The deadlock pitting the President of the Somali Republic, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, elected in 2017, against various political and clan interests as well as a number of federal states is far from being resolved. The elections scheduled for February 8, 2021 were never held and the president rules by fiat that is helped by the fractured nature of the opposition. The unsettled domestic political situation in Somalia leaves little room for optimism that the previously agreed upon September 17, 2020 electoral model will be implemented. This, despite the mediation attempts and forceful statements made by external states’ leaders and representatives, including Italy. What role can external states play in belated Somali election, and how much pressure can they apply on Somalia’s leaders? Perhaps as important is an identification of which states possess a sufficient track record of political involvement in Somalia that will allow them to play a potentially decisive role in a future election or political compromise.
Somalia’s notoriously Byzantine politics, dominated by clan and sub-clan interests, have engendered a weak – even failed – state that offers a wider political space for action and influence for interested external state parties than those of more robustly sovereign states. Over the past decade, three Middle East states, in particular, have operated at the sub-level of more powerful Western actors (foremost the United States) but have arguably become kingmakers of Somalia’s presidents: Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Much has been written about the genesis and subsequent influence of these three states in Somalia. Our analysis builds on this literature in order to offering relevant descriptions of past and current alignments vis-à-vis presidential candidates and an analysis of what this holds for Somalia’s future. We begin with 2012, the first elections in which candidates vied for the presidency of the FGS (as opposed to the previous Transitional Federal Governments, or TFG). In this election, Qatar supported the candidacy of a relatively unknown Somali academic, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. This was an about face for Doha, which had previously thrown its support to the outgoing TFG president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Turkey also reportedly endorsed Hassan Sheikh, but Ankara’s clout and capabilities were restricted, having only become involved in Somalia as part of famine relief in late 2011.
The leaders of both states supported Hassan Sheikh, who was duly elected as Somalia’s president (reportedly with the help of Qatari money), for a variety of reasons, one of which reflected a common approach and support for movements ideologically linked to political Islam that was found in both Doha and Ankara. At the time of the 2012 elections, the Middle East was in turmoil on account of the Arab Uprisings, and Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in Tunisia and Egypt were in the making with support of Turkey’s and Qatar’s leaders. The political upheaval also resulted in a backlash, led by the conservative Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and marked the beginning of a more assertive foreign policy by Abu Dhabi.
The wrangling over presidential candidates in 2012 was even more pronounced in Somalia’s 2017 presidential election and reflected deepening regional fissures. These included the overthrow (with Emirati and Saudi support) of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Turkey’s military intervention in Syria’s civil war, and the Saudi and Emirati interventions in Yemen’s civil war. In addition, in June 2017, the UAE and Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar in the most severe (to date) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis. This led Turkey and Qatar to draw closer together and to a corresponding deep freeze in Ankara’s relations with Abu Dhabi. These rifts, in turn, increased both the animosities among Middle Eastern competitors and the strategic significance of Somalia.
Turkey’s leaders largely supported the incumbent, Hassan Sheikh, in 2017, hoping to keep its steadily growing influence Somalia along with the lucrative contracts for Turkish companies to run both the port and airport. Qatar, on the other hand, seems to have jettisoned Hassan Sheikh in favor of a relative outsider - even though he already had a history in the country's political life - Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known popularly as “Farmajo”. Qatar did so via Fahad Yasin, the same individual - and former al-Jazeera journalist - who had brought Qatari financial support to Hassan Sheikh in 2012.Farmajo's chances of election rose not only thanks to Doha's millions, but also from his populist and nationalist rhetoric, mainly directed against Ethiopia.
On the other side, the UAE supported the former TFG president Sharif Sheikh before spreading their bets on the outgoing president. By investing in Hassan Sheikh, the UAE hoped to prise the winning candidate away from Turkey and make him their man in Mogadishu.
Farmajo won the 2017 election, one marred by reported corruption and vote buying as well as foreign influence, but the GCC crisis quickly put the newly elected Farmajo in a quandary. Asked to choose sides between the UAE/Saudi bloc or Qatar, Farmajo publicly remained neutral and refused to cut ties with Doha. Given the support he had received from Qatar during the election, Farmajo’s neutrality nevertheless sent a clear signal to Abu Dhabi. UAE-Somalia relations were promptly frozen, and the UAE stopped its security assistance programs.
The tripartite agreement signed in 2018 between the breakaway Republic of Somaliland, Ethiopia and Dubai’s DP World to expand and operate the port at Berbera further complicated Somalia-UAE relations. Farmajo, as a self-proclaimed Somali nationalist, insisted that de-facto independent Somaliland was an integral part of Somalia and therefore banned DP World from operating in Somalia. DP World and Somaliland both ignored Farmajo and work continued on the port. Abu Dhabi, for its part, reportedly encouraged the consolidation of the Forum for National Parties (FNP), the umbrella opposition group running against Farmajo and his Tayo party. Formed before the pandemic crisis, the alliance blends six political parties opposed to the current government and involves several prominent Somali political figures, including the two presidents prior to Farmajo, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Lastly, and signaling its continued displeasure with Farmajo, the UAE became the first Arab state to appoint an ambassador to Somaliland in 2021.
What about the never-held 2021 elections? In the lead up, Farmajo's intolerant politics and his hostility to the implementation of the September 2020 electoral model have increased discontent within Somalia. The president has, in turn, reportedly repressed domestic dissent by exploiting the Haramcad, a special police corps trained and equipped by Turkey, as his private militia. Concurrently, the intense personalization of power that has brought Farmajo closer to his neighbors – Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed - has increased tensions with certain federal states, Jubaland and Puntland, above all. It has also cooled relations with neighboring Kenya, which supports Jubaland’s president against Farmajo, and with which Somalia has an ongoing maritime border dispute at the ICJ, vociferously supported by the nationalist Farmajo.
The combination of bombast, corruption and violence has reportedly cooled Turkey’s support for Farmajo’s reelection. As a result, even though Turkey has not openly spoken out against Farmajo, alternatives are reportedly under evaluation by Ankara. Among them is Hassan Ali Khaire, Farmajo’s former prime minister. Nevertheless, for the past two years, Turkey has reduced the priority it gives to the Horn, adopting a wait-and-see approach to regional crises and a stance of equidistance towards different local actors. This may reflect domestic turmoil in Turkey itself rather than a long-term change in behavior, suffice to say that Ankara remains a powerful political actor in Somalia, with Turkish companies operating both Mogadishu’s port and airport.
Should Turkey publicly back Khaire or another opposition candidate against Farmajo, it would demonstrate a divergence of interests with Qatar, which reportedly still backs Farmajo for reelection. Indeed, some evidence of this discrepancy occurred in late January 2021, when Turkey, along with all of Somalia's international partners – Qatar excepted - called for the implementation of the September 2020 electoral model.Qatar’s and Turkey’s differing responses to the electoral stalemate highlight how mistaken it is to consider the political preferences of both states as perfectly matched.
Abu Dhabi, which saw its influence much diminished under Farmajo’s reign, reportedly prefers Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, also backed by Saudi Arabia, as well as Hassan Sheikh Mohamed's former foreign advisor, Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame. Should one of these individuals come to reside at Villa Somalia, the UAE may see its influence return and that of its strategic competitors diminish.
For the time being, Somalia continues to judder along, ruled by a president with no legal mandate to govern but with a monopoly, albeit highly contested and illegitimate to many, on the use of force. Farmajo may be besmirched, but he also represents a semblance of continuity. For many external state actors, including all three Middle East states, this is better than chaos or civil war in Somalia. His reelection chances (or his staying in power by some other means) may hinge, in part, on the roles played by Qatar, Turkey and the UAE. Their influence and power in Somalia, while important, are nevertheless perhaps overestimated. After all, without an election – without the vote counting and buying and selling that occurred behind closed doors in 2012 and 2017 – no external state can effectively exercise influence to affect the outcome of Somalia’s next presidential election.
 See Cannon, Brendon J. 2019. “Foreign State Influence and Somalia’s 2017 Presidential Election: An Analysis.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 18 (1): 20–49; Berg, Willem van den, and Jos Meester. 2019. “Turkey in the Horn of Africa. Between the Ankara Consensus and the Gulf Crisis.” CRU Policy Brief. Amsterdam: Clingendael; Cannon, Brendon J., and Federico Donelli. 2020. “Asymmetric Alliances and High Polarity: Evaluating Regional Security Complexes in the Middle East and Horn of Africa.” Third World Quarterly 41 (3): 505–24.
 Cannon, Brendon J. 2016. “Deconstructing Turkey’s Efforts in Somalia.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 16 (14): 98–123; Donelli, Federico. 2018. “The Ankara Consensus: The Significance of Turkey’s Engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Global Change, Peace & Security 31 (2): 57–76.
 Fahad Yasin subsequently became Farmajo’s chief of staff for Villa Somalia. He is currently Director General of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA).
 Qatar subsequently joined Somalia’s international partners and signed a public statement urging Somalia’s leaders to find a solution to the electoral impasse on April 6, 2021.