Somalia: A Country Up for Grabs?

Between Qatar, Turkey and United Arab Emirates · Situated as it is in a coveted geopolitical location, Somalia has become, in a scant ten years, a territory wooed by many powerful countries. Among these, Qatar and the United Emirates stand out particularly, as they have been waging a battle of influence there that has had dire consequences on a country which for three decades now has been riddled by war and insecurity.

On 22 July 2019, The New York Times published the transcription of a phone call dating from 18 May between the Qatari ambassador in Mogadishu and a Qatari businessman, Khalifa Kayed Al-Muhanadi Referring to the recent terrorist attack at Bossaso (Puntland), the latter claimed to know the perpetrators: “Our friends are behind that last operation. Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.” Perpetrated a week earlier, responsibility for that attack had been claimed by the Somali branch of ISIS. This was all that was needed to set in motion the Emirati propaganda machine, as witness the words of their Foreign Secretary Anwar Gargash declaring that this conversation confirms the ties between Doha and international terrorism.

Responding to the accusations of the autonomous government of Puntland, Doha did not deny the authenticity of the recording but denied any official implication and dissociated itself from Al-Muhanadi. A few days later, the Somali Foreign Minister, Ahmed Isse Awad, said he was satisfied with this explanation and dismissed the idea of a federal investigation.

Power struggle between Doha and Abu Dhabi

Since he took office in Febuary 2017, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmaajo,” has worsened the constitutional deadlock that has paralysed the Somali political system since 2012. All his efforts have been aimed at centralising the power structure, ignoring the demands of the five regional administrations (see map below) that wish to preserve and extend their autonomy. Thus their distrust of Mogadishu has rarely run so deep. In addition to which, Somaliland demands full autonomy and has proclaimed its independence. This situation, which is already inextricable, has deteriorated even further due to the interference of foreign powers, first and foremost being the Emirates and Qatar.

Federal administration and regional interim administration
Federal administration and regional interim administration

When Doha was accused of inspiring terrorism in Somalia, it was only the umpteenth instalment of a long soap opera in which the Emirati and Qatari protagonists seek to outdo one another with economic, political and military initiatives in a country where many local players are using foreign powers to extend their influence, making prospects of a durable peace and stability ever-increasingly remote.

Generally ignored by its Gulf neighbours since 1991, Somalia has now become an object of renewed interest due to the combined effects of the regional geopolitical upheaval called the “Arab Spring” and especially of the war in Yemen. To which must be added, although it is not an essential factor, the efforts at economic diversification undertaken by the oil- sheikdoms which involve multiplying their foreign investments.

This Gulf-state activism is often described as a novelty in Somalia. But this certainly does not apply to Qatar, whose diplomatic machine has been active there ever since the brief reign in Mogadishu (June to December 2006) of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). At that time, Doha chaired the UN Security Council’s Committee on Somalia. After an initial talk with the ICU and a meeting with its president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in September 2006, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is said to have made several attempts at reconciling the various factions after the fall of the ICU. All to no avail. Later, in 2009, Sheikh Sharif was elected head of the transitional federal government. Urged by Doha to negotiate with the hard-liners, he ended by accusing the Qatari of supporting the Al-Chabab extremists, admitting nonetheless a few months later that these might prove to be useful go-betweens.

After which, Qatar helped to elect the next two presidents, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in 2012 and Farmaajo in 2017. Fahad Yasin Haji Dahi, former correspondent for Al-Jazira in Somalia and in charge of Farmaajo’s presidential campaign is said to have acted as an intermediary between these two presidents and Doha, whence he brought back large sums of money. In 2018 he was appointed second in command of the intelligence service and his brother -in-law, Abdirisak Farah Ali, aka “Tayn,” is the Somali ambassador to Qatar. Riyadh recently refused to accredit the latter as ambassador to the Kingdom because of his close ties with Doa. And so we come full circle.

The issue of harbour controls

The influence exercised in Mogadishu by Doha and Ankara (which has also developed a special relationship with the central government) has prompted Abu Dhabi in particular, already committed to Ryadh’s war in Yemen since 2015, to invest in Somaliland and the other autonomous provinces in order to be present in a key geostrategic area. This could not fail in turn to incite the central Somali government to beef up its relations with Turkey and Qatar.

Already involved with the Puntland authorities since 2010 in a training program for the local seafront police, the Emirates were awarded in April 2017 a contract for the management of the Bossasi harbour. P&O Ports (purchased by the Dubai public company DP World in 2006) is meant to invest 336 million dollars (268 million pounds sterling). However, Somaliland is now the Emirates’ closest partner. While DP World has been awarded a concession for Berbera harbour, Abu Dhabi also earned the right to build a military base there only a few months later.

Having detached itself from Mogadishu nearly thirty years ago, Hargeisa is seeking international recognition and has no other goal than to strengthen its diplomatic ties. The Emirates have greatly developed these, further consolidating Somaliland’s separatist inclinations.

Since the new president took office in February 2017, tensions with Abu Dhabi have increased. Indeed, the Emirates’ geopolitical appetite clashes head-on with Farmaajo, who aims to strengthen the prerogatives of the central power to the detriment of the autonomous provinces. Thus, in April 2018, his authorities confiscated 9.6 million dollars (7.6 million pounds sterling) en route from Abu Dhabi to the Mogadishu airport. According to the Emirates, the money was intended for the Somali army, but the federal government denounced its fraudulent nature, without giving any further details. As a result, the Somali Defence Minister announced the end of the military agreement signed by the two countries in 2014, before the Emirates officially decided to end their training programme in Mogadishu, while preserving their partnership with Puntland. A few days later, Puntland President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali “Gaas” flew to Abu Dhabi for a week-long visit —then inflicting a new snub on the federal government’s authority—. However, it should be noted that Farmaajo was planning to visit the Emirates during the summer. This visit will not have taken place in the end.

The Somali government appears to have opted in favour of Doha, whence the announcement made following a visit by Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani in August 2019, of the forthcoming construction of a harbour at Hobyo (a city in the centre of the province of Galmudug) by the Qatar Ports Management Company. The amount of the investment was not revealed. Officially, this project is aimed at strengthening bilateral relations. Yet Somalia is not the first country to have signed such an agreement, harbour projects have sprung up like mushrooms over the past few years. While the Emirates have laid their hands on the harbours at Berbera and Bossaso, Turkey has taken over the one at Mogadishu while the China Civil Engineering Construction Company (already present in the Puntland region) has signed an agreement with the local authorities to build a harbour at Eyl, a town on the Indian Ocean.

Self-serving mediations

Contrary to what all these projects seem to imply, it is highly unlikely that Somalia will become a major site for transshipment ports in the near future. Despite extensive media coverage, many of these investments will probably never see the light of day. The unstable security situation (the head of P&O Ports in Bossaso was murdered in February 2019), the lack of infrastructures, the paucity of domestic markets and the competition from other regional ports make their materialisation improbable.

Following the “success” of the Saudi-Emirati mediation between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, Abu Dhabi is set on playing mediator in the Horn of Africa, replacing Qatar in that role. In 1999, Doha conducted its first mediation between Khartoum and Asmara. In 2010, the oil sheikdom presided over an agreement putting an end to the conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti by stationing troops in the zone claimed by both countries. Doha also arranged peace talks from 2008 to 2016 between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels. Although the Qataris recently showed an interest in settling the conflict between Mogadishu and Nairobi over the delineation of their maritime border, their role as mediator has considerably declined to the advantage of Abu Dhabi, especially since the Gulf crisis between Doha and its neighbours began in June 2017.

The Emirates are hoping for a regional pax arabica enabling them to capitalise on their good relations with Somaliland and Puntland and ease the border tensions between them. In April 2018, Muse Bihi Abdi and Said Abdullah Deni, respectively heads of those two provinces—or States, according to one’s point of view—made simultaneous trips to the Emirates where they might have had talks. But such a mediation would be very unlikely to succeed for their rivalry goes way back and is regularly fuelled by warlike rhetoric which from time to time gives rise to firefights between their armed forces.

The heaviest price to pay

Although the Gulf countries cannot be held responsible for the conflicts between Mogadishu, its five autonomous provinces and Somaliland, they have undoubtedly helped exacerbate them. Thus, in the months that followed the start of the embargo against Qatar, Puntland, Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South-West Somalia1 officially sided with Doha’s rivals, contrary to Mogadishu which chose to remain neutral. This dispute once again brought to the fore the insoluble problem of power-sharing between the capital and the Federated States, and especially their respective capacities in matters of foreign policy.

Elsewhere in the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan) the impact of the Gulf rivalries can also be felt. They contribute to increasing the autonomy and capacities for action of political entrepreneurs who are both opportunistic and violent (like Al-Chabab) and who profit by internal divisions. This is no doubt why Somalia has had to pay the heaviest price for this conflict.

1Situated as it is in a coveted geopolitical location, Somalia has become, in a scant ten years, a territory wooed by many powerful countries. Among these, Qatar and the United Emirates stand out particularly, as they have been waging a battle of influence there that has had dire consequences on a country which for three decades now has been riddled by war and insecurity.