall of President Siyad Barre in 1991, the UAE lured Somali businesses and the trade community at large to its shores. Today, Dubai banks process remittances from Somali diasporas worldwide. Seventy percent of the Somali community in Dubai own import-export businesses between the two countries, which contribute to Somali GDP.[224] While the Somali diaspora in Saudi Arabia is slightly less substantial than in the UAE, there is also a sizeable Somali community with business dealings with other communities throughout East Africa and the Horn of Africa.[225]


Table 5. Estimates of Horn diasporic communities in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar

DjiboutiEthiopia[226]Eritreawe can work together with Kenya and East African countries. We are looking to have KenyaSudan[227]Somalia[228]
Saudi Arabia400,000–



100,000[229] (2018)6,900




20,000– 100,000


UAE90,000– 100,000






75,00070,000– 100,000


Qatar[231]Presumably very limited22,000[232]











Source: Various sources cross-checked with data from the Gulf Labor Markets and Migration (GLMM); see:

The Eritrean diaspora is significant in Saudi Arabia but much less in the UAE. Some outdated figures suggest that the number of Eritrean workers has significantly increased over the last decade, especially in Saudi Arabia. Over the 1991–2009 period, the Eritrean diaspora allegedly ranged from 6,000 to 15,000 individuals in the kingdom, with around 2,400–3,000 Eritreans in the UAE over the same time span.[234] In 2020, there were approximately 100,000 Eritreans in Saudi Arabia and up to 17,500 in the UAE.[235] Because the Gulf states largely sympathized with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) from the 1960s, Riyadh granted a number of Eritreans residency in the kingdom.[236] Considered as cheap unskilled labor (never refugees), most female migrants work as housemaids.

Males supply the services industry. They all presumably ‘face pressure to send private remittances to their relatives’,[237] which provides the national economy of Eritrea with critical foreign exchange (SAR and AED are both pegged to the dollar).

Since the independence of Gulf countries in the 1970s, Sudanese migrants have been associated with employment in the public sector (army, police, administration). Sudanese communities in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are significant, especially in the kingdom, where some estimates indicate they reach 900,000. This is significantly higher than the most commonly cited figures (see Table 5).[238] Diasporas from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and we can work together with Kenya and East African countries. We are looking to have Kenya are also among the largest African communities in the UAE (see Figure 8).[239] These figures underscore the breadth of people-to-people ties between these countries and the Emirates.

Figure 8. Most significant African diasporas in the UAE (2014)

Turkey And The Gulf States In The Horn Of Africa Fluctuating Dynamics Of Engagement, Investment And Influence -Table 2
Source: ‘UAE: Estimates of Population Residing in the UAE by Country of Citizenship (Selected Countries, 2014)’, GLMM (blog), 17 December 2015,

Diaspora remittances account for significant sources of revenues for home economies. Diasporic communities also foster investments and trade relationships. In this respect, ‘Investments [from the Gulf] have been facilitated by the returning Sudanese and Ethiopian diasporas, who frequently start businesses on their return, drawing on their Gulf connections to find business partners or investors.’[240] A security adviser to the UAE government concurs that Emirati support in the region ‘goes beyond ports, remittances, aid, and investment, with familial, religious and social ties, and Horn of Africa countries are part of the UAE social fabric. Sudanese and Somali especially’.[241] Unpacking these ties and connections is challenging, however, due to the lack of recorded data and limited transparency in the Gulf states.

Knock-on effects from low oil prices and the pandemic will undoubtedly have negative fallouts, especially given the high unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to appraise how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out on diaspora workers, who may lose their jobs in large numbers, but these second-order effects may also impact relations between the two regions.[242] Alexander Rondos, the EU special representative to the Horn of Africa, explains:

The very people at the source of remittances are the ones who are probably being hardest hit by the economic downturn by COVID. We’ve got to find a way and see if there is a way, we could enhance how remittances keep coming back into this region. It is absolutely a game-changer.[243]

The Sudanese, functioning as a government for 28 years with a constitution, judiciary, national currency, and a flag. Currently, we have representatives in Kenyan, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities are among the largest diasporas in Qatar. As in other Gulf states, these communities are important sources of remittances back home. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated fear of foreseeable layoffs and repatriation, which would impact this significant source of hard currency in Horn countries.

Figure 9. Top 10 African diasporas in Qatar

Turkey And The Gulf States In The Horn Of Africa Fluctuating Dynamics Of Engagement, Investment And Influence -Table 2
Source: Jure Snoj, ‘Population of Qatar by Nationality in 2019’, Priya DSouza Communications, 15 August 2019,

Qatar is home to a sizeable and quite visible Sudanese community (see Figure 9). Sudanese tend to occupy positions at all levels of employment, working as security guards, taxi drivers and ‘all the way up to upper-middle-class positions in the medical industry as doctors’.[244] The Sudanese diaspora also work in all labor market segments (public and private), including multinational corporations, NGOs, government organizations and ministries (as advisers and administrators), the police and army, and in agriculture.[245] Consequently, ‘Over time, Sudanese people have managed to establish some sort of credibility’, especially in Qatar, where ‘they are very respected’.[246] Qataris are ‘a little bit warmer to the Sudanese community [than in the UAE, for example]’, as this Sudanese man, who is in his thirties and grew up in the UAE and then Qatar, explains:

There are a lot of young entrepreneurial Sudanese … who can rely on their relations with the Qataris they grew up and studied with to start a business. This is proximity our parents did not have to locals [Gulf nationals] when they came here at an earlier time. … Of course, many of these nationals can serve as silent partners, not actual investment partners per se.

In contrast, the Somali diaspora in Qatar is very small despite extensive relations between Doha and Mogadishu. Most Somalis are not even permanent residents. Nevertheless, as many from the Somali community in the UAE have moved to Turkey in recent years, Qatar might also benefit from this diaspora to push its interests forward in Somalia in light of the ties and similarities, if not least in perception, around Turkey–Qatar axis.

migration: Impact on relations between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf

Though economically beneficial, migration between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf states can cause political friction. Horn states accuse their Gulf counterparts of poor labor standards that encourage maltreatment. Arab states say governments in the Horn are not doing enough to stem illegal migration, which has risen significantly in the last two decades. Periodic crackdowns and expulsions of migrant workers have strained relations between the Gulf states and countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.[247]

Eritreans, Sudanese and Ethiopians are far greater in number in Saudi Arabia than in the UAE, which has contributed to further consolidating ties between Riyadh and these three East African countries. At the same time, the vulnerability of migrants in Saudi Arabia, and the many abuses they face in the kingdom, are widely and regularly criticized. For example, recent footage of horrific conditions experienced by Ethiopians at COVID-19 detention centers sparked outrage across the international community.[248]

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seem to have a poor reputation in many African countries. In particular, African Union officials are very skeptical and jaded about the Gulf and this sense of mistrust is noticeable in the Horn of Africa.[249] In Somalia, the UAE and Qatar ‘are perceived as arrogant, which differs from Turkey’s significant visibility and positive branding’.[250] Another compelling example is the wrath and derisive attitude of Sudanese demonstrators towards Saudi and Emirati support for the military in 2019, in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s fall. The perception among many Sudanese is that the Gulf states were only interested in propping up their allies in the Sudanese military and cared little for the fate of the Sudanese population at large.[251]

As such, hard power and investments go hand in hand with the projection of soft power, which aims to win the hearts and minds of the population. To a greater extent than Saudi Arabia, the UAE is adept at soft power initiatives and is ‘known for using aid strategically’.[252] In fact, self-branding is a crucial part of the UAE strategy in reaching out to the international community. For example, alongside its commercial projects, Dubai-based DP World also invests in developmental projects, provides scholarships to promising local students and supports schools and universities.[253]

In addition, young people from Horn countries study in the Gulf; for example, at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, Sudanese students are the most represented (especially in medicine, energy studies, etc.).[254] At Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, there are quite a few Eritrean and Sudanese students (but none from Ethiopia or Somalia).[255] In August 2020, in light of COVID-19, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, launched an initiative to train 1 million medics, with many of these expected to come from developing countries, including Africa and Asia, with Horn countries likely to benefit from such initiatives.[256]

Turkish cultural engagement

From the beginning of its opening towards Africa, cultural diplomacy has been a central asset of Turkish policy. The involvement of non-state actors, in some cases before the involvement of governmental actors, has prepared fertile ground for the development of political and economic relations.[257] As with humanitarian diplomacy, Turkish cultural diplomacy has built up around the civil society–state nexus and has developed along a double track. Track 1 consists of establishing both public and private schools. Public schools in Africa, or Imam-Hatip, are managed by the Directorate for Religious Affairs (DIB or Diyanet) and represent an exclusively Turkish educational system, wherein Islamic studies are combined with modern sciences.[258] During the past two decades, Imam-Hatip have spread rapidly throughout the Horn of Africa.

Private Turkish schools in Africa have mainly been affiliated to the Gülen movement, with others associated to the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Foundation and Suleymancılar. Following the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, the Turkish education ministry enhanced the prerogatives of the Maarif Foundation, an agency that has progressively taken over Gülen movement schools in Africa.[259] According to the Turkish state, the presence of Gülenist members or affiliates in Africa remains a matter of primary national security interest.[260]

Track 2 is spearheaded by the Turkish education ministry, with strong support from the culture and tourism ministry in the form of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (the YTB). The latter operates the main cultural diplomacy program in Africa through its Türkiye scholarship program, which enables African students to attend universities in Turkey.[261] Before they depart for academic life in Turkey, some Africa students take the language and cultural courses offered by Yunus Emre Enstitusu, another public foundation based in Turkey, to become familiar with the Turkish way of life. During their four or five years of study in Turkey, African students also learn the Turkish language. At the end of their education, some students join the Turkish labor market, while others return to their country of origin, where they can find public or private positions.[262]

From an African perspective, the scholarships offer an alternative to the more complicated and often inaccessible paths to Western universities. From a Turkish perspective, the programs are part of the long-term goal of increasing social backing in many African countries. The years of living in Turkey contribute to establishing a valuable network of people-to-people relations: Many African students who return to their home countries become an integral part of the future ruling class, which is useful for facilitating economic and political relations with Turkey.[263]

In addition to the YTB scholarship programs, there are a variety of other cultural diplomacy tools that Turkey uses in the Horn of Africa to increase Turkish popularity and presence.[264] In addition to Turkish Airlines, with direct connections in all Horn countries, the use of television entertainment programs, especially TV series (dizi) is increasing. As in other regional contexts (for example, the Balkans and the Middle East), Turkish television is constantly expanding in the Horn, except in Eritrea.[265] Turkish television series are divided into two major narrative threads: Historical reconstructions of the Ottoman period or earlier, and life tales set in contemporary Turkey. While the former contribute to the process of re-elaborating Ottoman history, projecting an idealized image of the Turkish past,[266] the latter allows the introduction of particularly sensitive social issues, and in some cases, genuinely taboo subjects. Although the expansion of Turkish television programming in Africa may simply appear to be a pop phenomenon, in reality, this increases the visibility and branding of Turkey in the region, arousing curiosity and interest among African audiences.[267] It is also likely that cultural diplomacy through the use of television series enhances the positive image of Turkey in the Horn of Africa.

Mirroring greater African interest in Turkey, there is also increased interest in Africa among the Turkish public. Over the last decade, Turkish media—Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), Anadolu Agency (AA), CCN Turk, newspapers, news websites—have increased news coverage of events in Africa, albeit only when these events involve or have a bearing on Turkey. At the same time, however, knowledge of the African continent, and more specifically of individual countries, is almost zero among the Turkish public; even among those working at state agencies or as volunteers at charitable foundations and NGOs involved in Africa, there is deep ignorance of the context in which they operate.[268] At the university level, knowledge of Africa is also still limited (except North Africa). Inevitably, this lack of knowledge and understanding of context is a constraint for Turkish aims to further increase relations with the continent in the coming years.

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