Food Security, Infrastructure and Containment: Why GCC States are Engaging in the Horn of Africa in a Big Way

Published October 3rd, 2019 - 10:05 GMT
Djibouti  Port: The UAE hopes to develop a ‘String of Pearls’ network of strategic ports on the African Red Sea coast to advance its strategic interests /AFP
Djibouti Port: The UAE hopes to develop a ‘String of Pearls’ network of strategic ports on the African Red Sea coast to advance its strategic interests /AFP


At its narrowest point, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which separates the Arab Gulf States from the Horn of Africa is a little over 20 kilometres wide. Yet despite the proximity of these strategically important regions, for many decades the Gulf States remained disinterested in events across the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Emirates long remained far more interested in expanding their influence, financial reach and strategic presence into the Levant, the Persian Gulf and North Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Horn of Africa was a sphere of intense Cold War competition.



Whilst America’s trusted regional ally Saudi Arabia proved an important staging ground for American interventions in the Horn and fervently took part in an ideological campaign to use religion networks to thwart Soviet influence in the region, the Gulf states largely left Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan to be jostled over by the USA and USSR.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Emirates long remained far more interested in expanding their influence, financial reach and strategic presence into the Levant, the Persian Gulf and North Africa

In the post-Cold War era, the Horn of Africa suffered from acute political crises, state failure and regional conflict, proving a particularly inhospitable environment for political outreach and economic investment. The fall of the Derg regime in Ethiopia, the collapse of Said Barre’s regime in Somalia and the collapse of that state into decades of brutal civil war and tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea made a financial and diplomatic push in the Horn of Africa a risky prospect.

Yet as tensions cooled and a veneer of stability re-emerged, investments in the region by the Gulf States and Turkey, an emerging economic powerhouse, grew drastically. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, more overt attempts to garner political, military and financial influence in the Horn by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Ankara and Doha have emerged- and according to a report by the International Crisis Group, these states threaten to bring their destabilising rivalries with them as they traverse the Red Sea.

Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, more overt attempts to garner political, military and financial influence in the Horn by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Ankara and Doha have emerged- and according to a report by the International Crisis Group, these states threaten to bring their destabilising rivalries with them as they traverse the Red Sea.

Financial opportunities first drew Middle Eastern powers to the Horn of Africa. The Gulf States proved particularly keen to diversify their economic investments away from oil exports, whilst Turkish officials sought new markets for successful Turkish companies which emerged early this century, the so-called ‘Anatolian tigers.'

Gulf actors, heavily reliant on foreign food imports, proved particularly interested in the Horn’s potential as a breadbasket for food production and agriculture. A global food crisis between 2008-2010 proved particularly important in this regard.
 

As Gulf states sought to reduce their traditional reliance on hydrocarbon sales, impressive economic performance in the Horn of Africa proved a continuous drawcard. Ethiopia has, over the last decade, experienced some of the most sustained gains in GDP growth in the world.

As global prices for wheat and corn more than tripled, Gulf States grew concerned, and took to buying land and water resources in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. As Gulf states sought to reduce their traditional reliance on hydrocarbon sales, impressive economic performance in the Horn of Africa proved a continuous drawcard. Ethiopia has, over the last decade, experienced some of the most sustained gains in GDP growth in the world.

As Elizabeth Dickinson, the senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group notes, ‘the Horn of Africa is home to a fast-growing middle class whose needs are currently underserved by the port and road infrastructure in the region’.

Middle Eastern powers proved more than happy to exchange infrastructure investment and financial support for expanding markets and rental opportunities. the UAE turned to financing commercial port projects, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in regional agriculture, whilst Turkey turned to low-cost logistics infrastructure development. According to Clingendael, a Dutch foreign policy think tank, between 2000-2017, Gulf States invested $13 billion in the Horn of Africa

According to Clingendael, a Dutch foreign policy think tank, between 2000-2017, Gulf States invested $13 billion in the Horn of Africa

Whilst economic opportunities drew Middle Eastern investors in, strategic defence considerations kept Turkey and the states of the Gulf actively involved in the region. As many commentators note, capital is very rarely exclusively private in the Gulf and investments in military infrastructure have proved important in advancing the divergent foreign policy agendas of Middle Eastern states.
 


Qatari troops /AFP


Saudi Arabia, frustrated with setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, seeks to thwart Iran’s regional influence in an increasingly important theatre. The UAE seeks to marginalise Islamist groups in the Horn to prevent their influence spreading across the Red Sea, whilst Qatar and Turkey seek to empower these groups and destabilize Saudi-Emirati backed autocrats in Sudan and Eritrea.

The UAE seeks to marginalise Islamist groups in the Horn to prevent their influence spreading across the Red Sea, whilst Qatar and Turkey seek to empower these groups and destabilize Saudi-Emirati backed autocrats in Sudan and Eritrea

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also sought to use the Horn as a strategic staging point for operations in Yemen, particularly from the Eritrean military base of Assab.

The UAE hopes to develop a ‘String of Pearls’ network of strategic ports on the African Red Sea coast to advance its strategic interests. The UAE based company P&O ports took over management of the port of Bosaso in the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland and has provides support for Puntland Maritime Police.

In August, Qatar, much closer to the Somali federal government in Mogadishu, announced plans to build a new seaport at Hobyo, in the central region of Mudug. A 2017 agreement between Sudan and Turkey which gave a Turkish company a 99-year lease over the Port of Suakin remains in place. The Gulf States and Turkey all seek to use their policies in the Horn of Africa to buffer their own regional ambitions and preclude their rivals from gaining a foothold. That augurs badly for the prospects of stability in a long conflict-ridden region.
 

The Gulf States and Turkey all seek to use their policies in the Horn of Africa to buffer their own regional ambitions and preclude their rivals from gaining a foothold. That augurs badly for the prospects of stability in a long conflict-ridden region

In some instances, Middle Eastern powers have played a constructive role in the region. Financial investments have proved beneficial in a region characterised by severe shortages of hard currency and an infrastructure short fall.

Diplomatically, Qatar was widely praised for the constructive role it has played in deploying peace keeping services to the Eritrea-Djibouti border to stem cross-territorial conflict between 2010-2017, and its valuable contribution to the Darfur peace process in Sudan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, pledging large aid and investment packages in Ethiopia and Eritrea helped mediate an end to a deadly 20-year conflict between these two states. Increasing engagement in Somalia, long left out in the cold internationally, should be treated with a cautious optimism.

the harms of policies pursued, in particular by the Gulf states, in the Horn of Africa far outweigh these putative benefits

Yet the harms of policies pursued, in particular by the Gulf states, in the Horn of Africa far outweigh these putative benefits. Seeking to out-fox regional rivals has involved the funding and support of proxies in the Horn of Africa who have further destabilised its fragile political institutions.

Saudi and Emirati backing for regional autocrats such as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Sudan’s Transitional Military Council has helped secure narrow short-term interests but threatens future bloodshed and instability. Qatari and Turkish sponsorship for sub-state Islamist groups to do their regional bidding has had a similarly deleterious effect.

In Somalia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s backing for the security forces of autonomous regions such as Puntland may bring further damage to the fragile political structures slowly being built in Mogadishu. Investments in the Horn of Africa often line the pockets of financial elites in the Gulf but leave local populations worse off.

Sales of land and water resources have had the effect of forcing out local populations, generating resource scarcity and exacerbating inter-communal tensions. Finally, a rush to acquire military infrastructure, strategic ports, and local armed allies risks a further militarisation of the Horn. Given the region’s tumultuous history, this should be a concern for the international community.

The Horn of Africa cries out desperately for greater international diplomatic engagement, increasing investment, and the development of functioning and stable institutions. Unfortunately, it looks likely that an increasing presence of self-interested states in the region will only exacerbate its ongoing struggles.  


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

 


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