The Middle East is in disputes for decades. However, now it may well become a part of a far more extensive problem that will influence the entire East Africa region, which may become a playground for power plays between the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China.
“A crisis in the Gulf is playing out in dramatic form in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa. Some argue it could tear the whole region apart. After nearly 30 years of conflict and instability, Somalia is particularly vulnerable”, writes Mary Harper from BBC Africa. According to Rashid Abdi, Director of the Horn of Africa project at the International Crisis Group, Somalia has become a chessboard in the power game between Qatar and Turkey on the one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies on the other.
So why is it and why can we expect the crisis to spread?
1. The United Arab Emirates is building a massive military base in Berbera, Somaliland.
It is a highly strategic location, and it will serve to confirm UAE’s position in the region. The US and the former Soviet Union built their bases there decades ago, plus one of the continent’s longest runways, which is more than 4km (2.5 miles) long. Qatar and their military powerhouse friend Turkey will not like the fact that the influence of their political rivals is rising.
2. Dubai-based company DP World is taking over the Berbera port.
Landlocked Ethiopia is also involved, with a 19% stake, as it sees Berbera as a useful alternative to the congested, expensive port in Djibouti upon which it is dependent. But the port of Berbera is a part of Somaliland, an internationally unrecognized entity which Somalia regards a part of its territory. Earlier this month parliament in Somalia voted to nullify the port deal which enrages the UAE. The Arabs also fear they may lose an important business asset, as the port exports millions of live animals to the Gulf every year.
3. Both China and Saudi Arabia have built military bases in the tiny country of Djibouti.
In addition to strengthening their military position in the region, they also try to raise their economic and cultural influence. Beijing has poured over $14 billion into infrastructure development. Saudi Arabia has spent generously on social welfare projects for the country’s poor and built housing, schools, and mosques for its swelling Yemeni refugee population, all while promoting Saudi’s traditional model of Islamic culture, disliked by more liberal Middle East countries.
4. UAE is bypassing the federal government in Somalia by striking deals with Somalia’s regional states.
These five states have a fractious relationship with central government and with each other. Some have received military training, equipment and funding from the Emirates. DP World and its subsidiaries are negotiating deals to manage a string of ports in at least three of them. This strengthening of local states may increase the tensions in the traditionally politically unstable country with active separatist movements.
5. Turkey has its largest military base outside the mother country in Mogadishu, Somalia.
More than 10 thousand Somali soldiers are training there under Turkish supervision. While Turkey’s relations with the Horn of Africa date back to the Ottoman Empire, today’s President Tayyip Erdogan’s government has become a close ally of the Somali government in recent years. This strengthening of Somalia’s military power is closely watched by the neighboring Ethiopia, which has fought Somali jihadist militias before and is afraid of political tensions on its borders.