The Qatar crisis hits the African continent

The Qatar crisis hits the African continent
Analysis: With Saudi Arabia calling on a number of African states to join its boycott of Qatar, it has become clear the Gulf crisis is spilling over, writes Stasa Salacanin.
7 min read
12 October, 2017
Qatar has helped finance a number of Somali projects [Anadolu]
After Saudi Arabia called on a number of African states to join its boycott of Qatar, it became clear that the crisis is spilling over the Gulf's borders.  It has already affected many African states, including the Horn of Africa- an extremely sensitive geostrategic spot and one of the most unstable parts of the continent.

Located along the Bab-el-Mandeb strait which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, Horn of Africa has been a polygon of rivalry between different Middle Eastern powers and other global key players.

The current crisis comes at a difficult moment for the unstable and conflict-prone region, facing political upheaval, internal disputes, poverty and political and religious extremism. It seems the majority of African Muslim-majority nations are being sucked into the Arab dispute.

Relations between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa have always been important due to historical ties, both cultural and commercial. The region has typically been seen therefore as a battleground for proxy wars and the expansion of various interpretations of Islam.

Some African countries have struggled to balance their loyalties during the Gulf standoff. The drawn-out crisis has already hit Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, with the possible rise of internal tensions in Somalia. But unlike many other members of the international community, the Horn of Africa and many other countries of the Sahel region do not have the luxury to remain neutral due to pressure to pick a side, especially from Saudi Arabia. Many African states enjoy close ties with all GCC member states, so the Gulf spat has forced them to make some difficult political choices.

For those who wish to remain outside of the spat, sustaining neutrality will prove even more difficult in the future.

The current crisis comes at a difficult moment for the unstable and conflict-prone region

The Gulf rift polarizes the Horn and Sudan

According to Umer Karim, a doctoral researcher focusing on Saudi foreign policy at University of Birmingham, the political spat could last a fairly long time - maybe even years - and might only end with a significant change in leadership of either of the two leading actors. Until then, many countries will struggle to balance their loyalties during the crisis.

This is particularly evident in the case of Sudan. In 2011, Qatar brokered a peace deal between Khartoum and rebels in the western province of Darfur. While Sudan in recent times enjoyed strong ties with Saudi Arabia, especially after Sudan broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2014, the country has also forged close cooperation with Qatar.

Qatar has invested heavily in Sudan, becoming its largest foreign donor. Thus Sudan wants to maintain normal links with both Saudis and Qataris, but this can be too difficult a challenge for Khartoum as the crisis drags on with no solution in the sight.

Crisis in the Gulf may also seriously endanger post-conflict recovery and fragile peace between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti and their three-way territorial dispute.

Days after the eruption of the dispute, Qatar withdrew its peacekeeping contingent of 400 troops from the Red Sea island of Doumeira, claimed by both Eritrea and Djibouti, after both countries followed the Saudi initiative and downgraded their relations with Doha.

Soon afterward, Eritrea seized the disputed island, disturbing the fragile peace in the region and increasing the danger of armed conflict of larger proportions, which would be likely to draw in neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea's most bitter foe and a strategic ally of Djibouti.

According to Karim, the actions of Eritrea should be taken in the context of its dire economic and political situation.

"The spat between Qatar and quartet states has given it a unique moment of political relevance and a way to move out of the long-standing political isolation as well as getting economic benefits. This naturally gave it the confidence to adopt an aggressive posture vis-a-vis its neighbours."

Karim also thinks that Qatari mediation might be replaced by Saudi's or Emirati's. Eritrea could  also be emboldened by a possible engagement with the US as a partner in countering terrorist activities in the Horn of Africa and the Bab al-Mandab strait. "But I don't think matters will escalate any further and a cold peace will sustain," Karim noted.

Competing for Somalia

The competition for political influence between different Muslim countries is especially visible in Somalia. GCC states have been Somalia's most important trade partner and almost a million strong Somalian diaspora lives and works in the Gulf.

Somalia has been a loyal ally of Saudi Arabia - its biggest trade partner - and supported the Saudi side in the war in Yemen. But Somalia has also maintained good relations with Qatar despite the Saudi-led Arab Quartet demands the Mogadishu government break off relations with Doha.

Somalia so far has resisted doing so, even after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered the Somalia's government an additional $80 million "stimulation"   to participate in the boycott of Qatar. One of the possible reasons for Mogadishu's disobedience may lay in the fact that Qatar has allegedly financed Somali's current president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed known as "Farmaajo" election campaign earlier this year.

Qatar has given development and budgetary support to the Federal Government of Somalia since 2012. Moreover, Qatari Air carriers significantly increased their flights over Somali airspace since the four Arab nations introduced a transport blockade against Doha.

Such a decision was not, of course, welcomed by the blockading nations - made more than obvious during the Somali delegation's visit to Riyadh - received with a very cold reception by their Saudi hosts.

High tensions have also emerged with UAE despite good bilateral relations in the past. UAE has forged close ties with two separatist regions-Somaliland and Puntland which declared independence from Somalia. Both regions see Saudis and Emiratis as future financial supporters.

"We might see more quartet countries engaging with autonomous regions of Somalia rather than Mogadishu."

The UAE has agreed to significant port investment deals with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and Puntland. In addition, UAE has negotiated a 25-year lease of a military base in Berbera in Somaliland.  Such deals with separatist federal member state which are avoiding federal government in Mogadishu definitely contributes to the mistrust between Somalian government and UAE.

Therefore, despite Somalia's federal government rejecting the Quartet's demands, Karim believes it remains to be seen how much practical control does the Somali government have over its areas and regions as UAE now operates a base from Somaliland. He noted that Somali government already had strong ties with Turkey and now hosts its largest foreign military base.

"The Somali government will further enhance its security partnership with Turkey and Qatar, and judging by the strong stance of Saudi, these developments might not fare well for Saudi-Somali relations.

"We might see more quartet countries engaging with autonomous regions of Somalia rather than Mogadishu."

More pressure is expected

The example of the Horn shows a new trend of alignment and division among African states, becoming ever more involved in a conflict that is not their own. Unfortunately, the decision whether to side with Qatar or the rest of the Arab nations could later deeply affect the African countries and their relations with GCC states.

At the moment, it seems that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in a stronger position than Qatar, as a recent example of Chad shows. So, could we expect more pressure on African states?

Karim believes that this can very well happen. Important African states like Sudan and Nigeria have already joined the Saudi-led military alliance. The further expansion of this spat might depend on what Saudi Arabia or Qatar can offer to a particular state and how strategically important it is.

In this regard the Horn of Africa is the most strategic region from a security perspective and this is why we see the GCC spat extending here, while also less apparent in other parts of Africa.

"I expect the intensity of this clash and involvement of Saudis and Qataris in the form of investments or aid to be the most significant in this region - extending to Sudan," Karim said.

North African states are successfully balancing themselves between both sides and that pattern is likely to continue. Finally, Saudis might withdraw their investments or cancel their aid to some countries due to lower oil prices and its economic impact.