The ties in the Horn that the UAE and Saudi Arabia made due to the Yemen conflict have greatly improved the fortunes of neighboring states
The recent detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia has raised the prospect that Yemen’s long war may finally be edging towards an end.
The conflict, which broke out in 2014 and sucked in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Tehran, among others, has devastated the Arab world’s poorest state. Even if peace is achieved – and any negotiations will likely take months if not longer – it will be years before Yemen recovers.
Yet while Yemen has undoubtedly suffered, some countries have proven surprising beneficiaries of its long war.
On the other sides of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden respectively, Eritrea and Somaliland have seen their fortunes altered because of the conflict. While few could have predicted this when Yemen’s civil war began or, more significantly, when Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 at the head of an allied coalition, the consequences had a knock-on effect that have strengthened both Asmara and Hargeisa’s international positions.
The changes have been most dramatic for Eritrea. Before Yemen’s war, Eritrea was internationally isolated and subject to UN sanctions. It had gained independence in 1991 after a 30-year war with Ethiopia, but since then remained suspicious of outsiders and comparatively closed to the world.
Its ruler, the former guerilla Isaias Afwerki, oversaw a harsh dictatorial regime that imposed mandatory national service for all Eritreans until middle age. Hostility with its neighbors worsened the situation. Another war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 ended unresolved, leaving their long border closed, stifling trade.
Meanwhile, skirmishes with Djibouti to the south prompted a UN arms embargo and other sanctions in 2009. Eritrea’s few international ties prompted further rancor, with Asmara accused of lending support to al-Shabaab in Somalia for their anti-Ethiopian position.
Then came the war in Yemen.
Riyadh and, especially its principal ally, Abu Dhabi, needed military bases and ports closer to the front line, and Eritrea was ideal. They had initially hoped to use Djibouti, but the city-state fell out with the UAE over how Dubai’s DP World had been running its port, leaving Abu Dhabi to look elsewhere.
Eritrea was persuaded to end its relationship with Iran and join the coalition against Tehran’s Yemeni allies, the Houthis, allowing the UAE to use the Red Sea port of Assab as a military base.
In exchange, Saudi Arabia and the UAE promised Afwerki much-needed investment and help in ending his international isolation.
The results went better than either could have forecast. The UAE made extensive use of Assab, first ferrying over Sudanese fighters to join the conflict and then as a hub for its airforce.
Asmara received vital investment, but more importantly, Abu Dhabi followed up its promise of international reconciliation by brokering a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018.
This not only finally opened Eritrea’s long border, allowing goods and trade to flow, but it also initiated a diplomatic revolution in the Horn of Africa.
Asmara formed a surprising alliance with Addis Ababa, jointly attacking Ethiopian rebels in the vicious Tigray war of 2020-22, resumed ties with the Somalia government, and settling its boundary disputes with Djibouti. These reconciliations and further UAE lobbying led to the UN lifting an array of sanctions, though not the arms embargo, in 2018.
While no real domestic changes occurred, and Afwerki’s brutal regime remains in place, Eritrea’s external ties have been transformed – mostly because of the Yemen war.
Less dramatic, but still significant, changes also occurred in Somaliland.
The country, which roughly aligns with the former British colony of Somaliland, broke away from Somalia in 1991, reversing its unification with the former Italian colony that occurred after colonial independence in 1960.
However, Hargeisa’s claims for sovereignty are not recognized by any other country and are especially impeded by the African Union’s unwillingness to accept the breakaway republic without Mogadishu’s agreement, which it flatly refuses.
Hargeisa has not been totally isolated, enjoying informal ties with multiple states, and Western governments are particularly keen to support a rare example of a stable, functioning democracy in the Horn of Africa. However, the fallout of the Yemen war has boosted its hopes of translating these ties into full international recognition.
Again, the catalyst was the UAE. As part of its focus on the South Yemen theatre, Abu Dhabi sought more military bases to supplement the one gained in Assab.
While military calculations may have initiated Abu Dhabi’s interest, there was also always a strong commercial logic
Somaliland’s port of Berbera, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, was ideally located, and the UAE agreed a deal to take over the port.
While military calculations may have initiated Abu Dhabi’s interest, there was also always a strong commercial logic.
Ethiopia had lobbied the UAE to invest in the port, recognizing it could prove a key outlet for Addis Ababa, which is landlocked and has long been restricted to Djibouti for trade.
To aid this, as well as investing $442m to upgrade Berbera’s port facilities, the UAE also co-founded, with the UK, the $400m Ethiopia-Berbera highway to facilitate trade.
Not only will this boost Somaliland’s economy, but it also gives it two powerful external patrons, the UAE and Ethiopia, willing to defend Somaliland from Somalia’s claims and advocate for its formal recognition in the future.
The reduction of Abu Dhabi’s involvement in Yemen has seen it downgrade its military presence in Assab, while the Berbera base never became operational.
But the diplomatic and commercial ties in the Horn that the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, made because of the Yemen conflict remain intact.
There is no guarantee they will last for years to come, and much will depend on how the leaders of Eritrea and Somaliland react to the changing climate, but their positions are enhanced because of the Yemen war.
This, of course, pales in comparison to the many lives destroyed in Yemen itself but does show how conflicts such as this have unforeseen and dramatic consequences elsewhere.
About Christopher Phillips
Christopher Phillips is a professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, where he is also a deputy dean. He is the author of The Battle for Syria, available from Yale University Press, and co-editor of What Next for Britain in the Middle East, available from IB Tauris.
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