The regional implications behind the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led war against the Houthis in Yemen extend beyond the Gulf and have carried over into the Horn of Africa as well. In fact, while the military intervention in Yemen has resulted in a more concrete security partnership between the Gulf monarchies and their emerging Horn of Africa allies, this has also evolved into a burgeoning collaboration beyond narrow security interests. Nonetheless, the internal rivalries within the Gulf have also been exported to the Horn, in turn raising the stakes in a zero-sum competition for influence.
Actors like Qatar and the UAE deepened their engagement in the Horn of Africa prior to the military intervention against the Houthis in 2015: but the war was the turning point. Under the rubric of geopolitical rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia aimed to undermine the Iranian presence in the Horn by creating new alliances and alignments. The ensuing support and contributions from key countries in the Horn demonstrated their utility in this objective, in addition to engendering perceptions of an interlinked security zone connecting the two regions.
This newfound cooperation manifested itself in different arenas. The first clear signs occurred in the form of direct military assistance for the anti-Houthi war effort. Eritrea opened up its port city of Assab to host a UAE military base in 2016, while Sudan sent approximately 700 troops to fight alongside the coalition in Yemen. Both contributions proved immensely useful and occurred under the premise of financial support, important lifelines for countries like Eritrea and Sudan, which suffered from international sanctions.
The second phase started in 2016, when Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran. Having already secured assistance for its anti-Houthi effort, Saudi Arabia took this a step further by calling for the Horn to follow its lead, suspending relations with Iran. Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan complied. This remaking of the Horn’s alliances with the Gulf was again predicated on financial incentives: for instance, Somalia was reportedly offered $50 million in budgetary support to secure its acceptance.
The Gulf-Horn power imbalance is crafted by starkly divergent economic realities, thus emphasizing the transactional nature of diplomacy. It also demonstrates the limited ideological logic of Gulf-Horn relations, despite the grand competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran (and the Saudi-Emirati rift with Qatar), with states readily adjusting ties based on pragmatic realities.
Nonetheless, through these measures, Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE have been able to secure important short-term objectives with regard to war efforts in Yemen, while achieving a more long-term goal of limiting the influence of Iran in an area of increasing significance. In addition, the threat the Houthis posed to free passageway in the Red Sea brought to the fore considerations about the security of this crucial maritime route. Thus, the Red Sea is increasingly perceived as an interlinked security zone and the Gulf wants to engage on both sides in order to maintain a viable waterway.
For this reason, Gulf projection in the Horn of Africa is on the rise, under the more long-term considerations of maritime security, and building on previous UAE endeavors against piracy in the sub-region of the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coasts. This has been evidenced by the UAE’s 25-year lease to develop its second military base in the Horn in the coastal Somaliland city of Berbera, alongside Saudi Arabia’s recent engagement to do the same in Djibouti, and also to create a new alliance of littoral Red Sea nations, which has excluded Eritrea and the UAE so far.
Yet, the zero-sum competition among Gulf powers has local consequences in the Horn. For instance, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis weakened Somalia, exacerbating local tensions between the center and periphery, as they fell on opposite sides in the dispute. This zero-sum competitive approach could be behind the substitution of certain actors as well. For instance, after relations between the UAE and Somalia soured, the UAE suspended a military training facility it operated in Mogadishu: Qatar then sought to fill the vacuum, signing a defense cooperation agreement and donating a large number of armored vehicles. In this sense, given deeper connections between some Horn countries and Qatar, (especially compared to those with Iran), the Gulf rivalry that re-started in 2017 has proven more problematic for the Horn, and continues to play out across the Red Sea.
The war in Yemen was the main turning point in Gulf-Horn relations: Saudi Arabia and the UAE bloc attempted to fulfill their short-term security goals in Yemen, while laying the groundwork for long-term interests in securing the Bab el-Mandeb and Red Sea maritime passageways and excluding rivals from the area.
Yet while the perception of a Gulf-Horn interlinked security zone drove initial engagement, this has since spilled over to other areas, such as economic interests. Nonetheless, competitive rivalries as a result of the GCC crisis continue into this sphere too, as the new scramble for the Horn of Africa demonstrates.
The management of ports in the Horn of Africa has been the clearest manifestation of this dynamic. For instance, the Emirati DP World and its sister organization P&O Ports secured agreements to manage the ports of Berbera in Somaliland and Bosaso in Puntland; the Emiratis are well positioned to potentially increase activity in Assab as well, following the lifting of international sanctions against Eritrea in late 2018. At the same time, rival Turkey runs Mogadishu’s port and is engaging Qatar in a partnership to develop the historic port city of Suakin on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Qatar is also rumored to be interested in rebuilding the smaller Somali port of Hobyo, among others.
These arrangements build on security interests, advancing the Gulf’s occasions for trade linkages with the Horn and elsewhere in Africa, which had previously been neglected. This is especially the case of access to the markets of Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked nation in the world. Many of the ports are essentially designed to increase options for Ethiopia (transit via Djibouti now accounts for over 90% of its traffic). In this sense, there is a great opportunity not only to dominate the Horn of Africa’s ports and logistical infrastructures in the long-term, but also to develop a marketplace for the future trade of Gulf products.
As port geopolitics suggests, the Gulf monarchies’ involvement in the Horn extends beyond the initial security-related considerations driven by the war in Yemen. Rather, this conflict spurred a greater connection between the two regions, triggering mutual perceptions of an interlinked security zone, with an eye to commercial and diplomatic opportunities. Persisting rivalries on the Gulf side have been exported to the Horn, however, due to a zero-sum vision of regional politics. Yet with Ethiopia gravitating towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE under new Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy, this bloc appears ascendant.
The key question is: when the war in Yemen will wind down, will the Gulf continue to see the Horn as strategically useful? Given the development of holistic relations, also beyond security dynamics, it is unlikely this would precipitate a major disengagement of the Gulf monarchies from the sub-region. Signs such as Saudi Arabia’s development of a Red Sea alliance, and the UAE’s port and military base leases, point to long-lasting Gulf involvement. In the Horn, the Yemen war has been the catalyst for deeper partnerships, with the Gulf now viewing eastern Africa as a crucial backyard region. In such a rapidly evolving framework, Gulf players should avoid exporting competitive rivalries to the fragile Horn of Africa, instead focusing on building a more secure and stable partnership for all involved.