After a period of cold relations, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) now seeks to court Somalia, offering to reopen the Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Mogadishu, which it closedÂ two years ago. Yet like many of Abu Dhabiâ€™s humanitarian gestures, this helping hand comes at a price.
Somalia News reported July 1 that, in exchange for restoring the hospital, Abu Dhabi requested that Somalia backs its involvement in Yemen. The offer came after the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized Yemenâ€™s Socotra island in the Gulf of Aden on June 20, which the UAE has eyedÂ for some time.
â€œThe UAE is attempting to creep back into Somaliaâ€™s good books for a variety of reasons. The most important reason centers around the strategic Socotra Archipelago,â€ Mohammad Shire, lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, told Al-Monitor. â€œThe island lies in the middle of one of the worldâ€™s most important oil trading channels and has served the UAEÂ for the past two yearsÂ as a strategic foothold for projecting its military and economic interests.â€
Emirati and Somali relations plummeted to an unprecedented lowÂ after the 2017 Gulf crisis, when Somalia refused to take the UAE and Saudi Arabiaâ€™s side against Qatar, and instead opted for neutrality. In May 2018, the UAE withdrew its life-saving aid and military cooperation programs from Somalia to punish and pressure it into supporting their stance. It [the UAE] also aimed to weaken the influence of Qatar and Turkey, which have strong ties with Somalia.
The UAE then sought stronger ties with Somaliaâ€™s autonomous regions, namely Somaliland and Puntland, while supporting opposition politicians in Mogadishu. Its DP World has invested over $442 million on developing a port in Somalilandâ€™s city of Berbara since October 2018. Developing a presence in the Horn of Africa would help Abu Dhabi to control trade flow through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key global channel for maritime shipping. This also links to the UAEâ€™s pursuit of ports in southern Yemen and Socotra island â€” where it also seeks a military presence, to build a powerful regional sphere of influence.
Yet Somalia has repeatedly condemned the UAEâ€™s role in the Somali peninsula. It blocked tens of millions of dollars entering Mogadishu from Abu Dhabi, destined for Somaliland, in April 2018. Somalia reportedly arrested a network of Emirati spies operating in the country. Its stance hinders the UAEâ€™s aims of becoming a powerful actor in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
Facing such obstacles, the UAE has apparently shifted to a more pragmatic approach in Somalia, opting for a more humanitarian image.
â€œThere is a new momentum in the region and we should collectively seize this opportunity to formulate sustainable solutions that serve the interest of regional states and meet the aspirations of its people,â€ said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash in a speech at the UAE Security Forum in Abu Dhabi in December 2019. â€œWe believe that such models will ultimately play an important role in supporting stability and development in the Horn of Africa,â€ he added.
During the coronavirus pandemic, some wealthier countries have employed â€œcoronavirusÂ diplomacyâ€ through aid to strengthen regional relations and influence, and the UAE is among them. On April 14, Abu Dhabi sent eight tons of coronavirus aid to Mogadishu in collaboration with the World Health Organisation. And then on May 12, Dubaiâ€™s Prince Mohammed bin Rashed Al Makhtoum delivered several more tons of aid to Somaliaâ€™s capital, including for coronavirus and flood relief.
However, despite these gestures, Abu Dhabi may still fail to win over Mogadishu.
â€œIf history has shown us anything, I doubt UAE humanitarian overtures will produce their intended effects,â€ Shire said.
Somalia rejected Abu Dhabiâ€™s support of reopeningÂ the hospital and criticized the UAEâ€™s role in Yemen.
â€œSomalis are not cheap tools used to implement your demands. Yemen is a neighbor and a brotherly country and has its own sovereignty and dignity of its people,â€ said Ahmed Issa Awad, Somaliaâ€™s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, in response to the UAEâ€™s recent offer, Somalia News reported. â€œThe world knows that Socotra is Yemeni land, and has been from ancient times,â€ he concluded.
And during an interview with Al-Arabiya channel June 9, Awad again condemned DP Worldâ€™s â€œunauthorizedâ€ activities in Somaliland and Puntland as a violation of Somaliaâ€™s sovereignty, warning that this could make Somali and Emirati relations even worse.
Somalia was once supportive of the UAE â€” and more widely, the Saudi-led coalition â€” in Yemen, and Abu Dhabi evidently seeks to revive this.
â€œThe past Somali government of Hasan Sheikh supported the Saudi-led coalition. They did this by officially approving the use of the country’s airspace, territorial waters and land for coalition airstrikes against the Houthi movement in Yemen,â€ Shire said.
â€œAnd of course, Hasan Sheikh’s close links with the UAE and Saudi [Arabia] in addition to financial motives were the primary drivers â€” no doubt about that,â€ he added.
Turkey and Qatar have built strong influence in Somaliaâ€™s present government led by Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (or â€œFarmajoâ€), and Mogadishu can rely on this. Therefore, the UAE will struggle to financially entice Mogadishu.Â
â€œThe latest rapprochement coming ahead of Somaliâ€™s election [in 2020] could be a case of Abu Dhabi trying to get a foothold in the future administration that may come to power in Somalia,â€ Abdullahi Halakhe, analyst of governance, security and peace in Africa, told Al-Monitor.
â€œHowever, if they back a different candidate or a set of candidates â€” making a coalition of candidates against the present presidentÂ â€”Â they could seek to make a foothold,â€ said Halakhe.
Facing such challenges, Abu Dhabi could be turning to other options,.
â€œWith the rising anger against the UAEâ€™s presence in Yemenâ€™s Socotra, the UAE is attempting to influence Somalia to strengthen its claim to the islands and use the contestation as a pretext to justify its continued presence,â€ Shire noted. â€œHistorically, Mogadishu unofficially claimed the islands on account of close proximity. But it officially claimed the islands in the early 2010s when Somalia declared its EEZ [exclusive economic zone].â€Â
He added, â€œThe UAE wants to take a page from the tested Russian playbook of â€˜frozen conflicts.â€™Â They want to do this by strengthening the disputed status of the island between the Houthis, STC separatists, [the Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour] Hadi government and the Somali government, keepingÂ it in a frozen conflict whilst advancing its political and economic regional influence.â€
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has faced other setbacks in the Somali peninsula. Last September, Somalilandâ€™s administration decided to convert an Emirati military base into a civilian airport, after Abu Dhabi began its construction in 2017. The UAEâ€™s grip may be loosening there, which would limit its regional influence, despite capturing Socotra.