In the summer of 2016, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, traveled to an African country to inaugurate the largest Turkish embassy in the world. Yet his destination of Mogadishu was puzzling, given that the internationally recognized territory of Somalia actually hosts two countries and two capital cities: the northern part of Somalia is home to Somaliland, a breakaway province that remains unrecognized by the international community but which has its own functioning government.
In the past two decades, the countries of the Horn of Africa have increasingly been wooed by non-Western countries seeking strategic influence and economic benefits. But as the dramatic rapprochement last month between Ethiopia and Eritrea, reportedly brokered by the United Arab Emirates, demonstrates, what is good for the region can also be good for its allies.
Turkey followed up its embassy opening with its largest overseas military base, opened last year in Mogadishu. It has also boosted security ties with Kenya and Uganda, and is seeking a base in Djibouti. In fact, Djibouti, the smallest East African country with less than a million people, is at the epicenter. It hosts both the United States’ largest military base in Africa and China’s first overseas military installation. Until last year, Qatari troops patrolled its border with Eritrea. The UAE has an agreement to open up the Eritrean port of Assab and is developing the port of Berbera, in Somaliland. The country’s biggest ports operator DP World is also building a major logistics facility in Ethiopia.
Countries of the Middle East have been especially involved, because of historic links, strategic concerns and the belief that the two regions have a shared destiny – which is another way of saying that any problems in the Horn eventually find their way to the Arab world. The most visible example of this involvement came in the middle of July, when Ethiopia and Eritrea made sudden and extraordinary strides toward normalizing their relationship. The UAE played a significant role in brokering the peace and has pledged $3 billion to support Ethiopia.
Peace between the two countries could prove pivotal to unlocking the entire region. Within days of the rapprochement between the two, other countries began to shift their policy. On July 30, Eritrea and Somalia – which fought a brief and bloody war 20 years ago – agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties and reopen embassies. Eritrea welcomed the Somali president to Asmara. Talks are also underway between Eritrea and Djibouti, another country with which it has fought a long-running dispute.
The rewards of this realignment are potentially enormous, for the people of the Horn of Africa and for the Middle East itself. Many of the countries of the Horn require technology and services that Middle East companies can provide. Ethiopia, which has the largest potential market in East Africa, is a good example. It is now embarking on a wave of privatizations of state-run companies. Among the most valuable is the telecommunications market and the region’s most established mobile phone companies – Kuwait’s Zain, the UAE’s Etisalat and Kenya’s Safaricom – are positioning themselves to enter. Turkey sees in Somalia considerable opportunity for its companies, while the UAE sees Eritrea as a base for entry into African markets.
And then there are security issues. Eritreans and Somalis, seeking a better life, frequently cross the sea to Yemen, adding pressure on the government there or they then try to make their way north to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
The key issue will be mutual benefit. The Horn has been much neglected by the outside world. When Erdogan visited Somalia in 2011, it was the first time a head of state from outside Africa had visited since the 1990s. Although the US and European countries have given millions of dollars in aid over decades, they have rarely built institutions or sought to develop infrastructure and the economy.
The involvement of Middle East countries is an opportunity to change that. Certainly, part of what has prompted Middle East countries to get involved has been political rivalry. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and Egypt all have long coastlines on the Red Sea, and watch warily what happens along it.
And when Middle East countries find themselves on opposite sides – as Turkey has with Saudi Arabia, or the UAE with Qatar – that tends to create a sense of a proxy conflict.
The departure of Qatari troops last year from the Eritrea-Djibouti border was linked to the dispute between Qatar and several Arab states. Sudan and the countries of the Horn find themselves pulled between opposing camps, with the smaller countries finding it hard to resist financial incentives. In Somalia’s case, this pull is happening within the same territory, with Somalia getting closer to Turkey, even as Somaliland gets drawn into the Gulf’s orbit.
But the rapprochement between two formerly bitter rivals in Ethiopia and Eritrea shows that what is good for the region can also be good for their allies.
The region certainly needs knitting together. By one estimate, there have been nine major conflicts in the region in the last 30 years. Somalia has been devastated by war and decades of forced, indefinite national military service has warped Eritrean society in barely understood ways. The lack of access to the sea has hampered Ethiopia’s development and contributed to the pressures on landlocked South Sudan.
If this diplomatic push is part of a long-term involvement in the region by Middle East countries – and if they can avoid rivalling each other – then as the benefits find their way to the people, both regions will discover that a peace dividend in the Horn of Africa pays off in the Middle East as well.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB