Turkey, Gulf States’ Converging Interests In Horn Of Africa – OpEd

Turkiye last week signed a 10-year defense and economic cooperation agreement with Somalia, which aims to help defend the latter’s long coastline and also rebuild the naval forces of the fragile Horn of Africa nation. The agreement took a great deal of attention, as it came amid growing tensions in this region due to Ethiopia’s controversial maritime deal with Somaliland, which is a territory on the coast of the Gulf of Aden that declared its independence in 1991 but is still recognized internationally as part of Somalia.

Somalia received an outpouring of support for its stance against the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal. Turkiye and the Gulf Cooperation Council states were among several regional nations that backed Somalia, stressing the importance of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Over the past decade, GCC states have shown significant engagement and investment in the Horn of Africa area, with the Red Sea regaining its prominence as a geostrategic focal point, attracting competing global and regional actors aiming to extend their influence.

In Somalia, the Gulf states are key players jockeying for influence. During the Gulf diplomatic crisis that began in 2017, the Horn of Africa was an area of rivalry for the GCC states and Turkiye. However, after the reconciliation that kicked off in early 2021, they focused less on assertive policies that could harm their reconciliation path and instead adopted policies aimed at preserving the stability and security of the Horn of Africa and could contribute to enhancing their interests.

Any tension that could pose a threat to the stability and security of this region is now considered a collective threat by both Turkiye and the Gulf states. The dynamics within and between African states are closely intertwined with the Turkish-Gulf normalization trend and it is evident that both the GCC states and Ankara will try to use their leverage to solve the disputes through dialogue.

When mentioning the Gulf states, it is significant to underline that it is the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have played a pivotal role and have the leverage in the region, particularly in Somalia. Following the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal, Riyadh affirmed its stance on the unity of Somalia and the country’s sovereignty over its entire territory.

Even before the Somaliland dispute erupted, Saudi Arabia was angling for a closer relationship with Somalia, having appointed its first ambassador to the country in three decades in 2021. Last year, the two countries inked a security cooperation agreement. Somalia has also been participating in summits held in Riyadh, such as the Saudi-African Summit and the joint Arab-Islamic extraordinary summit, with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud aiming to cultivate close personal ties with the Saudi leadership. Somalia has made it clear several times that it hopes Saudi engagement will go much further, including deeper into the security sphere.

The UAE is another actor in the Horn of Africa that has ties with all competing parties. Prior to 2021, Turkiye and the UAE engaged in a bitter rivalry in the wider Red Sea area that was driven by their different visions for the region’s future. But when Turkish-Emirati relations started to improve, the two states had common stances on some tensions, such as the war in Tigray, in which they supported the Ethiopian government.

From a commercial and security perspective, the UAE gives special importance to Somalia, where it manages two key ports — Berbera and Bosaso — and has close ties with the presidency. The UAE and Somalia signed a security agreement in early 2023 that improved bilateral ties.

Last month, a Mogadishu attack killed four Emirati soldiers and one Bahraini officer tasked with training the Somali army. It was claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab militant group, which had previously also attacked the Turkish mission in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab described the UAE as an “enemy” for its backing of the Somali government in battling the armed group. Notably, this was not the first time Al-Shabab had targeted Emiratis. In 2015, it attempted to kill Emirati diplomats in the Somali capital.

Amid the tensions in the region, the Somali president has visited the GCC states. In the last few months, he has visited Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait. Qatar is another Gulf state that has affirmed its commitment to supporting Somali military officers in the fight against Al-Shabab.

Last month’s attack made it clear for the Gulf states and Turkiye that, without having a solution to the root cause of the insecurity in Somalia, it is tough to achieve their goals. Securing Somalia fits into the GCC and Turkiye’s wider concerns about security in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.

It is noteworthy that Somali piracy has recently resumed after a gap of several years amid the attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea. Thus, the new Turkiye-Somalia deal affirms Ankara’s position as a major player in Somalia, where it has a large military base that trains thousands of Somali security personnel. This base is the backbone of Somali efforts to tackle Al-Shabab.

However, within this context, there remains considerable uncertainty regarding the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal and the defense cooperation agreement between Turkiye and Somalia. While Gulf states had serious concerns over the former, they seem to be comfortable — although not publicly supportive — with the new Turkish-Somali agreement, or at least Turkiye’s security provider role that could also serve the GCC’s interests in the long term.

Check Also

The Imperial Presidency Unleashed

How the Supreme Court Eliminated the Last Remaining Checks on Executive Power This week in …