The Gulf Crisis is Hitting the Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is comprised of eight countries including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. Countries in this region are more or less linked to other states in the Gulf Region through historic economic, cultural and political interdependences; this makes this region vulnerable and easily affected by any political, economic and religious metamorphosis that unfolds in the gulf and the Middle East at large.
The Horn of Africa is one of the most geostrategic regions in the world due to its location along the Bab-el-Mandeb strait which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. In a larger perspective, the region strategically hosts one of the two maritime checkpoints that link Europe with South, Southeast, and East Asia. All sea-bound trade between the EU and these niches of Eurasia do transit through this narrow passage of the Bab-el-Mandeb. This makes the hegemony over the sea route of heightened importance for any power or combination of powers. For this reason most powers have moved their navies to the region over the past decade purportedly to “combat piracy.”
The Horn of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia, was mainly colonized by European powers at the end of the nineteenth century and was divided between the French, British, and the Italians. Djibouti was designated French Somaliland in 1885; British Somaliland included the region of the Gulf of Aden, and Italian Somaliland included control of the region nearest the Indian Ocean, as well as the Red Sea colony of Eritrea.
Eritrea shares a 640-mile boundary with its Horn of Africa neighbor, Ethiopia, from whom it only gained independence in 1991. The two countries fought a bloody two-year war over border boundaries between 1998 and 2000. Since then bilateral relations between the two neighbors have been characterized as “no war, no peace.” Until 1991, Eritrea was considered an autonomous region within Ethiopia. The latter’s decision to attempt to annex the former in 1961 sparked a 30-year war of independence. Against a much-larger and better-equipped Ethiopian army, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front won the war and toppled Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, with the assistance of Ethiopian rebels. Eritrea was recognized as an independent state by the international community in 1993 following a United Nations-backed referendum vote in favor of independence.
The Djibouti-Eritrea relations have been characterized by intermittent spats resulting from the unclear border lines and also regional politics. The first time the border issue came to light was in 1996 when Djibouti accused Eritrea of producing a map that included part of Djiboutian territory. After Eritrea’s response to the accusations as a mere misunderstanding, the dispute seemed to fade away.
In an effort to flex its diplomatic muscles and at the same time provide a geostrategic security, the government of Qatar extended mediation services to the two countries which they accepted and the border dispute has been settled through the Qatari mediation process in 2010 before its rival Gulf Arab nations stationed their troops in both African countries, with the intention of using them as a jumping-off point for the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.
In a very misjudged and unprecedented move, Djibouti and Eritrea joined a group of GCC nations led by Saudi Arabia that have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups, including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), accusations that Qatar strongly denies and supporting Iran-Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region. These actions by Eritrea and Djibouti against Qatar, provoked Qatar to pull out its troops from the contested Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Islands co-claimed by Djibouti and Eritrea. With Eritrea moving its forces into the contested border area, the temperature of the conflict has been increased and the situation is now more explosive than ever before for all actors involved. The potential fallout of the crisis could have a ripple effect spiraling out of the border dispute into the much larger vulnerable regions of the Horn of Africa at a time when the sub-region is facing a massive humanitarian crisis.
Somalia maintained a neutral stance and offered the will and readiness to mediate the conflicting brotherly nations in the gulf, while demonstrating friendship with both blocs. Qatari Air carriers significantly increased their flights over the Somali airspace after four Arab nations blocked the airline from accessing their air spaces, a move that did not go well with the Saudi led Arab nations that blockaded Qatar. A Somali government delegation arrived in Riyadh during the first days of the crisis. The Somali delegation was supposed to discuss with their Saudi counterparts the execution of several high profile projects which the Saudis pledged in support for the new Somali government. Somali media sources claim that the delegation did not receive a cordial reception from the Saud government which resulted in the Somali government reducing its ministerial level delegation to Saudi Arabia and instead dispatched Permanent Secretaries to Riyadh to meet Saudi officials which reflected the neutrality Somalia demonstrated in the crisis.
In an equal demonstration of uneasiness with the Somali attitude towards the Saudi led Arab nations, the government of UAE, a leading power in the Somali state reconstruction efforts that trained a good number of Somali soldiers, recalled its Ambassador to Mogadishu and expelled a Somali competitor in the International Dubai Qur’an Award competition, in protest of Somalia’s neutral stance in the ongoing Middle East crisis.
More sanctions by the Saudi’s and the Emiratis intended to punish the weak federal government of Somalia can be expected including the halting of the security and stability supports initially provided by the Arab giants in their efforts to help Somalia build its national institutions and elevate the secessionist authorities of Somaliland which will undoubtedly become a nightmare for the sovereignty of the Federal government of Somalia.
Adding insults to the injury, the spillover effects of the Gulf crisis has currently been felt beyond the borders of the Gulf States and has automatically travelled towards the already troubled Horn of Africa region. It is incumbent for the humanitarian and security actors in the Horn of Africa to mobilize diplomatic efforts to resolve or mitigate the Gulf crisis before the situation climaxes into the escalation of a humanitarian catastrophe in the already problematic greater Horn of Africa.