In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, an Emirati gunner watches for enemy fire from the rear gate of a United Arab Emirates Chinook military helicopter flying over Yemen.

In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, an Emirati gunner watches for enemy fire from the rear gate of a United Arab Emirates Chinook military helicopter flying over Yemen. Adam Schreck/AP

There's a New Player in the Horn of Africa

UAE is funding ports and military bases in an area already frequented by forces of the United States, Japan, France, Germany, China, and others.

The semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northeastern Somalia signed a 30-year concession agreement with the Dubai-owned P&O Ports firm in early April, to develop and manage a multipurpose port in Bosaso city. The development of the seaport will take place in two phases, and is expected to cost $336 million.

The landmark deal was signed several weeks after the self-declared republic of Somaliland allowed the United Arab Emirates to also set up a military base in the port of Berbera. Last year, Somaliland also announced a $442 million deal with the Dubai-based DP World to upgrade the port in Berbera, and create a world-class regional trading hub along the Red Sea coast.

The UAE’s foray into Somalia has proved controversial, with the country’s auditor general accusing Somali officials of taking bribes to enable the deal. But in many ways, the port concessions underpin the geopolitical face-off looming in the Horn of Africa. As Somalia regains a semblance of peace, its over-3300 kilometer coastline could prove the next frontier for global powers looking to deepen their presence across this strategic waterway.

In neighboring Djibouti, military forces from the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and soon China, are already based there, conducting counter-terrorism or anti-piracy efforts along the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. For Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are concerned about the expanding influence of Iran in the region, the port of Assab in Eritrea has also become a base to prosecute the war in Yemen and tighten the noose on Houthi rebels. Observers now say that with these new port deals, Somalia could unwittingly be dragged into a war that far exceeds its own strategic purview and military capacity.

“Contrary to the commercial façade of these projects, the main objective is one of geopolitical and geoeconomics,” says Abukar Arman, a political analyst and a former Somalia envoy to the US. Arman says the UAE’s ambition is also underpinned by Turkey’s growing presence in the region, which is seen as a strategic threat to its British and American allies. “It is the ideal gambit to secure the deals.”

Somalia’s government generates nearly 80% of its revenue from the seaport and airport in Mogadishu—both of which are managed by Turkish companies. The Turks have also eclipsed traditional donors to Somalia, and have engaged in projects ranging from tarmacking roads, building hospitals, collecting garbage, and providing scholarships to thousands of Somali students. The Turkish model, which combines humanitarian assistance, trade, and investment, has been the envy of many nations battling for influence inside Somalia, including the Qataris, Ethiopians, Kenyans, the European Union—and the Emiratis.

But the port agreements could, however, face legal complications in the future. Even though Somalia is composed of federated states, analysts say they don’t have the authority to sign nation-to-nation treaties. Somalis have also been using the hashtag #UAEHandsOffSomalia to share their concerns about Emiratis undermining Somali sovereignty by signing deals with regional governments. Both the presidents of Somaliland and Puntland have defended the deals, saying that it will create jobs and contribute to economic growth.

For now, the newly-elected central government in Mogadishu seems to be the only loser in the equation. President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s government is yet to comment on this, even though he visited the UAE in early April. “He should never have accepted the UAE invitation without first getting on the same page with Somaliland and Puntland,” Arman says. “At this point, he seems at a great disadvantage.”

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