Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Many Somalis think that the United Arab Emirates is now as much or more in charge in Somalia than the Somali government.
I spoke to Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, Chairman of the Institute for Horn of Africa Strategic Studies, about the United Arab Emirates’ extensive influence in Somalia.
ANN GARRISON: Dr. Abdisamad, to make this intelligible to American readers, I think we probably have to start with a summary description of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Most readers will know it as a tiny country ruled by a sheik with a lot of oil. To elaborate on that, it seems to be a confederation of vastly oil-wealthy sheikhdoms where the hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi is president and the hereditary ruler of Dubai is vice president and prime minister.
There are roughly 1.5 million Emirati citizens and a guest worker population of between 7 and 8 million, largely from India and other parts of South Asia, but also from Somalia and other nations in the Horn. I believe the 1.5 million or so citizens all get oil royalty checks and are therefore quite comfortable, but the 7 or 8 million guest workers have no rights and are treated miserably.
Dissenters are routinely thrown in prison or disappeared, and there are no freedoms of assembly, association, press, speech, or religion, but the country is stable because all the Emirati citizens get oil royalty checks.
With such a small native population, it has few ground forces, but it has used its vast oil wealth to build a state-of-the-art air force, largely by buying F-16s, drones, and the like from the United States, and it’s considered a “middle power.” It recently expanded its navy and joined a joint naval force with Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, India and Pakistan to patrol the Gulf region.
Is there anything you’d disagree with in that summary, or anything you’d like to add?
DR. ABDIWAHAB SHEIKH ABDISAMAD: No, that is a good description.
AG: Now can you characterize Somalia by contrast?
ASA: Somalia has a population of 17 million people, most of whom are very poor. More than 80% are ethnic Somalis, with some minorities concentrated in its southern states. Most are traditionally pastoralists who live by tending livestock, with minority populations of farmers and fisherfolk, but now roughly eight million live in urban areas.
The country is divided into six federal states with a national government in Mogadishu, which is very weak. Nevertheless, many Somalis are struggling to be a nation despite pressures from outside, including that of the US, that encourage its fragmentation.
The country is oil rich, but most of its oil remains untapped. Various powers and corporations have been hovering around its oil resources, looking for future profits, most of which will not benefit the Somali people unless it has a stronger national government.
Its coastline is the longest in Africa, sitting on the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, at the interface of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and its ports are hugely valuable resources that are also coveted by various foreign powers, including the US and the UAE.
Having a very weak state, it also has a very weak military, with many outside forces, most of all the US, present in the country to, they say, fight the terrorist group Al Shabaab.
AG: Somali and Arabic are the two languages of Somalia. Could you tell us a few things about the history of Somalia and the Arab world it faces just across the Gulf of Aden?
ASA: Somalia has a long history of cultural, religious, and trade ties with the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Although Somalis ethnically are not Arabs, they identify more with Arabs, including those on the African continent, than with their fellow Sub-Saharan Africans. Thus it was not surprising when Somalia joined the League of Arab States (Arab League) in 1974, becoming the first non-Arab member of that organization. Initially, Somalia tended to support those Arab countries such as Algeria, Iraq, and Libya that supported Palestine and opposed United States policies in the Middle East.
After its defeat in the 1977-78 Ogaden War with Ethiopia, President Siad Barre’s regime aligned its policies more closely with those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, both of these countries began to provide military aid to Somalia. Tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia continued, and other Arab states, in particular Libya, angered Siad Barre by supporting Ethiopia. In 1981 Somalia broke diplomatic relations with Libya, claiming that Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi was supporting the rebel Somali Salvation Democratic Front and the nascent Somali National Movement. Relations with Libya were not restored until 1985.
AG: And what about Somalia’s particular history with the UAE?
ASA: Throughout the 1980s, Somalia became increasingly dependent upon economic aid from the conservative, wealthy, oil-exporting sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This dependence was a crucial factor in the Siad Barre regime's decision to side with the United States-led coalition of Arab states that opposed Iraq following that country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Support for the coalition brought economic dividends. Qatar canceled further repayment of all principal and interest on outstanding loans, and Saudi Arabia offered Somalia a $70 million grant and promised to sell it oil at below prevailing international market prices.
AG: Now can you explain the UAE’s involvement in Somalia now, and why you consider it a threat to Somali sovereignty.
ASA: A recent agreement inked in Abu Dhabi by both countries' defense ministers purportedly intends to enhance security forces and preserve shared interests. The UAE has agreed to train 10,000 Somali forces to address Somalia's security demands.
However, in November 2022, the UAE secretly recruited and funded the training of 3,000 young Somali men in Egypt with the support of the Egyptian government. This secret operation irritated Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia because of Ethiopia and Egypt’s dispute over Nile River waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Somali people and some government officials are concerned that the Arab nation's recruiting and training of these Somali forces will be used to destabilize the government and further divide the country's frail security sector, as it has in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, where the UAE trained some of the most prominent rebel groups.
According to some accounts, the UAE intelligence agencies oversee Somali security problems rather than the foreign affairs ministry, which is in charge of foreign relations.
AG: So, basically, some Somalis believe that the UAE is as much or more in charge in Somalia than the Somali government. Is that right?
AG: What role does the UAE play in Somalia's efforts to establish a stable government?
ASA: The UAE stands out as one of the foremost partners to Somalia, whose financial resources and expertise in sea and air transportation and logistics could be put to use to influence Somalia either negatively and positively.
In fact, the UAE deploys its resources--financial, economic, and diplomatic--to achieve its own geopolitical goals, particularly to boost its efforts to diversify its local economy beyond the oil sector, but this does not typically encourage stability, sovereignty, or prosperity in Somalia.
AG: What is the UAE trying to achieve in Somali waters?
ASA: Their biggest geopolitical goal is to protect the Red Sea and Indian Ocean waterways. The Gulf of Aden region remains a strategic resource for controlling military and commercial shipping, since a third of the world’s shipping lines use it as a transit point.
For some years, Somalia’s coastline gained notoriety for piracy, weapons smuggling and illicit trade, and migration. The efforts of some 34 countries, which sent a naval force there to curb piracy at sea, has resulted in fewer incidents since 2018.
Somalia became less stable and sovereign while the Gulf States, most of all the UAE, ramped up their investments in Somali ports, manufacturing, tourism and infrastructure development and eyed Somalia as a big market for goods and services.
AG: What kinds of investments is the UAE making in Somalia, and how have they challenged Somali sovereignty?
ASA: Emirati investments in Somalia have complicated nation building efforts and, to a large extent, accelerated the regional vs. federal tensions that already existed.
Emiratis have made a $442 million capital investment towards the upgrade of the port facilities in Berbera, Somaliland. This investment created deep division between the Somali federal government and Somaliland, a secessionist state which none of the UN’s 193 member states recognize. Much political bickering between the federal and state administrations followed this UAE investment because the UAE negotiated it directly with Somaliland, bypassing the federal government.
The UAE further injected new capital into the port of Bosaso in Puntland, another regional state in northern Somalia. This investment further deepened tensions between the national government and its states because the UAE again negotiated directly with the state government, not with the national government, as it did in Somaliland.
In December 2022, Puntland state entered an agreement with UAE's multinational logistics company Dubai Port World (DP World) to expand Bosaso port.
At various points in time and to varying degrees, the UAE has played a significant role in providing security assistance in Somalia, particularly to the Puntland Maritime Police Forces. This assistance, however, has frequently strained relations between the Puntland administration and the central government in Mogadishu.
AG: How do the UAE's investments contribute to political tension and division?
ASA: The UAE's investments in Somalia, carried out without the involvement of Somali stakeholders or the central government, impede port operations and reduce Somali ports' competitiveness in a region that is continuously looking for ports to access new markets for economic growth.
The UAE has strategically constructed a network of commercial ports spanning both sides of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. These ports serve as critical hubs for trade and facilitate the movement of goods across the region for the Arab nation, but their Somali ports don’t benefit Somalia.
AG: How has the UAE's situation changed since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's election victory?
ASA: President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's return to power in May 2022 reenergized the Emiratis’ political and diplomatic influence, which the previous president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, had challenged.
Somalia and the UAE signed the aforementioned military and security agreement to mend the strained relations.
AG: Why is the Horn of Africa region strategically important?
ASA: The Horn of Africa has emerged as a highly contested geopolitical battleground in recent years due to its strategic location along vital maritime trade routes.
It is adjacent to the Red Sea shipping route, and the region witnesses the passage of a significant share of global trade, including more than 6 million barrels of oil per day, nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil.
AG: And how is this geostrategic significance affecting Somalia?
ASA: The countries of the Horn, including Somalia, are seeing increased rivalry among regional powers, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, playing out along their coast and land. Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia are experiencing far-reaching changes in their external economic and security relations as a result.
The historical connection between the Gulf and the Horn of Africa has been characterized by extensive economic and political interactions over centuries. While there was a period of disengagement, the Gulf states reemerged in recent years as significant players in the Horn, exerting economic and political influence.
The Emirates continue to bolster their diplomatic, economic, and political presence in Somalia and the larger East Africa region by forming alliances in order to preserve their power bases in Africa and within the Gulf region.
The rivalry among states in the region should be an opportunity for Somalia to attract foreign capital to improve its domestic economy and modernize infrastructure, but to realize this potential Somalia needs to be a stronger, more stable and sovereign nation.
The rival nations’ militarization of infrastructure projects also poses threats to stability in Somalia.
AG: Dr. Abdisamad, thank you for speaking to Black Agenda Report.
ASA: You’re very welcome.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com. Please help to support her work on Patreon.
Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad is a researcher, Pan-Africanist, and Chairman of the Institute for Horn of Africa Strategic Studies.