The UAE has emerged as a key player in the Horn of Africa by forging political alliances, sending aid, making strategic financial investments, signing military base agreements, awarding port contracts, and helping to broker a peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The war in Yemen and the 2017 Gulf crisis when the UAE was among the states to cut ties with Qatar are two of the reasons why the Emirates has pivoted back to the Horn in recent years. The situation in the region is so fluid that Mogadishu has gone from being political persona non grata in Abu Dhabi to being actively courted as a potential ally to bolster the UAE’s hand in regional power struggles.
Emirati moves like offering to reopen the Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Mogadishu, which it closed in 2018, inevitably come with an expectation that Somalia will reciprocate politically.
The UAE wants Somali support for the war in Yemen, but recent years have seen Somalia cement ties with Qatar and Turkey instead.
A major motivation for the Emiratis is the strategically important Socotra Archipelago in Yemen, which sits in the middle of one of the world’s most important oil trading channels and has been a major asset in the Emirates’ military and economic expansion.
Angered by the UAE’s backing of federal regions of Somalia, Mogadishu blocked tens of millions of dollars from reaching Somaliland in April 2018. Such indignance from the Somalis has paid off with the UAE shifting to an approach featuring more carrot and less stick.
Utilising the opportunity for “coronavirus diplomacy” the UAE has collaborated with the World Health Organisation to provide Somalia with vital health supplies as well as providing food relief.
But Somalia has proved to be less than malleable, rejecting Abu Dhabi’s plan for reopening the hospital and speaking out against the war in Yemen.
Ahmed Issa Awad, Somalia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation was clear: “Somalis are not cheap tools used to implement your demands. Yemen is a neighbour and a brotherly country and has its own sovereignty and dignity of its people. The world knows that Socotra is Yemeni land and has been from ancient times.”
But it is not that long since Somalia was supportive of the Saudi-led coalition that has brought about a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Abu Dhabi believes this stance can be teased out of Somalia’s government once again.
Turkey and Qatar are favoured by Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (or “Farmajo”), and Mogadishu can rely on this.
Adapting its tactics, the UAE has sought to encourage Somalia to make a claim for the sovereignty of Socotra. If the UAE can’t win Somalia’s favour, it prefers to stoke conflict rather than allow stability to develop in the country and wider region.
It seems that Somali is alert to the Emirati plan. This year, Osman Dubbe, Somalia’s information minister claimed that “the United Arab Emirates wants Somalia to be like Yemen and Libya and wants to create in Somalia displacement, violence, and backwardness, and that is something the Somali people are wary of.”