‘Rivalry and posturing’ by Gulf powers add to risks in Horn of Africa

The standoff in Sudan between authoritarian generals and a non-violent opposition provides another test for the foreign policies pursued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their rivalries with Qatar and Turkey are also visible in Somalia and elsewhere. Regional governments and strongmen may be keen to get their hands on Gulf finance, but observers are increasingly concerned about authoritarian monarchies’ pursuit of ‘stability’.

The intense competition for influence among Gulf states and other regional players continues apace in the Horn of Africa, with potentially billions of dollars in financial support and investment flowing from the UAE and Saudi Arabia into Sudan, Ethiopia and their neighbours. But as the network of military bases and ports along the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden gets ever more substantial, criticism of Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states’ impact on the region is also growing (GSN 1,082/51,055/6).

The turmoil in Sudan is a key test of the activist foreign policies being pursued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The two countries have emerged as the Transitional Military Council (TMC) junta’s leading backers, with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh staking their reputations on the TMC’s ability to outflank the largely non-violent democratic movement. Abu Dhabi has become an important provider of military equipment, imported via Port Sudan, with supplies including UAE-made armoured personnel carriers used by the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia.

The TMC is formally led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Al-Burhan, who has strong links with the Saudi/UAE leadership. The Gulf allies are even more closely associated with TMC deputy chairman, former Janjaweed and current RSF commander General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo (known as Hemedti) – who was judged an international pariah following the genocide in Darfur. Hemedti, working with Al-Burhan, led Sudanese forces into the Yemen conflict in support of the UAE before emerging as the new strongman in Khartoum.

GCC states are also deeply involved in other arenas of political unrest, to the chagrin of some locals. Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign affairs Monica Juma hit out at interference by Gulf and allied governments while on a trip to London on 27 June. She was sufficiently diplomatic not to name specific countries, but her remarks seemed aimed particularly at Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side, and Qatar and Turkey on the other. Her concerns focused on the way in which the GCC schism is being played out via their support for different groups in Somalia, a conflict of keen interest to Kenya (GSN 1,060/71,055/14).

“The rivalry and posturing in this region is generating huge political risks,” Juma told an audience at defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “In the case of Somalia, there is no doubt that we have seen is what you could generally define as two alliances from outside, particularly from the Middle East, that are translating into support of various forces within the governance structures of Somalia.” Juma observed “this has caused intense political fracture and diminished the imperative for co-operation between the centre and the periphery.”

The most significant effect of the Gulf rivalry playing out in Somalia “has been the emboldening of the Al-Shabaab”, Juma said, referring to Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen, the jihadist group that emerged out of the Somali Islamic Courts Union and affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is opposed to the internationally-recognised Federal Government of Somalia; it has also been active in a string of major terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Gulf support for Al-Shabaab is not just a matter of political alliances. Somali charcoal is prized above other sources by shisha pipe users in the UAE and elsewhere (GSN 1,037/10). The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea last October said charcoal was “a significant source of revenue” for Al-Shabaab. A report by the UN group said much of this trade is routed through the Kish and Qeshm free zones in Iran, where fake certificates of origin are generated to make the charcoal appear to come from countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia and Ghana; it is then re-exported to Dubai’s Hamriyah port.

Ethiopians lose jobs in the kingdom

The Gulf matters to many people in East Africa. Saudi Arabia’s policy of reducing the number of migrant workers in the kingdom – in a misfiring strategy to create more jobs for locals (GSN 1,074/1) – is having an impact on Horn of Africa countries which had been large sources of migrant labour. In a 24 June dispatch, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Karen Young wrote that on a recent trip to Addis Ababa she was told of a visible increase among homeless and unemployed people on the Ethiopian capital’s streets – “especially of young men returning from the Gulf”.

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