UAE port deal with Somaliland stirs up trouble in the Horn

18 May 2018

Tensions between Somalia and the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland have flared up following a new tripartite deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ethiopia and Somaliland over Berbera Port. This takes place against the backdrop of fragile federal unity and the Somali government’s refusal to side with the UAE in its dispute with Qatar.

As Somalia makes relative progress in its fight against al-Shabaab, the dispute over Somaliland has once again come to the fore. Somaliland’s decision to make a deal with the UAE and Ethiopia for the use of its Berbera Port has raised the ire of Somali politicians. Somalia argues that only the central government in Mogadishu can sign international agreements – such as those concerning the use of ports in its territory.

Tripartite deal an alternative to Djibouti

The Somali government has now called on the international community to intervene to prevent the crisis from escalating.

The African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could play a key role in coordinating regional and international interests and fostering dialogue between Somalia and Somaliland in the interest of stability in the fragile region.

The disputed March 2018 deal between the UAE, Ethiopia and Somaliland accords 51% of Berbera Port to the UAE’s DP World, which will manage and develop the port, while Somaliland holds 30%. Ethiopia acquired 19% of the shares in the port, which gives it an alternative to Djibouti, which currently handles 90% of its imports and exports.

Escalating discord with UAE

The tension over the port deal is part of a larger discord over Somalia’s decision to remain neutral in the Gulf crisis. President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ has refused to cut ties with Qatar, which played a key role in funding the campaign that brought him to power, despite significant investments by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the country.

Some federal member states such as Puntland, South West and Galmudug have opposed the government and declared their allegiance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which they see as having greater influence in the region. The UAE also began accepting the Somaliland passport for international travellers in 2018.

Impact of the UAE tensions

The tensions over Berbera Port have created other internal divisions in Somalia. The former speaker of parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari led a parliamentary vote on a bill that forbids the awarding of foreign contracts without the approval of the Somali Parliament. The bill was passed without the input of the presidency leading to a clash between Jawari and Farmajo, who have disagreed over other issues in the past. Jawari eventually resigned from his post on 9 April 2018, having served in that position since 2012.

Yet despite his resignation the political divisions between Jawari and Farmajo continue to fester, adding to the challenge of unchecked international interests in the fragile country.

The politics of military bases in the Horn

One of Somalia’s concerns is that the UAE will train Somaliland’s police and military forces. This is part of a separate deal by the UAE to build a military base in Somaliland, which is close to Yemen, where UAE troops have been fighting Houthi rebels as part of the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE has another military base in Eritrea, and this new deal challenges the military base of Turkey, which backs Qatar in the Gulf crisis.

Indeed, the rapid increase in military bases in the Horn is an indication of a new scramble for strategic control in the region. Superpowers such as France, China, the United States, Italy and Japan also have military bases in Djibouti. In addition, insiders claim that Russia is planning to build a military base in Somaliland.

The role of the AU and IGAD

For over a decade, the AU, through the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), has played a vital role in the fight against al-Shabaab. AMISOM’s efforts also brought about conditions that allowed the 2012 elections to take place – the first since the collapse of Somalia in 1991. After years of failed peace deals, IGAD’s mediation led to the formation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004 and the 2012 elections were the first step towards a return to democracy in the country. AMISOM also oversaw the election of Farmajo in early 2017, which inspired further optimism for Somalia’s stability

As custodians of Somalia’s relative progress and the major regional actors in the Horn, the AU and IGAD have to measure their success by their ability to anticipate and address future security threats, including the unbridled interference by external actors in the region.

While Somalia and Somaliland are responsible for handling their own issues, their institutional and governance weaknesses make them vulnerable to external actors whose interests could jeopardise regional security.

In October 2017 the AU, in collaboration with IGAD, convened a strategic consultation on the Horn of Africa, but the regional players first need to address various individual issues that threaten stability, beginning with the situation in Somalia. The AU and IGAD have to push for negotiations to avert violent clashes in the near future.

On 15 January 2018 the Peace and Security Council met with the League of Arab States (LAS) in a bid to revive the consultative meetings and collaboration between the AU and LAS. Such a platform should provide an opportunity for the AU and IGAD to push the international community to prioritise the stability of Somalia and the entire region over the narrow self-interests of external actors.