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The Geopolitical Maneuvering of Saudi Arabia and the UAE Amid the Crises in the Horn of Africa

26 Feb 2024 21:10

Islam Times - The Saudis, perceiving the Emiratis not as partners and allies but as rivals in the Yemeni conflict, are now, regarding Abu Dhabi's growing influence in the Horn of Africa, keen to avoid falling behind. They aim to hinder Emirati initiatives by forging closer ties with Mogadishu.

In recent years, the Persian Gulf states have increasingly focused on enhancing their ties with African nations and expanding their influence across the continent. Saudi Arabia stands out as one of the key players that has stepped up its engagements in the Horn of Africa region, particularly along the Red Sea shores. These engagements include organizing bilateral and multilateral summits involving top leadership, facilitating peace negotiations, and investing in various humanitarian initiatives.

Following Riyadh's active involvement in the Sudanese civil war, such as establishing an air bridge to evacuate civilians and diplomats from other countries and mediating peace talks between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, Saudi Arabia's activities in Somalia have garnered attention.

Recently, a diplomatic mission from Saudi Arabia visited Somalia, a coastal nation in the Horn of Africa, with proposals for assistance projects.

Although the primary aim of this visit was to offer humanitarian aid, some Somali officials have explicitly expressed their desire for deeper engagement with Saudi Arabia across other sectors, including security.

Abdulfatah Mohamed, the director of policy and planning at the Somali Ministry of Health, shared his thoughts on the one-day visit with a French news agency, highlighting that Somalia, after enduring decades of war and insurgency, is currently undergoing a phase of state-building.

Abdulfatah, commenting on the nation's endeavors to reconstruct its armed forces and economic infrastructure, remarked, "There is room for Saudi Arabia to enhance its efforts in these domains."

Analysts point out various factors motivating Saudi Arabia's efforts to bolster ties with Horn of Africa nations. These factors encompass the quest for stability in the coastal regions adjacent to the Red Sea, aligning with Saudi investments in the tourism sector, and the establishment of coastal resorts to stimulate the growing tourism industry in these nations. Nevertheless, Riyadh's motivations are also heavily influenced by geopolitical rivalries, particularly with recent contenders like the UAE.

The United Arab Emirates has recently emerged as a dynamic and influential actor in the Horn of Africa. Through diplomatic alliances, humanitarian assistance, investment initiatives, military base accords, and port construction agreements, the UAE has expanded its footprint in the region.

One of the most recent demonstrations of Abu Dhabi's heightened involvement took place in the summer of 2018 when Eritrea and Ethiopia, under UAE mediation, announced their pact to end hostilities and resolve the ongoing crisis.

However, beyond this development, the initiation of the UAE's penetration projects in the Horn of Africa traces back to 2011, coinciding with significant shifts in the Arab world spurred by the Arab Spring and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in crisis-afflicted nations. As a consequence, Abu Dhabi's perception of Red Sea coastal countries evolved beyond mere economic partnerships.

The crisis in the Gulf in 2017, leading to the breakdown of ties among Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Qatar, prompted both sides to fortify their alliances, including those in the Horn of Africa. Subsequently, the UAE has consolidated its diplomatic ties with these nations and extended its influence, particularly along the Red Sea coastline. The Emiratis pursued a strategy that involved engagement in the Yemeni conflict and gaining control over Yemeni coastal regions, ports, and islands in the Red Sea through proxy forces.

Presently, representatives from the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) in Saudi Arabia have journeyed to Somalia to offer humanitarian aid. This move comes amid apprehensions regarding potential foreign interference, notably from the United Arab Emirates, in the area.

On January 1st, the autonomous region of Somaliland granted Ethiopia commercial and military access to 20 kilometers (12 miles) of its coastline for 50 years under a signed agreement.

In response, Somaliland authorities suggest that Ethiopia will become the first nation to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state, a decision likely to provoke the federal government in Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, the close ties between the UAE and Ethiopia and Somaliland have raised suspicions of Emirati involvement in this agreement, particularly as the port of Berbera in Somaliland is managed by DP World, a company based in Dubai.

Previously, Abu Dhabi emerged as a significant actor in Sudan's crisis, providing military backing to the Rapid Support Forces led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.

In light of these developments, Saudis, no longer regarding the UAE as a partner but rather as a competitor in the Yemeni conflict, are now striving to prevent themselves from lagging behind in Abu Dhabi's expanding influence in African affairs. They seek to counter Emirati initiatives by strengthening ties with Mogadishu. In this context, Riyadh voiced "serious concern" in January regarding the potential erosion of "unity" and "sovereignty" in Somalia, a position commended by Hamza Abdi Barre, the country's Prime Minister, during the Saudi delegation's visit to Mogadishu.

Even prior to the onset of the Somaliland dispute, Saudi Arabia appointed its first ambassador to Somalia in three decades in 2021.

Conversely, towards the end of the previous year, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia's President, dispatched a delegation led by his senior advisor, Owais Haji Yusuf Ahmed, to Riyadh to enhance relations.

Given the imminent conclusion of the African Union’s Peace Operations mission in Somalia this year, Mogadishu is anticipated to solicit military assistance from Saudi Arabia, particularly to aid in the training of 22,000 army personnel, as outlined in the United Nations Security Council resolution, aiming to strengthen its armed forces.

Earlier this month, four Emirati soldiers and one Bahraini officer, who were involved in training the Somali army, were killed in Mogadishu during an attack by Al-Shabaab militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the clandestine interests of Persian Gulf countries in the Horn of Africa region are progressively expanding. Cameron Hudson, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, asserts, "There is currently a game of cat and mouse between the Emiratis and Saudis in this region."

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