On December 12, 2019, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington held its fourth UAE Security Forum, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa.” Convened in Abu Dhabi, the forum brought together a diverse group of policymakers, officials, researchers, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations to analyze the long-term implications of the renewed international interest in the Horn of Africa. In particular, discussions focused on the growing influence of Gulf countries as they build strategic relationships in a region of critical importance.
Over the past decade, the Horn of Africa’s strategic location and promising signs of economic development have attracted the attention of Gulf Arab states and other foreign powers like China, the United States, and Turkey. Maintaining security in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, at the mouth of the Red Sea, is imperative to ensuring freedom of navigation in a vital shipping lane for international trade and preventing attacks and disruptions to the regional and global economy. Grasping the political and economic significance of the Horn of Africa, international and regional players are investing in agriculture and port infrastructure, while increasing their military presence and diplomatic outreach.
The competition for influence raises risks in a fragmented region that is struggling with weak institutional capacity, insecurity, massive population displacement, and poverty. Ethiopia and Sudan, two key countries for the Horn of Africa’s stability, are going through political transitions that make them particularly vulnerable to outside interference. Somalia is still facing deep instability and serves as a cautionary tale on how external rivalries can negatively impact fragile states. However, deepening foreign engagement in the region can create opportunities for increased economic and political cooperation, as the recent formation of a Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden illustrates. On January 6, foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, and Yemen met in Riyadh to sign a charter that establishes the foundations of a sustained regional dialogue about investment strategies, foreign interference, and security in vital commercial waterways.
Speakers and discussants at the UAE Security Forum mentioned this initiative as a promising path toward mutually beneficial relationships and a common vision of prosperity and stability around the Red Sea. They also highlighted the potential of big infrastructure projects, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Discussions emphasized meaningful ways to support Ethiopia’s and Sudan’s transitions, suggesting rapid measures to improve the economy in both countries and address the specific demands of an emerging generation. Participants concurred about the need to coordinate stabilization efforts in Somalia and avoid conflicting interests, even more so given the parliamentary elections expected in 2020, which would be the first to be held with popular participation since 1969. Finally, several participants pleaded for the creation of a new multilateral system in the region that would build on the successful international anti-piracy campaign off the coast of Somalia.