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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud open a new terminal of the Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu. A Turkish company helped to build the terminal. Courtesy of AMISOM Photo/Ilyas Ahmed

The Middle East’s Scramble for Africa: Building Bases and Instability

Timothy Williams
Commentary, 26 February 2018
Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is not only of interest to Western and key Asian powers, it has recently also drawn the attention of Middle Eastern countries. They have all been piling investment and military assets into the region.

The Horn of Africa is of strategic importance, commanding the gateway between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. An estimated 3.8 million barrels of oil go through the Bab El-Mandeb straits, the 12 mile-wide strait between Africa and the Gulf, each day.

Iranian influence in the region has also long worried Saudi Arabia, and Tehran’s support for the Houthis in the Yemen war has merely heightened  Riyadh’s fears. A strategic competition in the Horn between the Saudis and Iranians is therefore unfolding.

This has seen Middle Eastern countries inject massive amounts of military assets and investments into the region, and reflects the divergent goals of these outside powers.

The Middle East’s scramble for the Horn is broadly split into three emerging strands, each with its own regional ambitions and motivations: the ‘Islamist Strand’, led by Turkey and aligned to Sudan and the Federal Government of Somalia; a ‘conservative’ one led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which includes Eritrea and the Somalia autonomous states; and the more ambivalent actors of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, mostly involved in Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Turkey’s ‘Islamist Strand’ aims to boost the role of faith in national and regional politics, both as a legitimiser of power, and as a binder of local alliances.

Interaction was initially a purely economic and ‘soft power’ approach of regional investment, provision of trade, aid and the building of mosques. However, it is a sign of the importance that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan puts on projecting his country as the leading Sunni Muslim power that Ankara’s largest foreign embassy is in Somalia.

Iran's influence has seen Middle Eastern countries inject massive amounts of military assets and investments into the region, and reflects the divergent goals of these outside powers

Turkish policy in the region has gradually become more overtly securitised, as Ankara recently opened a large military training base in Somalia. Turkey has also agreed to invest in infrastructure across Sudan, especially in the port of Suakin and there are reports of an agreement to build a naval base and discussions for a military base in Djibouti. Most of these moves are reflections or outgrowths of the broader Turkish foreign policy priorities in the Middle East.

The UAE’s ‘conservative approach’ reflects the Emirates’ broader military-led foreign policy, which has sought regional influence though the projection of hard power. The strategy has centred on economic investment, especially developing commercial ports, whilst gaining concessions for military bases.

The Emirates have gained such concessions in the Somali states of Somaliland and Puntland. The UAE has also developed sophisticated long-term military facilities, including basing significant naval resources in the Port of Assab in Eritrea.

The more disparate and ambivalent grouping, which includes such actors as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, lacks a clear vision for the Horn, beyond the Riyadh’s determination to prevent Iranian influence, and Qatar’s desire to attract international support because of the political pressure it faces from most of its Gulf neighbours.

Saudi Arabia has copied some of the Turkey’s approaches to the Horn, with charitable donations to housing, schools, and mosques. Riyadh has effectively leveraged this influence to effectively curb Iranian incursions, encouraging Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia to cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 2016 attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

In theory, all these competing visions for the region could have increased the Horn’s ability to attract support and capital. In practice, however, all these initiatives have begun to upset the regional order

More controversially, the Saudis also pressured Djibouti and Eritrea into cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar during the recent Gulf showdown. Saudi Arabia has recently ramped up military investment, by announcing that it would be building a military base in Djibouti along with promoting further defence agreements between the two countries.

Qatar’s interactions have lacked a clear vision, consisting of mostly of investment, and broadly aiming to generate support. However, even this seemingly unobjectionable involvement, has ruffled feathers. Reports of Qatar’s decision to participate in financing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile have angered Egypt, and have merely complicated Doha’s already tense relations with Cairo.

In theory, all these competing visions for the region could have increased the Horn’s ability to attract support and capital. In practice, however, all these initiatives have begun to upset the regional order. The UAE’s significant military assets in Eritrea have worsened its already strained relationships with Ethiopia and Sudan; Sudan’s recent military mobilisation on its Eritrean border is a clear example of this rising tension.

Conversely, the Saudi efforts to isolate Doha encouraged Qatari peacekeepers to leave the disputed Djibouti–Eritrea border, which Eritrean troops quickly filled. Although currently stable, these developments could signal the return of clashes on the disputed borders.

Somalia’s internal power balance is also becoming strained by the competing Islamist and conservative strands, creating foreign policy divergence and active competition between Mogadishu and its autonomous states.

Mogadishu did not consent to the UAE’s port developments in the autonomous states, or to the diplomatic ties with Qatar. The Gulf’s support for different candidates in the 2017 Somali presidential election has also deepened internal divisions.

In short, while Middle East states pile into the Horn of Africa and increase the region’s importance, it also risks fuelling simmering conflicts, and making them as intractable as the conflicts which are currently tearing the Middle East apart.

Banner image: Pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud adorn a new terminal of the Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu. A Turkish company helped to build the terminal. Courtesy of AMISOM Photo/Ilyas Ahmed

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

This article was updated on 27 March 2018. 

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