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Turkish and UAE Engagement in Horn of Africa and Changing Geo-Politics of the Region

The Horn of Africa occupies an important strategic position on the map of the world. It looks over the Bab al-Mandab straits which is a major marine transportation hub. The changes in the political and security situation of the broader Middle East have affected the region, and the Horn is increasingly seen as an important strategic asset by regional and international powers. This has resulted in its becoming a key battle front in this balancing game for political influence playing out between several regional players. These new political dynamics are shaping the relations between the states of the Horn and also affecting their domestic political and security outlook. Many Middle Eastern states have initiated political and security engagement with Horn of Africa states, but the most prominent amongst them have been Turkey and United Arab Emirates (UAE)[1]. Attempts by both nations to consolidate their foothold in the region have had an impact on the political stature and fortunes of their local allies. These complexities in the geo-political dynamics of the Horn region have been further complicated by the political rift between Qatar and the quartet countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt[2]. Countries in the Horn have enjoyed simultaneously, close ties with Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia and UAE, but this latest crisis has compelled them to choose between the two sides.

This article will discuss how the manoeuvrings of UAE and Turkey in the Horn are impacting its politics and the repercussions of the Qatar crisis will also be analysed.

The struggle in Somalia and Somaliland
Somalia due to its strategic location has been the focus of attention from different world powers. The recent surge in external interest in Somalia began with the Turkish engagement in 2011 after Somalia was hit by a famine. President Erdogan was the first foreign head of state to visit Somalia. This marked the beginning of a Turkish campaign to embark upon a foreign policy rooted in humanitarian aid and development that would enhance its soft power on the international stage[3]. The foray into Somalia was a unique exhibition of Turkish policy to enhance its international prestige by providing aid and assistance to failed states while simultaneously capitalising on the economic and trade opportunities emerging in these states. This approach has made Turkey as argued by one writer, an indispensable actor in Somalia and thus has made it an important political actor in the Horn of Africa[4]. Turkish business firms have won contracts for operating the Mogadishu port and its airport. The other firms that showed interest in getting operations of the port include Dubai’s DP World. This showed that Turkey was not the only actor interested in getting a stake in the improvement and management of Somali infrastructure.[5]

The peak of Turkish power in Somalia was exemplified when Turkey finally opened its largest military base outside Turkey which is used as a facility to train Somali security forces[6]. This marked the formal start of a security partnership between the two states and a development that signifies a deepening of a relationship which in the past had been limited to the traditional Turkish assistance in the form of humanitarian aid, capacity building in health and education sectors and infrastructure development[7]. This Turkish engagement in Somalia and the close relations of the current Somali government with Qatari royalty, have in turn affected Somalia’s position in the current Gulf crisis. Somalia has opted for neutrality and has also offered to mediate between the two sides while simultaneously rejecting a Saudi donation of 80 million USD[8]. This Somali approach of continuing cordial relations with both sides has not gone down well particularly with its Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia showed its frustration by giving a cold welcome to a Somali delegation, but the UAE government chose a more explicit approach by calling back its ambassador from Mogadishu[9]. Ties between Somalia and UAE have historically been cordial, but Turkish successes over UAE in terms of gaining strategic contracts in Somalia has compelled UAE to look elsewhere. The problem started with the Somali Presidential elections early this year which saw Turkey and UAE backing different candidates. Turkey and Qatar extended support to political Islamists mainly the bloc of former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his political grouping while the Emiratis supported the former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke widely seen as a non-Islamist political personality. The victory of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed whose chief of staff is rumoured to be linked with Qatar effectively meant that Somalia will tread a path of its own choice[10]. This assertion as explained above proved to be true.

UAE started engagement with Somaliland a breakaway region of Somalia and was given the rights to develop its port of Berbera. The Emirati ambitions in Somaliland reached a higher level when they formally reached a deal with Somaliland government to build an Emirati military base in return for a one billion USD aid package. Interestingly, the agreement’s language hinted at an acceptance of Somaliland as an independent state and not as an autonomous region of Somalia as well as affirming UAE’s commitment towards the security of Somaliland[11]. The relations between Somalia and UAE are expected to further deteriorate due to Somali stance in Gulf crisis and the opening up of a Turkish military base there.

The decision by Somaliland highlights the criticality of acquiring Emirati support from a security and economic perspective. It is also pertinent to keep in context local political dynamics of Somaliland where President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo’s political fortunes are not very bright[12]. This deal with the Emiratis has been marketed by him and his party as revolutionary for the republic and one that will result in huge economic opportunities for its citizens[13]. Other than Somalia’s contestation of this agreement on legal grounds, Somaliland’s neighbour and the only country with a consulate in Somaliland, Ethiopia is perturbed about these developments despite the fact that this agreement will result in the provision of an additional trade route for Addis Ababa[14]. These Ethiopian concerns need to be contextualised in the broader politics of the Horn and are explained in the section below.

UAE’s New Security Doctrine and Changing Geo-politics in the Horn Region
If the Turkish designs in the Horn are more centred on raising their soft power index and developing partnerships through humanitarian aid, the Emirati strategy on the other hand is more security oriented. The principle threat for Emirati interests have always been perceived as emanating from Iran, and more specifically the possibility of an Iranian move to block the Strait of Hormuz which would lead to the blockage of Emirati oil exports. This particular dynamic has forced the Gulf state to develop a dynamic security strategy. This involves not only securing key ports on the Southern Yemeni shore but also across the coastline of the Horn region[15]. Emiratis recognised the critical value of Horn region in terms of geo-political security during the Yemen war when they had to rely on their base in the Eritrean port of Assab, as an operation hub. The military and naval installations developed by UAE in Assab were instrumental in successfully launching the military and aerial offensive to dislodge Houthi rebels from the southern Yemeni city of Aden[16]. Emirati agreement with Somaliland to open a military base in Berbera and develop its port is a continuation of this very policy of building strategic assets along the coastline of the Horn. This development will transform the UAE into a crucial player and raise its profile in the domains of regional security and politics, and give it significant leverage to check the growth of political Islam as well as terrorist organisations in the Horn.

The Emirati decision to build a military base in Somaliland and operate its port of Berbera has several political ramifications. The principal trading port in the Horn region had been Djibouti and Dubai’s DP World had been operating it. Its contract was canceled by the Djibouti due to corruption allegations. The Emirati move to develop port of Berbera will end Djibouti’s hegemony as the central transactional point for regional trade[17]. The UAE-Somaliland agreement to develop the port of Berbera could also be interpreted as an Emirati response to the expulsion of Dubai’s DP World and the tense diplomatic relations with Djibouti.

The Qatar crisis has added a new dimension to regional geo-politics which are already shaped by the influence of Gulf States. Eritrea which hosts a massive Emirati military and naval installation had a history of conflict with both Ethiopia and Djibouti. The conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea was mediated by Qatar through negotiating with both sides and also by deploying its own troops at some sections of the border between the two states[18]. As the Gulf crisis unfolded both Eritrea and Djibouti cut their ties with Qatar. This led to Qatar calling back its forces and Eritrea rapidly deploying its own in the disputed territory[19]. Now, this has led to a further deterioration of bilateral ties between Djibouti and Eritrea.

The political position of Ethiopia in this issue is critical. Ethiopia has its own historical conflict and also boasts a strategic alliance with Djibouti. There are reports that Ethiopia might intervene against Eritrea in order to expel its forces from the disputed territory. The recent dimension of this tri-party conflict cannot be understood completely without keeping in mind the broader political dynamics of the region and also how the Qatar crisis has only been a trigger for the latest tensions. Ethiopia is the most powerful and politically stable country in the region and is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) over the Blue Nile River. This project has in turn faced resistance from Egypt, which as a response has ratcheted up defence cooperation with Eritrea. The close ties between Egypt and the UAE on one hand, the Emirati military presence in both Eritrea and Somaliland and rise in Eritrean confidence owing to its security partnership does not paint a good picture for Ethiopia. From an Ethiopian perspective all these developments point toward a “strategic encirclement” of the country on the behest of Egypt to isolate it both politically and pressurize it militarily. Reports suggesting that after UAE, a deal for a military base might have also been finalised between Egypt and Eritrea will further stoke regional tensions. An Egyptian foothold within Eritrea may constitute a red line for Ethiopia. This indicates that new political confrontation is in the offing and this time Gulf States especially UAE will play a very important role while on the other hand the traditional Qatari influence may have been eroded.

Both Turkey and UAE are pursuing strategic goals in the Horn. For Turkey it is mainly about cementing strong economic linkages with the countries in the region and positioning itself as their principle trade partner. For these purposes Turkey has moved ahead full throttle with its soft power offensive and has poured an enormous amount of humanitarian aid into Somalia as well as initiating projects centred on improving infrastructure and capacity development. Its security engagement with Somalia – constructing a military base and training Somali security forces -essentially means that Turkey will have an impact on a core aspect of the project of Somali nation building.

The UAE on the other hand has strategic goals that are more security oriented. It wants to strengthen its strategic footprint in the region and to become a principle actor when it comes to Horn politics and security. This approach is directly linked with Emirati designs in Yemen. Both the Horn of Africa and Yemen overlook the Bab al-Mandab strait. UAE understands that in order to become an indispensable actor for the security of this strait, a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region and to check terrorist outfits, it has to expand its presence on both sides of the Bab al-Mandab. This elevates UAE’s political status from a Gulf commercial hub to a blue water power and enhances the incentives for international engagement with the Gulf State. The nature of strategic goals pursued by both Turkey and UAE will have a huge impact not only on politics within the Horn region but also on its future political order.


Umer Karim is a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research project focuses on Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy and Saudi Politics with a particular interest in the evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy since the ascension of King Salman and how Saudi foreign policy has been affected by the changing decision-making patterns and power hierarchy within the Kingdom. He also works on International Relations of Middle East and Horn of Africa with topics varying from Saudi-Iran relationship, Syrian conflict, Turkey in Middle East, Gulf States engagement in the Horn Region and Pakistan’s engagement within the Middle East. In the past he has worked on Arab Spring and the principle of humanitarian intervention specially the concept of Responsibility to Protect. Social movements and the role of discourse within social movements has also been an arena of research.


[1] Burke, Jason. “Middle East’s leaders cross the Red Sea to woo east Africa.” The Observer. September 12, 2016. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[2] Salacanin, Stasa. “The Qatar crisis hits the African continent.” Alaraby. October 12, 2017. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[3] Shabana, Ayman. “Dimensions of the Turkish Role: Reasons behind Turkey’s Military Base in Somalia.” Future Center. April 11, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.

[4] Cannon, Brendon (2016) “Deconstructing Turkey’s Efforts in Somalia,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies: Vol. 16, Article 14.

[5] Omar, Feisal, and Abdi Sheikh. “Somali port poised for facelift with Turkish help.” Reuters. October 23, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[6] Harper, Mary. “Target Somalia: The new scramble for Africa?” BBC News. April 23, 2017. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[7] Hussein, Abdirahman, and Orhan Coskun. “Turkey opens military base in Mogadishu to train Somali soldiers.” Reuters. September 30, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[8]  “Somalia turns down $80m to cut ties with Qatar.” Middle East Monitor. June 12, 2017. Accessed October 26, 2017.

[9] Tawane, Abdi Adan. “The Gulf Crisis is hitting the Horn of Africa.” International Policy Digest. June 23, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[10] Soliman, Ahmed. “Gulf Crisis Is Leading to Difficult Choices in the Horn of Africa.” Chatham House. June 29, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[11] Thenational-somaliland. “Somaliland, UAE sign historic economic and military pact.” The National-Somaliland. June 09, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[12] Abdi, Rashid. “A Dangerous Gulf in the Horn: How the Inter-Arab Crisis is Fuelling Regional Tensions.” Crisis Group. August 03, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.

[13] Shafqat, Shazar. “UAE to open second military base in east Africa.” Middle East Eye. February 13, 2017. Accessed November 01, 2017.

[14] Patinkin, Jason. “Testing the waters: Somaliland dives into the international arena.” The Messenger. October 23, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

[15] Ibish, Hussein. The UAE’s Evolving National Security Strategy. Issue brief no. 4. April 6, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2017.

[16] Mello, Alex, and Michael Knights. “West of Suez for the United Arab Emirates.” War on the Rocks. September 02, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2017.

[17] Maina, Judy. “UAE’s military base plan in Somaliland fuels concern over relations with neighbors.” Alleastafrica. January 15, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.

[18] Martin Plaut Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study. “Qatar’s conflict with its neighbors can easily set the Horn of Africa alight.” The Conversation. November 01, 2017. Accessed October 29, 2017.

[19] Davison, John, Aaron Maasho, and Sylvia Westall;. “Qatar withdraws troops from Djibouti-Eritrea border mission.” Reuters. June 14, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.

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