The Gaza war has demonstrated the strategic utility and resilience of the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, its longer-term sustainability may depend on unpredictable regional dynamics or other outside factors.
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On April 8, a group of officials from the United Arab Emirates flew on a government jet from Abu Dhabi to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Onboard were three bags containing $9.6 million for the salaries of 2,407 Somali National Army soldiers, including the counterterrorism troops that UAE special forces have been training since 2015. This training, at a UAE-run military base in Mogadishu, is part of the UAE’s efforts since the end of Somalia’s civil war to support both federal and regional state security forces as well as the broader campaign against violent extremism.
The Somali and Emirati accounts over what happened next at the airport differ, but an argument and scuffle appear to have broken out after Somali airport security personnel demanded to search the diplomatic bags and the Emirati officials refused. The bags were allegedly confiscated at gunpoint and the officials and their plane detained. The event at Mogadishu’s airport sparked a week of recriminations, and rumors about possible additional moves against the UAE’s interests in Puntland – the semiautonomous state in northeastern Somalia with coastlines on the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Local Somali media reported that Emirati forces had another standoff at the Bosaso naval base in northeastern Puntland, where the UAE trains the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which combats piracy and conducts operations against al-Shabab and the breakaway affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Emirati trainers were reportedly prevented from leaving the base. Whatever happened, the Puntland president quickly issued an apology. “We apologize for any inconvenience that may have inadvertently faced them [the Emiratis] in Somalia,” Puntland President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said on April 16 after a visit to the Bosaso base, adding that the “UAE is [an] indispensable ally of Somalia, no other country can replace their support to Puntland.” On April 21, Ali flew to Abu Dhabi for talks.
But in Mogadishu, the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, announced that the units trained by the UAE special forces in Mogadishu were being permanently disbanded and dispersed among other federal military units, perhaps bringing an end to a key aspect of Abu Dhabi’s relationship with the federal government and what has been a significant Emirati role in strengthening the central government’s fledgling security capacity. In response, the UAE Foreign Ministry announced that it was suspending all security assistance to Somali federal forces. This was followed by the suspension of operations at the Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Mogadishu, which treated, for free, around 300 Somalis a day.
The next day, the mayor of Doha traveled to Mogadishu to hold a joint press conference with his counterpart announcing Qatar’s donation of 30 passenger buses to the city. The timeline of events suggests that aspects of the Gulf crisis are reverberating regionally, in this instance reaching into Somali domestic and even clan politics. The ending of UAE aid and assistance to Mogadishu comes five months after the United States suspended its own financial aid to the Somali military because of persistent corruption, although it appears that the impoverished federal government has concluded the loss of such large streams of funding will be offset by increased support from Doha.
Rumors circulated on social and Somali media that the UAE would stop issuing visas to Somalis and that residency visas for Somali nationals in the UAE would not be renewed. Whether or not that actually happens, the anxious reactions by many Somalis underscore how important the UAE remains as a trade partner and a crucial business and financial hub for Somalia and its global diaspora. And even if other patrons can make up for the loss of Emirati, U.S., or other donors’ aid, mitigating the impact of restrictions on access to Dubai will be much more difficult.
While Saudi Arabia is the largest destination for Somalia’s largest export, livestock, Dubai is a logistics and import-export hub for Somali business communities and a central node in the hawala and formal remittance systems that are a lifeline for Somalis. At an investors conference in Dubai in April 2017, a cross section of Mogadishu’s business community was represented, from telecom moguls to cattle exporters to the city’s only dry-cleaning service, which sources its material from the emirate.
Last week, there had appeared to be some momentum toward de-escalation after Farmajo government officials said that talks with the UAE were underway after the April 15 Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia. On April 16, the Somali Foreign Ministry released a statement that emphasized that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia are the inviolable foundations of the well-being of Somalia and the security of the wider region,” but added that “the Federal Government of Somalia has sought to clarify facts surrounding recent developments in order to remove any room for misunderstanding between the two governments and peoples. This effort continues.”
Two days later, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, told BBC Arabic that the country’s policy toward Somalia had not changed. Despite increasingly close bilateral security and economic ties with breakaway and semiautonomous regions that have angered Farmajo’s government, the UAE maintains a one-Somalia policy, recognizing Mogadishu as the capital. However, he also indicated that the development of a military base and DP World-run port in Somaliland had been agreed upon with Farmajo’s predecessor, and that the one-Somalia policy does not preclude helping Somali states with development and humanitarian aid. Mogadishu has, in vain, tried to stop the Berbera port development, which triggered the precipitous deterioration of ties between Abu Dhabi and the central government since Ethiopia was given a 19 percent stake in the port. The Somali foreign minister reiterated this position on April 21, saying that if the Dubai-owned DP World includes Mogadishu in the Berbera project, “after that, Somalia welcomes any investment in any part of Somalia, including Berbera.”
In April 2017, during a visit to the UAE for talks with officials and potential investors, a Somali federal cabinet minister described the importance of the UAE’s role in helping stabilize Somalia, and its contribution to the security sector in particular. He did not openly criticize the Berbera projects, but reiterated that the federal government must be consulted as a matter of sovereignty. He implied that a formula that all sides would find acceptable was not out of reach. The minister was in Dubai as part of the then-recently installed Somali government’s charm offensive with the UAE, an attempt to clear the air after the contentious election during which the candidate allegedly backed by the Emirates lost to Farmajo, who is apparently supported by Qatar and Turkey. According to a lobbyist in Washington, the Farmajo government had been looking to hire U.S. firms to lobby the UAE government on behalf of Mogadishu. But those efforts fell to the wayside completely in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE called on Somalia and regional state governments to cut ties with Qatar. Farmajo refused, but three semiautonomous states, along with Somaliland – Puntland, Galmudug, and Hirshabelle – agreed, angering Mogadishu.
Until now, the UAE has balanced its relations with Mogadishu with its ties to Somaliland and other semiautonomous states and their underlying clan interests. The UAE, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States were the only individual state members of the “S6” group of donors to Somalia’s security sector that was formed in 2016. The now disbanded UAE funding and training programs were a part of the Emirati efforts under this framework to help enhance Mogadishu’s ability to secure fragile political and economic gains.
But with a 2020 deadline for the withdrawal of African Union forces and little sign that the Somali National Army can maintain or consolidate gains that have been made in combating al-Shabab, the S6 pushed for a new approach that would strengthen local security forces in semiautonomous states to more effectively counter the militant group’s strategy of exploiting local grievances and clan dynamics. This dovetailed with stabilization efforts already being bolstered by the UAE, such as training the Puntland Maritime Police Force, as well as projects, beginning in 2015, to develop strategic military naval bases and commercial ports along the Somali coast.
The UAE has played a role as patron in Somalia since the civil war of the 1990s. Until now it had been possible for the UAE to strengthen, outside of the Somali federal government’s ambit, its bilateral ties with various Somali regions and pursue interests independent of Mogadishu. As regional dynamics grow more complicated, however, that balance looks increasingly unlikely to last.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington as well as a journalist who has written extensively on the contemporary politics of the Gulf Arab states and Pakistan.
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