Gulf Geopolitics Casts Shadow Over Somalia

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 2017

By Haroon Mohamoud

Tribal infighting—of which the recent Gulf blockade on Qatar is merely a modern manifestation—is nothing new to the Arabian Peninsula. Feuding among the Al Sauds, Al Thanis, Al Khalifas, Al Sabahs and a handful of other royal families—who rule Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the emirates of the UAE—is almost as old as their respective genealogies (1).

In the early twentieth century, the discovery of the world’s largest oil reserves in the region brought a gradual end to scarcity, thereby removing the fuel for much of this turbulence among warring factions. And just as petrodollars financed the modernisation of the barren deserts particularly with ever higher glass towers, it has also created powerful regimes in the region that seek to enhance their geopolitical clout.

One particular arena where this export of influence is acute is in the Horn of Africa (2). Prized for its strategic position for centuries, it is fast becoming a stage where the Gulf blockade is being played out (3). The process could well be drawn out, its results long-lasting.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmaajo’ turned down an offer of $80 million in exchange for following the Saudi directive to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar (4). The Somali government has so far adopted a neutral stance (5), preferring to see the dispute ended through regional organisations such as the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, supplemented by the arbitration of Somalia and other like-minded countries, such as Sudan (6). This decision has been largely vindicated, earning the Mogadishu-based central government public support, a much-needed swell of popularity after almost six months in office.

Unfortunately, for the fate of the Somali polity, the decision has been more unilateral than unanimous. Somaliland in northwestern Somalia, a self-declared republic since 1991, defied the central Somali government from which it claims to have seceded and threw its support behind the blockade (7).

That decision may well be the start of something pivotal. For almost three decades since the Somali state collapsed, the secessionists in north have been crying out for international recognition. It has not been forthcoming. Adopting this stance, directly at odds with that of the central government, could well be the fodder the secessionists call in as evidence of irreconcilable differences between themselves and Somalia.

Should the differing stances on the Qatar crisis become a new battleground between northern secessionists and Mogadishu, it will not be the first time Middle Eastern geopolitics has had implications for Somali sovereignty. In the past year, the UAE—the other monarchy, alongside Saudi Arabia, leading the embargo—has been expanding its influence in the Horn by funding ports and military bases (8, 9). Deals for two ports have already been signed.

The location of the two ports only adds to the geopolitical significance of these deals. One of the ports, Berbera, is in Somaliland. The Somali central government, which still does not recognise the self-declared breakaway republic, claims that the rulers of the UAE violated international law by contracting a deal with what essentially de jure remains a regional administration within Somali territory (10). Concern in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, seem to have been raised for good reason: the $442 million deal signed by Somaliland with Dubai-based DP World involved not only the upgrading of the port in Berbera but more crucially, the setup of a military base. While the development of the port might be largely unproblematic (11), it is this last fact that risks potentially ensnaring the entrepôt in any future locking-of-horns between international powers, sitting as it does at one of the most important trade and strategic routes in the world (12, 13).

The other port, at Bosaaso, is in Puntland, the semi-autonomous regional state in northeast Somalia. Since Puntland does not, unlike Somaliland, claim to have seceded from Somalia, the Bosaaso deal may, on the surface, seem a less striking affront to the sovereignty of the Somali central government. Added to this is the conspicuous absence of any military base whatsoever in the deal signed by P&O Ports, the Dubai-government owned ports operator and developer, and the government of Puntland.

But in its own way, this deal could set an unhelpful precedent. The terms of the agreement grant P&O concessions lasting 30 years to manage the port at Bosaaso (14). Some harbour fears that this will allow P&O to lease out the port, directly or indirectly, to neighbouring Ethiopia, a country with whom Somalia rarely sees eye to eye beyond their bilateral conferences held in Addis Ababa. In the same way the Somaliland administration seeks to diffrentiate itself from Somalia by supporting the blockade in Qatar, it also defies the traditional friction between Somalia and Ethiopia. In May of this year, the Somaliland administration was party to tripartite agreements between itself, the UAE and Ethiopia, which saw a 19 percent stake in the Berbera port deal go to the latter (15, 16).

Such access to a modern port, at Berbera, will naturally ease one of Ethiopia’s biggest headaches, which despite being one of the largest countries on the continent is landlocked. Rapprochement between Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, and Addis Ababa, may also provide the justification required by secessionists for their cause, if they can convince the world that they differ with Somalia on yet another key foreign policy area (17).

In the next few months and years, considerable investment into developing the Bosaaso port, with reports already suggesting $336 million (18). But Somalia’s central government will inevitably pay the price some other way, not least in the very clear loss of authority over its constituent regions, such as how the revenue from the ports’ development will be shared with the federal government (19).

These deals can be read as part of a long-term trajectory. Both deals have been signed under terms and concessions granted to the two regional authorities, Somaliland and Puntland, by the previous Somali central government that was led by then President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (20). Mohamud, largely seen as pro-UAE had created these agreements before he left office earlier this year and though these arrangements were unfinished by the time the current administration took power in February, little could they do to reverse these robust, lucrative deals.

In addition to the Qatar crisis looming over the domestic politics of Somalia, in neighbouring Djibouti the implications of the Gulf blockade are continuing to metastasize. Djibouti, a small state of largely ethnic Somalis has sided with Saudi Arabia in the crisis, consequently, putting it at odds with Eritrea that it borders to the north. (It is worth noting here that Eritrea initially resisted calls from Saudi Arabia to side with it before acquiescing on 12 June. Still, despite siding with Saudi Arabia, the small East African country fell short of cutting ties with Qatar. (21, 22)). When border disputes flared between the two in 2008, it was Qatar who agreed to mediate, deploying peacekeeping forces in the process. Now, presumably overstretched in its own crisis and dismayed by Djibouti and Eritrea’s support of Saudi Arabia, it withdrew its troops (23). In the wake of this development, Djibouti has since alleged on 16 June that Eritrea has sent troops into the disputed area (24).

Last month’s news is bound to add more flames to the fire. On 21 June, Saudi king Salman replaced heir to the throne, nephew Muhammad bin Nayef, with his own son, Muhammad bin Salman. Many suspect that the new heir already exercises disproportionate power, particularly since the sitting monarch is suffering from ill health. The decision to promote his son at such a critical time has fuelled speculation that the King may step aside sooner than anticipated.

For the time being, the regional security situation appears to hang in the balance. Despite the rhetoric of autonomy, Somaliland has been unable to restrict Qatari planes from flying overhead as this is being facilitated by Somalia’s decision not to impose the no-fly restriction imposed by the Arab countries. Saudi’s new young heir rises to the position having already acquired a reputation of paradoxes: for more lax social laws and aggressive foreign policy moves. He hopes, for instance, to reopen cinemas for the first time since the 1970s. (25). Whether he accedes to the throne anytime soon, his influence and his particular vision for a Saudi with an increasingly prominent role in geopolitics, the Horn of Africa is bound to be an important arena for the kingdom’s foreign policy.


  1. ‘Saudi Arabia cuts off Qatar’, 10 June 2017, Economist,
  2. Middle East’s leaders cross the Red Sea to woo east Africa, 12 September 2016, Guardian [].
  3. ‘The Horn of Africa: Its strategic importance for Europe, the Gulf states and beyond’, CIRSD (Centre for International Relations and Sustainable Development), Winter 2016, [—issue-no-6/the-horn-of-africa—its-strategic-importance-for-europe-the-gulf-states-and-beyond].
  4. As yet, these reports have not been confirmed, the source being a Qatari journalist, who, in the past, resigned for posting a tweet about Saudi Arabia which caused a storm. ‘Stepping Up the Pressure: Saudi strong arms Muslim nations to take sides in Gulf crisis’, 13 June 2017, Huffington Post, []. For some background into this particular journalist, see: ‘Qatari newspaper chief resigns following tweet on Saudi Arabia’, 14 November 2016, Gulf News [].
  5. ‘Gulf crisis engulfs Africa’, 12 June 2017, Deutsche Welle [].
  6. ‘Gulf Crisis Is Leading to Difficult Choices in the Horn of Africa’, 29 June 2017, Chatham House [].
  7. See footnote 6.
  8. ‘The UAE is expanding its influence in the Horn of Africa by funding ports and military bases’, 11 April 2017, Quartz []. 
  9. ‘The ambitious United Arab Emirates’, 6 April 2017, Economist [].
  10. Somali Official Says Somaliland Deal with UAE Corrupt, Illegal, 14 February 2017, VOA Somali [].
  11. ‘Horn of Africa: Ports in Puntland & Somaliland to compete’, 24 May 2017, African Business []. African Business Magazine, part of the IC Publications network which has over 2 million readers in more than 100 countries, provides country supplements, industry reports and market intelligence on Africa.
  12. ‘Somalia: Puntland and UAE-based Company sign deal to expand Bossaso port’, Horseed Media, 28 May 2015 []. Horseed Media is a news website, managed by a team based in the Netherlands and Finland but working with freelance journalists, both within Somalia and beyond. Written in both Somali and English, its coverage focuses on politics and society in the Somali peninsula.
  13. ‘The Gulf Crisis is Hitting the Horn of Africa’, 23 June 2017, International Policy Digest [].
  14. ‘Dubai’s P&O Ports win 30-year concession in Somalia’s Puntland’, 6 April 2017, Gulf Business [].
  15. ‘Ethiopia buys 19% stake in Somaliland’s Berbera port deal’, 14 May 2017, Horn Affairs [].
  16. ‘Ethiopia eyes role in DP World-managed port in Somaliland’, 9 June 2017, Bloomberg [].
  17. ‘Testing the waters: Somaliland dives into the international arena’, 3 April 2017, The Messenger Africa []. The Messenger Africa is a news service, which provides in-depth analysis on the politics, society and economy of the East African region.
  18. ‘Somalia’s Puntland region says P&O Ports wins $336 mln Bossaso concession, 6 April 2017, Reuters Africa [].
  19. ‘DP World May Develop Port in Somali Region, President Says’, 2 March 2017, Bloomberg Markets [].
  20. See footnote 4.
  21. ‘Eritrea becomes latest African nation to side with Saudi Arabia in spat with Qatar’, 14 June 2017, Newsweek [].
  22. ‘Eritrea sides with Gulf nations agains Qatar’, 13 June 2017, Arab News [].
  23. ‘Horn of Africa: Ports in Puntland & Somaliland to compete’, 24 May 2017, African Business [].
  24. ‘What is behind tension between Eritrea and Djibouti?’, 20 June 2017, BBC News [].
  25. ‘Saudi king upends royal succession and names son Mohammed bin Salman as first heir to throne’, 21 June 2017, Telegraph [].

About the Author

Haroon Mohamoud read history at Cambridge, where he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on contemporary Somali history. Besides having worked in the British civil service, he has written for the Telegraph as a student writer and last summer his analysis of the Somali elections was published on English, German and Somali platforms. At present, he is also the editor of Dalka, an English-language, Somali current affairs magazine, which originally ran in the 1960s and which was recently relaunched.