Gulf med­dling in So­mali pol­i­tics is in no-one’s best in­ter­ests

RASHID ABDI

The East African - - OPINION -

One year ago, Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates and their al­lies sev­ered diplo­matic re­la­tions with Qatar. Their ri­valry has turned So­ma­lia, one of the Horn’s most frag­ile states, into a proxy bat­tle­ground for the Gulf monar­chies.

This has ag­gra­vated So­ma­lia’s al­ready frac­tious do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, wors­en­ing Mo­gadishu’s re­la­tions with its fed­eral states and the break­away re­gion of So­ma­liland. Long adept at ma­nip­u­lat­ing for­eign in­volve­ment, So­mali politi­cians across the spec­trum have ex­ploited the es­ca­lat­ing ri­val­ries for their own ends. All sides ur­gently need to step back to pre­vent events from tak­ing a darker turn.

Fol­low­ing the June 2017 split within the Gulf Co-op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, newly elected So­mali Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Ab­dul­lahi “Far­majo” faced in­tense Saudi and Emi­rati pres­sure, re­port­edly push­ing him to cut all po­lit­i­cal ties with Qatar. Far­majo re­fused, claim­ing that he pre­ferred So­ma­lia to re­main neu­tral. But for the UAE, re­ports that the pres­i­dent had re­ceived Qatari sup­port ahead of the elec­tion and the ap­point­ment of of­fi­cials known to be close to Doha be­lied his claims of im­par­tial­ity.

Abu Dhabi fears that in­creased Qatari and Turk­ish sup­port to the So­mali gov­ern­ment will em­bolden po­lit­i­cal Is­lamists, whose in­flu­ence it views as a threat. It is con­cerned, too, that it is los­ing ground to its two main geopo­lit­i­cal ri­vals in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

In re­sponse, the UAE has pur­sued a dual strat­egy: It has re­duced its ties and aid to Mo­gadishu – its re­la­tions with the Far­majo gov­ern­ment have de­te­ri­o­rated sharply – while deep­en­ing its al­ready close com­mer­cial and po­lit­i­cal links with the five fed­eral states. While Far­majo’s re­luc­tance to cut ties with Qatar and Tur­key is un­der­stand­able, par­tic­u­larly given the scale of Turk­ish aid and in­vest­ment, his in­creas­ing reliance on both coun­tries has fur­ther soured re­la­tions with the UAE.

The mount­ing ten­sion with Abu Dhabi in­ter­sects a num­ber of So­mali po­lit­i­cal fault lines:

First, it has am­pli­fied dis­putes be­tween the gov­ern­ment and ri­val fac­tions in the cap­i­tal, com­pli­cat­ing a cri­sis in the par­lia­ment that threat­ened to turn vi­o­lent in late 2017. The gov­ern­ment has be­come in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian, us­ing ri­vals’ al­leged ties to the UAE to jus­tify vi­o­lent crack­downs on key op­po­nents ac­cused of work­ing with Abu Dhabi to desta­bilise the gov­ern­ment, and oust­ing the Speaker of the lower house and the mayor of Mo­gadishu.

Sec­ond – and still more per­ilously – it has con­trib­uted to­ward a mount­ing ten­sion be­tween Far­majo and fed­eral states, some of which de­pend on Emi­rati in­vest­ment. Fed­eral state lead­ers have banded to­gether to pres­surise Far­majo to change tack, ar­gu­ing that the pres­i­dent had uni­lat­er­ally taken a po­si­tion on the Gulf cri­sis that ill serves their in­ter­ests and those of So­ma­lia it­self.

Third, Gulf ri­val­ries and Far­majo’s hard­line pos­ture have also ex­ac­er­bated the deep­en­ing row be­tween Mo­gadishu and So­ma­liland, cul­mi­nat­ing in Pres­i­dent Muse Bihi Abdi’s as­ser­tion that Mo­gadishu’s at­tempt to block an agree­ment on the port of Ber­bera with the Emi­rati con­glom­er­ate DP World amounted to a dec­la­ra­tion of war.

Clearly, So­ma­lia’s many chal­lenges can­not all be pinned on Gulf pow­ers, par­tic­u­larly given that their aid and in­vest­ment for years has been a life­line for many So­ma­lis. Nor are So­mali elites, long adept at nav­i­gat­ing for­eign clien­telism, help­less vic­tims. That said, the ex­ten­sion of the Mid­dle East’s fault lines across the Red Sea have un­set­tled al­ready fraught re­la­tions among Horn states and led their lead­ers to re­cal­i­brate their poli­cies to­ward neigh­bours and out­side pow­ers alike.

Lead­ers in the re­gion recog­nise the risks, not just for So­ma­lia but also for the Horn more broadly. Kenya’s Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta is the lat­est African leader to warn of the dan­ger of re­newed in­sta­bil­ity in So­ma­lia. The African Union’s chair­per­son, Moussa Faki Ma­hamat, echoes Keny­atta’s sen­ti­ments, point­ing to the wider dan­gers of for­eign ac­tors’ ri­val­ries play­ing out in the coun­try.

The Far­majo gov­ern­ment should ac­knowl­edge the need for coali­tion build­ing, the cul­ti­va­tion of na­tional unity, and tighter lim­its on for­eign funds in its pol­i­tics as es­sen­tial steps to al­le­vi­at­ing the im­pact of out­side in­ter­fer­ence. It should adopt a more con­cil­ia­tory ap­proach to ri­vals, in­clud­ing by rekin­dling talks with the fed­eral states and reschedul­ing a meet­ing pre­vi­ously planned be­tween Far­majo and Muse Bihi. It should also ob­serve strict neu­tral­ity in the in­tra-gcc spat; its se­nior of­fi­cials should dial down their antiemi­rati rhetoric.

For their part, the Gulf pow­ers and Tur­key must ex­er­cise restraint across the Horn, par­tic­u­larly in So­ma­lia. The frac­tious na­ture of So­mali pol­i­tics means that no axis can fully dom­i­nate. At­tempt­ing to con­sol­i­date con­trol is likely to fur­ther frac­ture the So­mali state, which would serve no­body’s in­ter­ests.

Talks be­tween Abu Dhabi and Mo­gadishu are es­sen­tial. Saudi Ara­bia, which en­joys the rel­a­tive trust of both So­mali and Emi­rati lead­ers, should pro­mote di­a­logue be­tween the two; Riyadh could be an emis­sary and po­ten­tial fa­cil­i­ta­tor of talks. West­ern pow­ers with close ties to both the So­mali gov­ern­ment and Gulf monar­chies should pro­mote a Mo­gadishu-abu Dhabi di­a­logue, and back any at­tempt by Riyadh to me­di­ate. Euro­pean Union of­fi­cials, also re­port­edly trusted by both sides, can play a fa­cil­i­ta­tion role too.

Even with­out Gulf med­dling, ef­forts to rec­on­cile clans and over­come cen­tre-pe­riph­ery ten­sions – a pre­req­ui­site for peace in So­ma­lia – face an up­hill bat­tle. If the coun­try be­comes a bat­tle­ground for richer, more pow­er­ful states, and they and So­mali fac­tions pur­sue a ze­ro­sum game ill-suited to the coun­try’s mul­ti­po­lar pol­i­tics, the blood­shed and dis­cord that have long blighted So­ma­lia will deepen, al­most cer­tainly play­ing into the hands of Al Shabaab. All in­volved need to re­verse course be­fore this hap­pens.

The mount­ing ten­sion with Abu Dhabi in­ter­sects a num­ber of po­lit­i­cal fault lines.” So­ma­lia’s many chal­lenges can­not of course all be pinned on Gulf pow­ers, par­tic­u­larly given that their aid and in­vest­ment for years has been a life­line for many So­ma­lis

Rashid Abdi is the Horn of Africa project di­rec­tor at the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group

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