Examining Emirati Foreign Policy Influence in the Horn of Africa

Part One: Somalia


This paper presents the first in a series of white papers on Emirati policy interests in the Horn of Africa, starting with the case of Somalia. The series will explore how Emirati geopolitical strategy influences political dynamics within and between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. 

Giving a representative account of the Somali political landscape without deep analysis is challenging. Its particular complexity can be partially explained through the interdependence of (1) clan instrumentalization and politics, (2) the collective and disparate trauma of thirty years of instability, and (3) the considerable impacts felt by regional and diaspora engagement. 

This paper is a preliminary exploration of the impact of Emirati commercial, political, and security activity in Somalia’s political economy, combining three largely congruent lines of thought. These serve merely as frames of analysis and will not be explored in depth in this paper. 

First is the works of Christian Lund, highlighting the duplicity of state institutions in the exercise of public authority.[1] Second is the notion of “political unsettlement” proposed by Christine Bell and Jan Pospisil, focusing on the survival of elite compacts in conflict contexts throughout recurring periods of violence.[2] Third is the “political marketplace framework” as a system of governance, emphasizing formal institutions as secondary to transactional politics in political and economic conduct.[3] 

Accordingly, we ask the question: how does Emirati engagement in Somalia influence its political and security landscape? 

Bearded Business and Statebuilding in Somalia since 2005 

In a prolonged tragedy that unfolded throughout the 1990s, Somalia reached the bottom levels of most indices of human development and underwent a long period of without a central government, warlord power struggles, famine, internal displacement. International interventions by the United States and the UN were conducted with poor comprehension of local politics, and humanitarian aid was systematically looted, prolonging the years of humanitarian disaster. 

By the turn of the millennium, a series of peace efforts initiated by regional actors (including Ethiopia and Djibouti) resulted in a weak ceasefire of cross-clan coalitions, although agreements quickly broke down and fighting reignited. Years of fighting had given rise to an emerging class of hustler-turned-entrepreneur businessmen who profited from the war economy at the local level. Ironically, these men became key to ensuring the adequate provision of services to civilians. In tandem with religious leaders and civil society, their activities resulted in an informal “governance without government.”5] 

Over time, conspicuous adherence to Islamic principles became one of the sparse ways to build trust within the volatile environment. These developments were paralleled by the rise of grassroots Islamic courts in response to predatory warlord militias. The courts quickly gained communities’ trust and installed local governance and taxation systems. 

Supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Ethiopia convened the main warring factions for a peace process in 2004, resulting in an internationally supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG). However, the TFG represented a narrow, pro-Ethiopian compact composed of primarily northern clans that excluded the Arab-supported Hawiye clans who dominated areas in and around Mogadishu. 

Parallel to a weak TFG-based in Baidoa in east Somalia, the rule of Islamic courts spread in a southern Somalia wearied by clan politics. These courts ultimately unified into the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The TFG was sidelined by the emergence of ICU-affiliated militias, who ousted local warlords and gained control of Mogadishu in 2005-06. In the same period, internal divisions split the ICU into radical and moderate factions, with the former taking control of leadership positions.[6] 

These developments were at odds with the preferences of Addis Ababa, prompting the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006. Facing this threat, radical factions of the ICU fled southwards, allowing Ethiopian forces to take Mogadishu with ease. The TFG, which had survived through Ethiopian protection, faced the challenge of regaining southern Somalia from radical remnants of the ICU, now under the banner of al-Shabaab. Ethiopia ensured the installation of an African Union mission (AMISOM), which has remained in place to protect the fragile TFG in trying to establish a representative government.  

Political transition efforts culminated in (1) the 2011 Kampala accords, (2) a draft constitution, and (3) the 2012 inter-Somali Garowe Principles, all contributing to Somalia’s first indirect presidential elections that same year. With political disagreements between federal states and the continuous struggle against al-Shabaab, the road towards a finalized Constitution and revised electoral model has been slow and is still a work in progress. 

Making Business with Whom? The Transactional Politics of Unsettlement in Somalia 

Today, Somalia remains an “unsettled” state in four primary ways. First, Somaliland, the northernmost Federal Member State (FMS) been self-governed since its hitherto unrecognized claim to independence in 1991, all of this while maintaining seats in Somalia’s legislature. Second, AMISOM and the Somali National Army (SNA), in Somalia since 2007, have been unable to defeat al-Shabaab, which effectively governs large areas of central and southern Somalia.[7] Third, despite the solidification of Somalia’s electoral model in 2012 based on the 4.5 formula agreed on in 2004, the model continues to be readjusted ahead of every election cycle. The “4.5 formula” assigns parliamentary seats to the four dominant Somali clan families (Dir, Darood, Hawiye, and Rahanweyn) and the remaining “0.5” seats to minority clans and groups.[8] The electoral model is indirect, giving a handful of elders (135 in 2012; 14,025 in 2016) a vote as an electoral college. Lastly, the lack of a ratified constitution and a constitutional court makes the settlement of disputes situational rather than institutional. Significant turmoil has surrounded the long-delayed elections set for October 2021, where political opponents of sitting president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as “Farmaajo”),  have accused him of unconstitutionally remaining in power beyond his term limits.  

Somalia’s political unsettlement works in parallel with its highly informal and transactional realpolitik. Building on its tradition of coastal trade and its “hawala” system of informal brokerage, Somalia has long been open for voluminous commerce without the involvement of state-based regulation. In recent years, this transactionalism has influenced formal elections in which money plays a salient role. Running for office is as much a matter of having political as financial capital, with the candidacy fee for parliamentary seats reaching USD 5,000 for men and 2,500 for women in the 2016 and upcoming 2021 elections.[9] The limited electoral college has also been inundated by vote-buying and bribery – tendencies which can also be considered “transactional” within the political marketplace framework. 

The importance of access to financial capital for political survival makes Somalia vulnerable to external influence on political agendas. In recent years, regional states have displayed both direct endorsement (demonstrated through formal visits) and indirect endorsement (usually financial support to political campaigns and individuals via off-budget payments).[10] The alleged support of Qatar for Farmaajo, the contender considered unlikely to win given his background from a non-dominant clan family, may have assisted his successful bid for the presidency in 2016.[11] Financial support by UAE and Turkey of the incumbent president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was insufficient to secure his re-election despite him having received millions in the 2012 elections.[12] 

The UAE and Somalia: Emerging Market, Strategic Location? 

In what has been labeled the 2017 “Gulf Cooperation Council crisis,” Saudi Arabia and the UAE made concerted efforts to isolate Qatar economically and diplomatically. Saudi and Emirati governments pursued this option after a prolonged dispute regarding Qatari support of the Muslim Brotherhood in early stages of the Arab Spring, and later, Qatar’s alleged betrayal of the Saudi-led efforts in Yemen. 

As a result, both sides resorted to frenzied diplomatic activities to secure allies, especially the geo-strategically important areas in the Horn, including Somalia.[17] Turkey marked itself as an ally to Doha to form a Turkey-Qatar axis in the crisis early on, having found common ground in supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.[18] Despite the potential for long-term economic opportunities from increased commercial activity in the Horn, the Emiratis pursued a largely ineffective relation-building strategy.  

While European interests in Somalia have centered on ending piracy and its disruption of trade flows, Gulf states see Somalia and the Horn of Africa as an emerging market for post-oil diversification and food security strategy efforts, as well as an opportunity to expand upon national security interests.  

With close to 900 of its 3,000 km shoreline facing the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is one of the world’s most vital trade arteries of global maritime commerce.[13] Not far from the Gulf of Aden, internet cables that supply one-third of the world’s Internet coverage are located under the Red Sea.[14] Somalia is a prospective market for Gulf consumer goods while also a yet unexplored source of livestock for Emirati markets. In terms of national security, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia seek to connect means of energy transportation to the Horn of Africa for oil export in case of a clash with Iran that closes the Strait of Hormuz.[16]  

While Djibouti stayed neutral and Eritrea supported the Saudi-Emirati camp, Farmaajo insisted on remaining neutral to what he considered a dispute without hold in the realities of the Horn.[19,20] As a result, Mogadishu has benefited from Turkish support through humanitarian aid, trade partnerships, and security sector cooperation since 2011.[21] And as part of their soft power projection, the Qataris had independently been offering bilateral financial and political support to Mogadishu without direct linkage to the inter-Gulf power struggles.[22] Somali politicians have long been able to balance receiving support from both Western donors and Middle Eastern adversaries without being forced to make decisive allegiances to any foreign backer. On the contrary, the rivalries between Middle Eastern countries have given Somali politicians more room for maneuver and increased the market price of the political allegiance.[23] 

Ports as Emirati Footprints on the Northern Shores 

Qatar and Turkey had established themselves as actors with ties to Somali counterparts far before the UAE had realized the strategic value of such partnerships. Consequently, the UAE turned to Somaliland to enlarge its power projection toward the Gulf of Aden and establish channels for long-term food supply. In 2016, Dubai-owned DP World, the UAE’s flagship logistics company, secured the winning bid to develop Berbera Port in Somaliland, reportedly worth USD 446 million. The announcement was made around the same time that the UAE was granted rights by the Somaliland government to set up a military base in the region. In April 2017, DP World also won concession rights to develop Bosaso Port in Puntland, with a value of USD 336 million, two months before the escalation of the GCC diplomatic crisis.[24] 

While the Somali coast serves important purposes in the Emirati maritime security strategy, port access has also been guided by prospective investment opportunities in the far bigger Ethiopian market. As such, the Emiratis ensured that Addis Ababa was granted a 19 percent share of the port in Berbera.[25] These relationships have been carefully maintained through diplomatic visits, such as those of the Somaliland ambassador to Ethiopia, Salan Hassan Abdullah, to the UAE Embassy in Addis Ababa in 2019.[26] 

These deals were not well perceived in Mogadishu. The Somali parliament considered Emirati transactional diplomacy with Somaliland and Puntland as a breach of good faith and a violation of Somali sovereignty and declared both deals “null and void”, with lawmakers calling for a ban on DP World activity.[27]  

There is reason to believe that Somaliland seeks to leverage Ethiopian access to Berbera Port in inter-Somali power play. Despite the denouncement of the Somali parliament, the port was inaugurated in June 2021 with ceremonial visits from Ahmad Shide, Ethiopian minister of finance, and Mustafa Mohammed Omar, president of Ethiopia’s Somali-majority Ogaden region. Addressing the press, Somaliland president Muse Bihi Abdi stated: 

“With the new terminal, along with the second phase of expansion and economic zone along the Berbera corridor, we are now firmly positioned to further develop and grow our economy through increased trade, attracting foreign direct investment and creating jobs,” adding that “this port will serve for the landlocked countries, mainly Ethiopia.”[29] 

As a result, Emirati investments in northern Somalia have deepened pre-existing power struggles between the government in Mogadishu and Somaliland and Puntland, respectively. In the highly monetized Somali political system, ports may prove crucial in diversifying and increasing revenue sources and thus give the two FMSs the ability to gain power through increased financial capital.  

Conclusion: Quo Vadis, Emiratis?  

After a decade of eagerness to project military power in areas of strategic interests, the Emiratis have reduced their military activity by withdrawing troops from southern Yemen and closing their military base in Assab, Eritrea.[30] Outside of calibrating their level of involvement in Somalia, three major regional events will influence how the Emiratis will position themselves in Horn politics moving forward, all of which will be briefly outlined. 

First and foremost are the 2020 Somali general elections, now scheduled for 10 October 2021. Emirati engagement with Somali partners is partially due to its rivalry with Qatar and Turkey, a dispute in which the parties have taken steps toward reconciliation. With Doha and Ankara distancing themselves from their favored ally Farmaajo after the Feburary 2021 political crisis, the Emiratis have yet to take any decisive action in supporting one candidate over another and are likely to prefer a more cautious “wait-and-see” approach.[31] 

The second is the war in Yemen, which has been a driving factor for UAE engagement along the Horn’s coast since 2014. Unless the Houthi rebels win any decisive victories that may threaten the Gulf-aligned Yemeni government, the war will remain unlikely to play into UAE strategy in Somalia. The UAE pulled out its ground troops in 2019 as the war became increasingly entrenched. As for maritime security, the UAE de facto annexed the Socotra archipelago belonging to Yemen during the course of the war and has begun constructing of a drone-capable military base on the island. The Emiratis now maintain a degree of both security and commercial control along this important artery of world trade. 

The third is the ongoing conflict in Tigray, in which it has become clear that Somali soldiers have participated in the war alongside Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.[32] From a regional security perspective, this will be of minor interest to the Emiratis. However, if the allegations hold true, they may serve as a major blow to the public image of Farmaajo ahead of the October elections. If the Emiratis are attentive to public sentiment turning against Farmaajo, and by extension, a Qatari influence over the President of Somalia, they may choose to reinvolve themselves through supporting former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, likely to be their preferred presidential candidate in the October elections.  

Regional factors aside, the domestic politics of and between the seven Emirates and the leadership’s appetite for maintaining the role that gave rise to its moniker (Little Sparta) will naturally impact foreign activities of emissaries and businesspeople, mostly from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There is, however, little reason to believe that Somalia’s near future will be free from foreign meddling as it has become a crucial piece in the competition of influence between Gulf actors.  


[1] Christian Lund, “Twilight institutions: public authority and local politics in Africa”, Development and change 37, no. 4 (2006): 685-705. 

[2] Christine Bell and Jan Pospisil, “Navigating inclusion in transitions from conflict: The formalised political unsettlement.” Journal of International Development 29, no. 5 (2017): 576-593. 

[3] Alex de Waal, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, 2015, Polity. 

[4] Aisha Ahmad, “Jihad & Co.: black markets and Islamist power”, Oxford University Press, 2017, chapter 5. 

[5] Menkhaus, K., 2014, “State Failure, State-Building, and Prospects for a ‘Functional Failed State’ in Somalia” ANNALS, AAPSS, 656, November, 154- 172. DOI: 10.1177/0002716214547002 and Raeymaekers, T., K. Menkhaus, & K. Vlassenroot, 2008. “State and non-state regulation in African protracted crises: governance without government?” Afrika Focus, 21.2, 7-21. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Paul D. Williams, Fighting for Peace in Somalia: A History and Analysis of the African Union Mission (AMISOM), 2007-2017. Oxford University Press, 2018; see also Keating, Michael, and Matt Waldman, eds. War and peace in Somalia: national grievances, local conflict and Al-Shabaab. Oxford University Press, 2019. 

[8] Ken Menkhaus, “Elections in the hardest places: The case of Somalia.” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 4 (2017): 132-146. 

For further reading on recent elections, see Saferworld, Somalia’s 2016 Electoral Process – Preliminary Report of the Domestic Election Observer Mission, March 2017, https://www.saferworld.org.uk/downloads/somalias-2016-electoral-process—deom-report-final.pdf and Rift Valley Institute/Somali Dialogue Platform, “Protecting stability and inclusivity in Somalia’s indirect election process”, Somali Public Agenda Governance Brief No 10, December 2020, https://riftvalley.net/sites/default/files/publication-documents/Protecting%20stability%20and%20inclusivity%20in%20Somalia%27s%20indirect%20election%20process%20-%20Somali%20Dialogue%20Platform%20%282020%29_0.pdf 

[9] Saferworld, “Somalia’s 2016 electoral process: Preliminary report of the Domestic Election Observer Mission”, March 2017. 

[10] Ismail Abdirashid, “Lawlessness and economic governance: the case of hawala system in Somalia”, International Journal of Development Issues (2017). 

[11] The linkage between Qatar and Farmaajo is purportedly through the appointed intelligence chief Farhad Yasin, see Hofmann, Anette, Claire Elder, Jos Meester, and Willem van den Berg, 2017, “Somalia’s business elites – Political power and economic stakes across the Somali territories and in four key economic sectors,” The Hague: Clingendael Conflict Research Unit. Qatar denies this claim, see Garowe Online, “Qatar denies claims of funding Somalia through Farhad Yasin”, 21 April 2021, https://www.garoweonline.com/en/news/world/qatar-denies-claims-of-funding-somalia-through-fahad-yasin. 

[12] Jeffrey Gettlemen, “Fueled by Bribes, Somalia’s Election Seen as Milestone of Corruption”, 7 February 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/africa/somalia-election-corruption.html?_r=0 

[13] Rob Bailey and Laura Wellesley, “Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade”, Chatham House Report, 2017. 

[14] United States Institute of Peace, “Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena”, Final Report, October 2020. 

[15] This attention has been surrounded mainly anti-piracy efforts and rearmament through a proliferation of military bases in Djibouti. For piracy, see Alexandra Lewis and Neil Winn, “European Union anti-piracy initiatives in the Horn of Africa: linking land-based counter-piracy with maritime security and regional development”. Third World Quarterly; for military bases, see David Styan, “Djibouti: small state strategy at a crossroads”, Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal (2016), 1:1, 79-91. 

[16] Interview, Horn of Africa Analyst, June 2021. 

[17] International Crisis Group, “The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa”, Middle East Briefing N°65, 6 November 2018 

[18] Engin Yüksel, “Turkey’s Love-in with Qatar: A Marriage of Convenience”, Clingendael, Online Report, 25 January 2021, https://www.clingendael.org/publication/turkeys-love-qatar-marriage-convenience. 

[19] The UAE has had an uneasy relationship with Djibouti in the last years, see Brendon Cannon and Ash Rossiter. “Ethiopia, Berbera port and the shifting balance of power in the Horn of Africa.” Rising Powers Quarterly 2, no. 4 (2017): 7-29; Eritrea has also contributed to the Saudi-led efforts in Yemen by allowing the UAE to use their port in Assab. 

[20] International Crisis Group, “UAE in the Horn”. 

[21] Mehmet Ozkan and Serhat Orakçı, “Turkey as a “political” actor in Africa–an assessment of Turkish involvement in Somalia”, Journal of Eastern African Studies 9, no. 2 (2015): 343-352. 

[22] Ben O’Bright, Ben, “Conceptualizing the Qatari-African foreign policy and economic relations: the case of soft power.” Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy (The) 8, no. 1 (2017): 60-89. 

[23] Alex de Waal, “Pax Africana or Middle East Security Alliance in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea?”, LSE Conflict Research Programme, 2019. 

[24] Jos Meester, Willem van den Berg & Harry Verhoeven, “Riyal Politik The political economy of Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa”, Clingendael Institute, April 2018. 

[25]Gulf News, “Ethiopia acquires 19% stake in DP World Berbera Port”, 1 March 2018, https://gulfnews.com/business/ethiopia-acquires-19-stake-in-dp-world-berbera-port-1.2181403. 

[26]The Horn Diplomat, “Somaliland, UAE envoys discuss matters of mutual interest”, 18 November 2019, https://www.horndiplomat.com/2019/11/18/somaliland-uae-envoys-discuss-matters-of-mutual-interest/. 

[27] Africa News,”Somalia parliament rejects Somaliland’s Berbera port deal with DP World, Ethiopia”, 3 March 2018, https://www.africanews.com/2018/03/13/somalia-parliament-rejects-somaliland-s-berbera-port-deal-with-dp-world-ethiopia// 

[28] Ibid. 

[29] Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Modern Terminal Opens at Somaliland’s Berbera Port”, VOA News, 25 June 2021, https://www.voanews.com/africa/modern-terminal-opens-somalilands-berbera-port. 

[30] Eva Thiebaud, “Vertige guerrier aux Émirats arabes unis”, Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2021, https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2021/03/THIEBAUD/62841; Sheren Khalel, “UAE deeply involved in Yemen despite claims of withdrawal, experts say”, Middle East Eye, 22 February 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-yemen-conflict-deeply-involved-experts-say. 

[31] Camille Lons, “Gulf countries reconsider their involvement in the Horn of Africa”, Analysis, International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/06/gulf–horn-of-africa. 

[32] RFI, “UN report says Somali army participated in Tigray war”, 10 June 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20210609-un-report-says-somali-army-participated-in-tigray-war 


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———. The Prairie Fire that Burned Mogadishu: The Logic of Clan Formation in Somalia. World Peace Foundation Occasional Paper, December 2018. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/100258/1/The_Prarie_Fire_that_burned_Mogadishu_final_1.pdf 

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 ———. “Oil and Gas in the Political Marketplace in Somalia,” n.d., 14. 

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