JOHANNESBURG, August 31 – Despite East Africa being far from the Gulf, the continuing crisis between Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on the other, the area is becoming increasingly strategic as the protagonists battle for influence there.
In pursuance of this influence the oil and gas-rich Gulf nations, including Qatar, have been making their presence in the Horn of Africa felt by establishing military bases, managing ports and supporting allies there with foreign aid.
This proxy power rivalry could either negatively or positively impact the Horn of Africa countries involved, depending on who they are aligned with.
For Saudi Arabia, and its allies involved in the Yemen War, East Africa has enormous strategic value.
“The Horn’s shoreline comes as close as 30 kilometres to Yemen at the Bab Al Mandeb straight, a crucial chokepoint at sea for oil tankers heading from the Gulf to Europe,” the Voice of America (VOA) reported on Wednesday.
Smugglers have long used East Africa as a point of departure for reaching Yemen and securing the area became a priority in March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition launched its war against Shiite rebels and their allies who hold Yemen’s capital.
Following the outbreak of the war the UAE established a military base in Assab in Eritrea and the country plans to build another one in Somalia’s breakaway northern territory of Somaliland.
Somalia is of particular importance to both sides of the Gulf rift. Mogadishu now has a civilian government which is battling Al Qaeda-linked jihadists Al Shabaab.
“You couldn’t find any place more strategic for the Arab powers than Somalia,” said Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “That explains the intensity of these powers’ interest in Somalia.”
Somalia receives the most aid from Saudi Arabia, while the UAE was responsible for training the country’s military and this year launched a high-profile aid appeal for the Horn of Africa country.
However, after Riyadh, and its allies, launched limited sanctions against Qatar, Somalia allowed Qatar to use its airspace.
Saudi Arabia is also considering building a tiny base in Djibouti, where a Chinese military base is currently under construction, and where drone missions over Somalia and Yemen from a US military base there are launched.
It is believed that the Gulf military installations will become permanent fixtures in East Africa.
For Eritrea which hosts the UAE military base at Assab and is siding with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Gulf ambitions in the region could prove positive.
Ruled by an autocratic and repressive president, Eritrea has seen tens of thousands of its citizens flee mandatory national conscription that can last over a decade, something rights groups say amounts to slavery. The former Italian colony routinely ranks last among nations in personal and press freedom, reported VOA.
Shortly after the Gulf crisis erupted Qatar withdrew 400 peacekeepers from a disputed Red Sea island claimed by both Eritrea and Djibouti. In the vacuum Eritrea quickly sent its own troops in to seize the island.
But for Ethiopia, which has struggled to remain neutral in the dispute, the ongoing Gulf crisis is proving unsettling.
In July, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn even acknowledged his concerns in a speech before parliament.
In addition to their military manoeuvres in East Africa, the Gulf States have also become involved in East African politics, especially during Somalia’s February elections when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed won.
Mohamed appointed a former reporter of the Qatar-funded satellite news channel Al-Jazeera Arabic as his chief of staff while the UAE backed a different candidate.