The Gulf impasse caused political turmoil in the African country, with its central government aligning with Qatar and the federal states drifting towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The crisis has begun to challenge the country's territorial integrity.
On the evening of May 23, 2017, a quotation appeared on the bottom of Qatar’s official news channel, attributed to the Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. “Iran,” it said, “is an Islamic power in the region that cannot be ignored.”
In spite of Thani’s insistence that the quotations were fakes, they were the pretext for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to drive a wedge through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and several other Arab countries blockaded Qatar, sent Qatari nationals home, and broke off diplomatic relations. Leaders from around the world scrambled to mend the rift, foreseeing the likelihood that it might have a negative impact if it spilt over into other countries.
According to Omar Mahmoud, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Somalia is one those countries – “as Somalia has imported the Gulf crisis,” he says.
The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), has taken a similar stand to many other countries, supporting the Kuwaiti initiative to broker dialogue between the quarrelling GCC states. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken an uncompromising stand, lobbying other countries to follow them in a wider attempt to politically isolate Qatar.
The FGS’s awkward neutrality, however, has been interpreted as a “vote for Qatar,” according to Mahmoud, pitting the central government against its member states.
The state leaders have voiced concerns about their ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, aligning themselves more closely with this grouping.
The issue came to the fore when Dubai-based shipping company DP World reached an agreement with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.
The two parties signed a 25-year lease on the northern port of Berbera, sidestepping Mogadishu to secure the deal. The federal government views the deal as a violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity and constitution.
The UAE, which initiated and brokered the deal, kept 51 percent stake in the Berbera port project; Somaliland kept 30 percent and Ethiopia, having expressed its desire to take part in the project, secured 19 percent.
Somalia's federal government responded by declaring the agreement null and void and took the issue before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Abubakr Osman, Somalia’s Permanent Representative to the UN said the UAE’s plan was a “clear violation of international law.”
“Every company which wants to invest in Somalia must follow the due process as laid down by the law,” President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed told the Somali Parliament.
The deal for Berbera port, the government maintains, is illegal, as foreign affairs are primarily the domain of the central government in Mogadishu, according to the Somali constitution.
But following two decades of weak central governance, Mogadishu has little direct say in the affairs of regional state administrations, including Somaliland, which has declared total independence and doesn’t recognise the sovereignty of Mogadishu over its territories.
The UAE, Mahmoud says, “at times bypassed Mogadishu, and reached out to member states.” Mahmoud adds that this is the case not just in Somaliland, but “also Bosaso, Puntland,” where another Dubai-based company manages the main commercial port.
“So, the question becomes to what extent is the UAE working with Mogadishu on these agreements,” he tells TRT World.
Well, to what extent does the UAE need to?
“We need development, and no sane individual or leader will object to that,” Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, president of Puntland, said following a visit to Dubai. “That is why the support of the UAE is so important,” he continued.
At both the federal and, especially, at the regional level, Somalia’s ties to the Gulf run deep.
Between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, diasporic Somalis sent roughly $35 million in remittances back to Somalia in 2017. Two-thirds of livestock exports, which constitute roughly 40 percent of Somalia’s GDP, have their biggest market in Saudi Arabia. The UAE also finances infrastructure projects, trains and equips troops in the regional administrations as well as donating significant amounts of aid.
When the federal government in Mogadishu refused to be strong-armed into breaking with Qatar, the federal member states – whose multifaceted relationships with the Gulf are vital – broke with the federal government, expressing their solidarity with the Emirati position.
Somaliland, Puntland, South West, Hirshabelle and Galmudug showed their support for the Emirati- Saudi-led blockade by following their lead.
“The federal member states are arguing that a relationship with the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be much more beneficial than losing that and maintaining a relationship with Qatar,” says Mahmoud. “And that’s argued on a number of fronts. Economically, in terms of remittances, in terms of livestock, infrastructure development; so economically there is a big incentive there.”
The DP World agreement in Berbera, for example, operated with a view to expanding the capacity for livestock to be exported from that port. The UAE has also been paying the salaries of the Puntland Maritime Police Force since 2011. When Galmudug broke with Somalia's central government, it cited its “commercial relationship”, “sustainable development” and the “security” support provided by the UAE when explaining its decision.
The combination of a lack of strong central control, and the economic considerations of regional administrations appears to have been enough incentive for them to diverge from the central government on this matter.
As Gulf states jockey for influence, Somalia is increasingly caught in the crosshairs. But tensions between the UAE and Somalia reached a new high when Somali security authorities seized $9.6 million, which arrived in Somalia from Abu Dhabi Airport.
Though Mohammed Ahmed Othman Al Hammadi, UAE ambassador to Somalia maintained that the money was intended for the Somali Ministry of Defense to contribute to the salaries of Somali troops, a Somali official insisted it was almost 10 times the expected amount, raising suspicions about what the cash was intended for.
An investigation followed to determine if the money was intended to “destabilise” the country.
Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Nairobi-based senior consultant at Southlink Consultancy, tells TRT World that because the “central government cannot control the entire region, the UAE has taken advantage of that vulnerability.”
“Somalia has become a theatre in this conflict,” he continued. He believes avoiding the central government to work directly with the regional administrations will undermine progress made to stabilise Somalia and create “further divisions.”
The UAE has responded by closing Sheikh Zayed Hospital, which used to provide free treatment for the residents of Mogadishu and soon after ended its military training mission in Somalia.
“They [the UAE] don’t have consideration for the constitution of Somalia, they don’t consider the rules and regulations of Somalia, nor do they consider the situation on the ground,” Abdisamad said, which is why he believes that the attempt by President Mohamed to distance Somalia from the UAE is an encouraging attempt to show the sovereignty of the centre.
His stance inspired young Somalis globally, who initiated the #UAEhandsoffSomalia and #Somalia_speaks hashtags.
Don't come in through the window, come in through the door. #UAEhandsOffSomalia— Abdi Addow 🕊 (@AbdiAddow1) April 9, 2017
The last time the Gulf states requested Somalia cut ties with another country was 2016, when President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud cut ties with Iran. President Mohamud’s government received $50 million from Saudi Arabia that day in aid – spoils earned for his eager cooperation.
In this case, the stakes are higher, as Qatar is a valued partner of the FGS, alongside Qatar’s ally Turkey, which has provided an unparalleled level of support to the FGS.
Both relations with the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and Qatar and Turkey are important for Somalia, “but when Somalia recognised that the money coming from the UAE was meant for other purposes than supporting the Somali military, Somalia acted accordingly,” Abdisamad said.
Somalia as a whole and the FGS, in particular, have made great progress in recreating a degree of normalcy in the country. At this very delicate stage, the Somali government, according to Abdisamad, has judged it needs more friends than enemies.
But as the Somali government becomes increasingly bold at determining its foreign policy, the country is also finding its bearings in determining which countries it prefers warm relations with.
“The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia," he said, "are much more important today than the financial assistance being provided by the UAE.”