Thursday June 7, 2018
By Robert Malley
A year after the Qatar crisis began, it’s having potentially dangerous reverberations in the Horn of Africa.
Somali military officers attend a training camp in Mogadishu supported by the United Arab Emirates, last November, in front of pictures of the two countries' leaders. The Gulf crisis has strained Somalia and the U.A.E.'s relationship.Feisal Omar / Reuters
The Gulf crisis that began last year appears to be living by reverse Las
Vegas rules: What happens in the Gulf doesn’t stay in (or even have
much impact on) the Gulf. Last June, a Saudi-led coalition cut off
relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, invoking various and
shifting rationales—Qatar was, allegedly, supporting terrorist groups,
interfering in Saudi internal affairs, and displaying excessive
closeness to Iran. Little progress been made in resolving the dispute,
and all parties seem ready to withstand it for the foreseeable future.
Qatar of course would much prefer to see its foes lift their blockade.
Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, are
eager to have their neighbor curb its independent foreign-policy streak.
On the whole, though, both sides have learned to live with a dispute
that has become part of their habitual scenery.
But reverse Vegas rules means also this: What happens in the Gulf is
increasingly having destabilizing and dangerous effects elsewhere.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Somalia.
witnessed this last month when I landed in its capital, Mogadishu.
After decades of civil war, I expected to find a bombed-out, militarized
shell of a once great coastal city. Mogadishu is still plagued by
violence; last October 2017, 600 people were killed by one of the
deadliest truck bombs in history. Still, signs of progress abound:
Streetlights function, food stalls overflow with produce, shops burst
with merchandise, tuk-tuks weave in and out of traffic, people gather on
the capital’s beaches, new buildings are under construction, and old
buildings are being restored.Yet this fragile progress is now
under threat from an unlikely source. Rivalries among Gulf powers have
spilled into the Horn of Africa.
Since Somalia’s central
government collapsed in the early 1990s, civil war has gripped the
country for nearly three decades in one of the world’s longest-running
conflicts. In 2006, al-Shabaab, a jihadist insurgent movement that later
became affiliated with al-Qaeda, emerged and occupied swaths of the
country, including much of the capital. A famine in 2010 that killed
more than a quarter of a million Somalis was made worse by al-Shabaab’s
grip on the south-central region of the country. It took until 2011,
after the deployment of African Union forces, for al-Shabaab’s gains to
be reversed, as African Union and Somali operations pushed the movement
out of Mogadishu and began the slow process of stabilizing the country.
True, enormous challenges remained. Reconciling and allocating power
and resources among Somalia’s fractious clans, and between Mogadishu and
Somalia’s regions, or federal states, has proved an uphill and uneven
struggle. So too has building security forces, which are often little
more than an assortment of militias whose primary loyalty is to clans as
opposed to any formal chain of command. Al-Shabaab proved resilient,
often being a better service provider and revenue generator than the
graft-ridden government. Overall, though, the general direction of the
country appeared positive. The 2017 election of President Mohamed
Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, who enjoyed support from across
Somalia’s clans, was further cause for hope.
The Gulf crisis that
began last June, however, has brought another layer of complexity and
strife. I hardly expected the Middle East to dominate discussions with
officials in the Horn of Africa. But in all my meetings, whether with
the Somali prime minister, the national planning minister, the
president’s national-security adviser, civil-society leaders—or indeed
African officials and Western diplomats in the Ethiopian and Kenyan
capitals—the overriding theme was how the rivalry between Qatar and
other Gulf countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, would
affect Somalia and the Horn of Africa more broadly.
the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers
to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia
out of the fray. The U.A.E. didn’t buy it. It considered several of
Farmajo’s appointments too close to Qatar and thus at odds with his
professions of neutrality. In response, the U.A.E. appears to have
doubled down on its support not only for competing Somali factions but
also for Somalia’s federal states. In turn, Farmajo’s government,
angered at what it views as attempts to undermine its authority, has
cracked down on rivals, often using their alleged ties to the U.A.E. as
The Somali government’s confiscation in April of more
than $9 million from an Emirati plane at Mogadishu’s airport brought the
crisis to a boil. The government cites the cash as evidence of Emirati
meddling. The U.A.E. denies the charge and argues the money was destined
for Somali forces whose salaries it has long been paying. Regardless,
the dispute has had destructive ripple effects. The U.A.E. cut off aid
programs and withdrew personnel from the capital. The rift has
exacerbated intra-Somali disputes, particularly between the Farmajo
government and federal states. It is deepening the Somali state’s
dysfunction—arguably the main reason al-Shabaab remains a threat—and
risks allowing the group to muster further strength, despite thousands
of lives and billions of dollars spent combatting it.
Not all of Somalia’s challenges can be laid at the Gulf’s doorstep.
For years, the Gulf monarchies’ aid and investment has been a lifeline
for many Somalis. Nor are Somali elites, long adept at navigating
foreign clientelism, helpless victims. They often have been as skillful
at manipulating foreigners as foreigners have been at manipulating them.
rivalries among Gulf powers—which are increasingly on display in the
fraught jockeying for influence around the Red Sea and in the Horn of
Africa—have brought a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s
instability. It’s not too late for all to take a step back: for
Mogadishu to adhere to a position of strict neutrality between Qatar and
the U.A.E. and to repair its troubled relations with the federal
states; for Gulf countries to cease meddling in Somalia’s domestic
politics; and for Somalia’s various actors to stop exploiting for their
own ends Gulf states’ economic or strategic interest in their country.
None of that would put an end to Somalia’s long-running and tragic conflict. Even without Gulf meddling, efforts to stabilize the country, curtail the threat from al-Shabaab, reconcile
clans, and overcome center–periphery tensions still face a hard and
long slog. But if richer, more powerful states treat the country as an
expendable battleground, and if they and Somali factions pursue a form
of zero-sum competition ill-suited to the country’s fractious and
multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted
Somalia risk taking an even darker turn.
is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. He was the
White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf
Region under President Obama, and a senior adviser to the president for
the counter-ISIS campaign.