UAE’s Military Initiatives in Somalia: Strengthening Security and Counter-Terrorism Efforts

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The UAE is the most recognised international military actor in Somalia. In June 2023, the UAE undertook its first publicly reported airstrike in Somalia, striking a jihadist-controlled village in the country’s Galguduud territory with a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone. This was the first overt UAE kinetic military operation performed in Somalia and follows aggravating UAE involvement over the past year. The airstrike signalled that Abu Dhabi is ready to upgrade its involvement in the fight against the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group al-Shabab. 

In 1993-94, the UAE donated the 640-man al-Wajeb Battalion to the 37,000-strong Unified Task Force (UNITAF) humanitarian assignment in Somalia. It also contributed to the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) peacekeeping mission, delivering several units and a field hospital. Three Emirati soldiers died in action. As the Somali civil war ground on and international forces retreated, the UAE assumed more of a donor role.

Afterwards, the UAE was engaged at various levels with the federal administration of Somalia; the autonomous Puntland region; and Somaliland, which had proclaimed its independence from Somalia in 1991: In 2010, in the wake of increasing piracy off the Somali coast, the UAE started supporting training for the Puntland Maritime Police Force by a South African defence contractor. That contract concluded scandalously in 2012, though UAE  continued funding the force and preserved good ties with the Puntland administration. In 2017, DP World, through its subsidiary P&O Ports, marked a thirty-year contract to design and manage Puntland’s port of Bosaso on the Gulf of Aden coast.

In 2016, Emirati firm DP World inscribed a deal with Somaliland to heighten the port of Berbera. In addition, the UAE committed to constructing a military base next to the city’s airport and seafront; preparing the Somaliland police and army; and constructing a highway from Berbera to the Ethiopian border town of Wajaale. The project would increase the Emirati presence in the Gulf of Aden, as Berbera is 300 miles south of the Emirati base in Assab, Eritrea. The Emirati sight in Berbera, Assab, and Bosaso has allowed counter-piracy, interdicted Iranian arms smuggling to Houthi insurgents in Yemen, and ferried in Sudanese soldiers for anti-Houthi operations in southern Yemen.

The UAE officially started a program to train Somali federal government forces in 2014. A year later, it extended a training centre in Mogadishu, where Emirati forces have instructed Somali commandos. It also equipped vehicles for Jubaland state forces and the federal government’s Ministry of Internal Security and Police. By 2018, the UAE stated it had trained thousands of Somali soldiers, created training centres and a hospital, and spent 2,407 soldiers’ salaries.

UAE Relations with the federal government were further enhanced after Hassan Sheikh Mohamud returned to power in the May 15, 2022, presidential election with significant Emirati financial backing. In February 2023, Mogadishu supported an official security cooperation contract with Abu Dhabi, and a month later, Emirati military vehicles reached the Jubaland region to begin building a new base to be owned and operated by the UAE.

Overall, UAE contributions in Somalia have been mainly positive, if less noticeable. They include assisting in funding the development of the Somali National Army (SNA) and boosting Berbera’s airport, which U.S. Africa Command is currently considering using. Some UAE functions are low profile, such as those in Puntland against Iranian weapons smugglers.

Abu Dhabi’s funding has achieved its allies at various levels of Somali politics, including, as noted, President Hassan Sheikh. In addition, Ahmed Mohamed Islaam—the president of Jubaland state, where the UAE is constructing its base in Somalia—has a strong connection with Abu Dhabi and previously received Emirati military aid.

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