Determinants of Middle East states involvement in the Horn of Africa

Federico Donelli, University of Genoa, Genoa

Recent political events in the Horn of Africa (HOA) such as the restoration of relationships between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the complex transition process in Sudan have shed light on the engagement of the Middle East (ME) states in Eastern Africa. Countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Egypt and Israel have been involved in the HOA since the 1970s. Others, such as Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have been engaged approximately for two decades. This involvement has been intensifying in recent years, drawing increasing interest from international scholars and local populations. For instance, last spring, the Sudanese people protested against the Gulf states’ meddling in Sudan’s complicated political transition.

This paper seeks to explain some of the factors driving the engagement of ME countries in the politics of the HOA. Through a multi-level analysis based on the neoclassical realist approach,[1] the paper highlights how these determinants may also explain the changing policies of ME states in the last fifteen years from a trade-humanitarian-diplomatic approach to a security-political one.

Transactional relations

Given the long history of contacts between the two shores of the Red Sea, it would not be accurate to talk about the ME states (re)discovery of the HOA. However, undoubtedly, the scope and nature of these interactions have mutated since the beginning of the new millennium, becoming more structured and intensive. Such change was triggered by a variety of factors, which can be traced both to ME and global transformations.

Global drivers played a decisive role in the first phase, between 2003 and 2011, in pushing the ME players to move towards the Horn. The 2008 global financial crisis drove the ME countries to redirect their investment and economic interests towards regions less affected by the economic collapse, such as Africa. Turkey saw Africa as an alternative market for its products by enhancing trade relations.[2] The Gulf states (UAE, KSA, Qatar) saw in Africa’s fast-growing economies a good long-term investment. Deepening economic and trade links with African countries have enabled Gulf countries to further diversify their SWF’ portfolio and to reduce reliance on oil revenues.

Moreover, Gulf states viewed Africa, with 60 percent of the world’s total uncultivated arable lands, as a strategic opportunity to build up their food security. Indeed, in 2009, as a result of soaring food prices, many Gulf states launched investment plans to achieve food self-sufficiency. The large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, known as ‘land grabbing’, is a highly controversial phenomenon that has triggered several episodes of tension between locals and foreign investors.[3]  African migrant workers have been another economic issue that has fed controversies between the countries on both sides of the Red Sea. These are not the biggest unskilled migrant community in the Gulf, but remittance flows are a critical source of income for their home countries. That dependency relationship has increased the asymmetric nature of the parties’ relations. Indeed, the remittances, as well as the high number of illegal migrants, constitute an important leverage of power for the Gulf states over African ones.

Beyond the economic rationale, the gradual disengagement by the United States from the wider region (ME-HOA) has further convinced ME policy-makers to launch more adventurous foreign policies, thereby increasing their engagement in the HOA. They viewed the reduction of US commitment as a threat in terms of security procurement but also an opportunity to increase their international status. Indeed, since then, ME states have tried to increase their international relevance by acting in niche fields – humanitarian, mediation, peacekeeping, maritime logistics – that can provide a payoff in terms of public visibility at a low political cost. Iran’s ability to assume a dominant role in post-Saddam Iraq and to strengthen the ties established in the previous decade with some of the HOA countries (Eritrea, Sudan) prompted KSA to extend its rivalry with Teheran beyond traditional regional boundaries.

Why the Horn? The ME states began to view the HOA as a laboratory in which they can experiment with their ability as international stakeholders.  Besides the geographical proximity and the many historical-cultural affinities (language, religion) the HOA has a few features that make it permeable to extra-regional influence. These include the endemic fragility typified by the high number of conflicts – interstates and intrastate – and the presence of some weak and failed states, the considerable disparity in wealth compared to ME countries, and the increasing centrality of the Red Sea in global geopolitics.

The scramble for influence

Since the 2011 uprisings, ME states have opened dozens of new embassies across Africa and have made assertive diplomatic interventions in the HOA political issues. Iran, consumed by crises such as Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL) and the nuclear negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), partly reduced the strategic importance of Africa in its security agenda. The four Sunni powers increased their involvement in the Horn’s security, economic and political issues. The impetus for Turkey, KSA, Qatar and the UAE to get involved in the HOA may have differed, but their recent interactions there have roots in the long-lasting effects of the 2011 uprisings. These resulted in turmoil across the region that paved the way to the reshuffle of regional power distributions and regime types.[4]  Even though some Gulf policymakers, mainly Saudis, had always considered the African countries bordering the Red Sea as natural strategic partners, the HOA became even more relevant in ME states’ strategies in the post-2011 scenario.

In addition to the competing ideological and regime poles of Iran and KSA, the rise of political Islamic movements galvanized Turkey’s and Qatar’s regional ambitions. Both states abandoned their former pragmatic stances and jumped on the uprisings’ bandwagon to carve new regional roles for themselves. Consequently, cross-sectarian convergences led to a dynamic realignment of strategic interests. Qatar has used its vast oil wealth in the service of various and often controversial political agendas across the region, at times dovetailing with Ankara’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt. The UAE, on the other hand, drew closer to KSA post-2011 in an attempt not only to maintain but grow the power and influence of the region’s conservative monarchies.[5]

In the months after the uprisings, the conditions changed and many of the political forces that Turkey and Qatar had supported, officially and unofficially, lost relevance and power and, as a result, also their influence. Although there had been an initial alignment of the Turkish-Qatari axis with the positions of the Saudi-led bloc in some crisis scenarios, mutual distrust grew. The UAE, for which political Islam constitutes an existential threat, began to perceive Turkey’s pro-active policy as a primary threat to its stability and regime survival. This jockeying for influence has spilled beyond the boundaries of the ME into the HOA, first by bolstering diplomatic-economic relations and then by securitizing the Red Sea. Following the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the KSA-UAE have prioritized, in addition to the Iranian threat, the ideological threat of moderate political Islam and have confronted Turkish and Qatari influence from Egypt to Somalia. The KSA and the UAE have sought to use financial leverage and their relative power at the regional level to pressure HOA states, such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia, to align with their regional policies of severing relations with Iran and opposing the spread of MB-affiliated movements.

Establishing a hierarchy of power

While global determinants had favored the rising engagement in the Horn, regional power balances have pushed the ME states to strengthen relations with their African counterparts on a political and security level. From 2015 to date, two fundamental events have driven the ME powers in their search for influence in the HOA, generating a continuous realignment of local state and non-state actors: the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen (2015) and the GCC crisis (2017). These two events changed the scope, the nature and the targets of the intervention of the KSA and UAE, prompting them to counteract different threats.

The turmoil in Yemen convinced Saudi leaders that Iran was using the Horn for logistical support to supply arms to the Houthi rebels. As a result, the KSA elevated the HOA to the top of its agenda as a key area for maintaining regional power balances and national security. This meant rallying GCC states in support of the Saudi interventionist policy in the region, persuading Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia through investments, loans, and central bank transfers to sign up to the pro-Saudi camp and keep Iranian ships out of the Red Sea.  The KSA-UAE’s growing involvement, in addition to being aimed at countering the Iranian presence, especially in Sudan, began to be aimed at checking Turkish policy, increasingly perceived as a threat to their interests in the region.[6]

If the launch of Saudi-led operations in Yemen in 2015 had favored the emergence of a common front among HOA countries, the 2017 GCC crisis split that front and led to the rise of new alignments. The process had already begun in 2014 when the KSA, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. The tension within the GCC increased, and in 2017 the so-called Arab Quartet decided to impose a trade and diplomatic embargo on Qatar for supporting Islamist organizations and maintaining relations with Iran. The GCC split brought Turkey and Qatar closer together. The increased cooperation between the two countries first became evident with the establishment of a Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command military base in Doha in December 2017. In response, the two Gulf monarchies began to pressure the HOA countries aligned with them to break off relations with Qatar, as they had done in 2015. However, except for Eritrea, the other countries decided not to take sides as they had long-established good diplomatic and economic relations with Doha and Ankara. Since then there has been a speedy process of militarization of the area through the opening of ME’s military bases and outposts.[7]

The regional developments of the following two years – Jeddah agreement and al-Bashir overthrow – have shown the leading role played by the two Gulf monarchies in HOA political and security dynamics. The KSA’s and the UAE’s attempts to expand their role in the wider ME, has, on the one hand, pushed the Gulf powers to double down on their alignments in the Horn – with a burgeoning collaboration that goes beyond narrow security interests – inviting countries to choose their side of the divide. On the other hand, this interventionist and polarizing policy has induced other regional actors such as Turkey and Qatar to expand their presence in the region to counter the influence of their rivals.[8]

Although the KSA and the UAE share a desire to limit the rise of Iran in the Horn, their main motivation seems to be the establishment of a precise hierarchy of power within the Sunni world. There are now two kinds of intra-GCC rivalries among the three main protagonists (KSA, UAE, and Qatar): on the one hand, a Gulf competition based on soft power projection, and another involving the recent efforts of Arab monarchies to compete in geo-economic diversification. The KSA is investing heavily in infrastructure and civil engineering mega-projects in the hope that its strategy in the Red Sea will be useful to its economic diversification and able to secure the allies’ loyalty through partnerships and beneficial agreements. Likewise, the UAE relies on diplomacy based on trade and infrastructures (also known as the ‘geopolitics of ports’) and on the adoption of an interventionist maritime policy. The UAE is driven by the need to protect its economic and commercial interests in the Afro-Asian area and support geo-economic and strategic alternatives to circumvent Saudi influence in the wider ME. There were signs of disagreement and strain between the KSA and the UAE over the post-crisis political agenda. The UAE’s seems to have moved towards narrower national interests, proposing itself as the best partner for the stabilization of the region, even if this means cutting losses and moving forward without Riyadh. Finally, Qatar, in cooperation with Turkey, is operating in the area between the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean in such a way as to break through the diplomatic isolation imposed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and, at the same time, pursue its own geopolitical and economic interests.


The involvement of ME players in the HOA has become the reflection of the regional geopolitical competition and a representation of the geostrategic maritime rivalry among the several medium powers engaged in the Red Sea. While the ME states’ competition may increase the geostrategic importance of the region, it also risks to fuel conflicts or exacerbate new tensions among HOA stakeholders. The spillover effects of ME’s rivalries jeopardize HOA’s efforts to stabilize the region. As witnessed in recent events in Sudan, the ME states’ interventionist policies in the region, through their investments, political interference and growing military presence, lack a clear vision for the Horn and often create antagonist relationships and protests that increasingly denote the divergent goals of these outside powers.





[1] Norrin M. Ripsman, Jeffrey W. Taliaferro and Steven E. Lobell, Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] See the contribution of Ezgi Guner. For a deeper analysis, see Federico Donelli, “The Ankara consensus: the significance of Turkey’s engagement in sub-Saharan Africa,” Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 30, no. (2018):57-78.

[3] See the contribution of Nisrin al Amin.

[4] Waleed Hazbun, “Regional Powers and the Production of Insecurity in the Middle East,” Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture (MENARA), Working Papers No. 11 (September 2018).

[5] Eman Ragab, “Beyond Money and Diplomacy: Regional Policies of Saudi Arabia and UAE after the Arab Spring,” International Spectator, Vol. 52, no. 2 (2017):37-53.

[6] Brendon J. Cannon and Federico Donelli, “Asymmetric alliances and high polarity: evaluating regional security complexes in the Middle East and Horn of Africa,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 41, no. 3 (2020):505-524.

[7] Harry Verhoeven, “The Gulf and the Horn: Changing Geographies of Security Interdependence and Competing Visions of Regional Order,” Civil Wars, Vol. 20, no. 3 (2018):333-357; Ash Rossiter and Brendon J. Cannon, “Re-examining the “Base”: The Political and Security Dimensions of Turkey’s Military Presence in Somalia,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 21, no. 1 (2019):167-188. For an analysis of the impact of militarization on the lives of local people, see the contribution of Samar al-Bulushi.

[8] The opening of the Turkish military training base in Mogadishu was accompanied by plans to establish a navy outposts in Suakin (Sudan). Aras, Bülent, “Turkey and the Gulf States: Geopolitics, Defense, and Security.” in The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region, ed. Khalid Al-Jaber and Dania Thafer (Washington, D.C.: Gulf International Forum, 2019).