Power inequality between oil-rich Gulf states and bigger, but far less wealthy, states in the Horn of Africa has been a cause of instability in recent years, notably in Somalia. Looking to expand its influence in the region, the United Arab Emirates has a complex relationship with Somalia, hoping to win its friendship, but undermining that goal by using bullying tactics that threaten to further rupture Somalia's political and geographical division.
Gulf states can be a force for good in the Horn of Africa, but when their rivalries are played out in East Africa, they can be a toxic presence and instability can follow.
While the UAE has a generally strong presence in the Horn, it has not enjoyed positive relations with Mogadishu in recent years. Emirati sponsorship of internal Somali reconciliation would be a significant boost, but Abu Dhabi's primary interest in Somalia is not peace.
The UAE has sought to increase its influence throughout the Horn of Africa by forging political alliances, sending aid, investing, signing military base agreements, awarding port contracts, and in 2018 it was one of the brokers of a peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The Horn has become more of a priority to the UAE due to war and political turmoil in the Middle East, increased Iranian power, piracy emanating from Somalia, the war in Yemen, and the 2017 Gulf crisis when the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar. In this context, both sides have sought to strengthen their hands in East Africa by forming alliances and bolstering their power bases.
Somalia was on collision course with the UAE when, from the Emirates' point of view, it favoured Qatar in the dispute. Somali closeness to Qatar and Turkey was seen as a threat to Emirati investments in Somalia. The Emirates pursued closer ties with regional governments within Somalia, but without the level of transparency that Mogadishu considered necessary. The result was increased tension between Mogadishu and the regions.
As well as Gulf political rivalries and the expansion of political influence playing out, the UAE has played a historical role in Somalia as a banking hub for many Somali businesses. And the Emiratis, before they joined as one state, relied on the flow of trade through two key routes: the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and Bab al-Mandub, linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The UAE seeks stability in its relations with Somalia, but it is also so ambitious and its power dwarfs that of the Somalis, so it continues to search for the right way to meet all of its regional power goals. The Emiratis' approach and the presence of other ambitious powers in the Horn of Africa have meant the UAE are still trying to manoeuvre into a strong position in Somalia, with destabilising effects on the host country. We will look at recent developments in part two.