Saudi-Iranian Rivalry from the Gulf to the Horn of Africa: Changing Geographies and Infrastructures    

May Darwich, University of Birmingham

While the Arabian Gulf and the Horn of Africa share historical relations, geographic proximity and political links, transregional interactions increased dramatically since the 2015 Yemen war. Relations between the Arabian Gulf and the Horn of Africa have acquired a new dynamic following the 2015 Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, when Gulf States—namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—turned to the Horn of Africa as a geostrategic space critical to their war effort (Soliman 2017). Gulf States have heavily invested in infrastructures by leasing ports in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland along with investing in airports, building deep-water port facilities, and establishing military bases.

These infrastructural developments turned the Horn of Africa into a space for competition among Gulf States and other traditional actors, such as the United States, China, and Turkey. A growing literature attempts to explain this dynamic relationship between the two regions, often focusing on geopolitical or security dynamics (e.g. Bishkum, 2019; Cannon et al., 2019; Melvin, 2019a; Verhoeven, 2018) or on economic aspects of the new competition (Meester et al., 2019). Other authors study the impact of international competitions on national and regional policies in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East respectively (ICC, 2018b; Melvin 2019a, 2019b), with some focusing on single countries (ICC, 2018a; Ahmed et al., 2019; Larsen et al., 2019). While some scholars argue that Saudi-Emirati turn toward the Horn of Africa is driven by fear of Iranian encroachment in East Africa (Mansour and Ahmed 2019; Alieu Manjang 2017), other scholars shed light on ulterior economic and strategic dynamics that could have shaped these developments. This essay explores the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Horn of Africa. It argues that while Gulf engagement in the Horn of Africa was initially driven by concerns about Iranian expansion in East Africa and the Red Sear, their extent of their involvement rather reflected a broader move by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to project power beyond the Middle East. Whereas Gulf rivalry was often paralleled with sectarianization in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Africa (particularly in Nigeria), the Horn of Africa has been an area where the rivalry emerged without sectarianism. The essay will first present a quick overview of Iranian presence in the area. Then, it examines Saudi and Emirati endeavours to establish strategic partnerships in the Horn of Africa. Finally, it places this rivalry in the context of Gulf rivalries and offers some reflections on the role of sectarianism in the Middle East and beyond.

Iranian Involvement in the Horn of Africa

During the two decades, Iran extended its influence in the Horn of Africa by providing financial and military support to countries in East Africa. This Iranian influence in the region was primarily based on the long-term alliance with Sudan. Teheran’s relations with Sudan dates back in 1989 at the advent of Omar al-Bashir to power. Shortly after Bashir came to power, both Sudan and Iran developed a strategic partnership through economic and military agreements. In 1991, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani visited Khartoum and agreed to supply Sudan with free oil and arm supply. The two countries also signed a military pact (Kassab 2018). In the early 1990s, hundreds of Iranian revolutionary guards were in Sudan training Islamist militants from Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and the Gulf (Rubin 2014, 77–78). By 2007, Iran became the main suppliers of weapons to Sudan, and both countries signed another defence agreement in 2008. In return, Sudan was suspected to channel weapons to Iran’s allies, namely Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Houthis in Yemen (Mansour and Ahmed 2019, 104-5).

Beyond its strategic relationship with Sudan, Iran pursued other partnerships and alliances in the Horn of Africa (Lefebvre 2019). It strengthened its relations with Eretria, which allowed Asmara a path out of international isolation and US sanctions. Eritrea’s proxy war in Somalia against Ethiopia (in the context of a long rivalry), resulted in Eritrea becoming increasingly isolated diplomatically in East Africa and internationally. In 2008, Eritrea opted out of this isolation by forging a strategic relationship with Washington’s regional adversary, i.e. Iran. Iran also found in Eritrea’s isolation an opportunity to establish a strategic foothold in the Horn of Africa with direct access to the Red Sea. Eritrea offered Iran a port to support its deployments in the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea. Eritrea also provided a maritime link between Iran and Syria by allowing Iranian naval forces moving from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. Starting from November 2008, Iranian warships conducted anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia by using Eritrea’s port of Assab, on the grounds of protecting Iranian commercial shipping.

Iran also attempted to foster relations with other countries in the Horn of Africa. In Djibouti, Iran expressed enthusiasm to enhance military cooperation (Manjang 2017), but nothing materialised. In Somalia, Iran maintained good relations with the Somali government while at the same time actively supporting Al-Shabab terrorist organisation (Reuters 2018). It was also suspected that Iran used Somalia since 2015 to smuggle arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen (Feierstein 2017). Teheran’s attempt to establish a foothold in the Red Sea region through a naval presence in the Gulf of Aden became a cause for concern for the Saudi Kingdom (Lefebvre 2012, 126).

Saudi-Emirati Expansion in the Horn of Africa

Until 2014, the Saudi-Emirati role in the Horn of Africa was driven by economic reasons to ensure food security, especially through investments in the agriculture sector. Following the 2015 Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, both countries started investing in the maritime and logistics sectors in the region, while building strategic alliances with several East African countries. In December 2018, Riyadh announced an alliance including six countries on the cost of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan) with an aim of establishing security cooperation to decrease the influence of outside powers. A Saudi analyst explains the Saudi fear of Iranian expansion as follow: ‘You are having trouble with the Iranians in the Gulf, you cannot afford to have more trouble in the Red Sea, you have to bring the Sudanese, the Egyptians and the rest of the Horn of Africa to some sort of understanding’ (Wilson and England 2019).

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided financial aid to cooperating with countries in the Horn of Africa to steer them away from Iran. Saudi Arabia offered Somalia US$50 million in January 2016, when it cut its diplomatic ties with Iran (McDowall and Maclean 2016). Sudan received US$1 billion deposit in its central bank from Saudi Arabia and a deal to supply Khartoum with oil for five years. Eritrea received military aid from the UAE after it cut its ties with Iran in 2017. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia signed a military and defence agreement with Djibouti in April 2017 aiming to build a military base there.

In addition to these strategic partnerships, Emirati investments in the Horn of Africa has also extended to ports infrastructures. In 2017, the independent (but unrecognized) Republic of Somaliland signed of a deal with the United Arab Emirates-based DP World to expand Berbera port (and, separately, to host a UAE military base nearby). In Somalia, Dubai-backed DP World signed a deal for the development and expansion of Bosaso port, already an important hub for trade between Puntland and southern Somali regions, as well as being a prominent point of departure for (‘irregular’) migration across the Gulf of Aden. In Eritrea, the UAE began constructing a military base at the southern Eritrean port city of Assab in 2015 (vital for its operations in Yemen) and normalised Eritrean relations with Ethiopia would allow access to this port and potentially provide new opportunities to UAE commercial and military ambitions.

The Scramble for Influence in the Horn of Africa: Reflections on Sectarianism

While the few analyses that discussed Saudi and Emirati investments and expansion in the Horn of Africa after 2015 focused on Iranian threats in the region, the extent of their investments shows a willingness of project power. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are using their financial capabilities to build new strategic alliances in the Horn of Africa while establishing long-term economic and military infrastructures. More importantly, these trans-regional dynamics were not solely shaped by the rivalry with Iran, Arab Gulf States have equally used the Horn of Africa as proxy for their internal rivalry. Patterns of alliances since 2017 in the Horn mirror the GCC crisis between Saudi Arabia/UAE and Qatar. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut ties with Qatar in 2017, African allies were asked to pick sides. Countries in the Horn of Africa receiving financial aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE were coerced and blackmailed to cut their relations with Qatar. This rivalry within the GCC created another layer of rivalry between Somalia and Somaliland in 2017 (Malley 2018). The Qatar crisis also created tensions between Eritrea and Djibouti after Doha decided to withdraw 400 monitors disputed by the two countries, after they both decided to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Abdi 2017).

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran are embroiled in conflicts and rivalries in the Middle East and North Africa, their rivalry exhibits different dynamics once moved outside of the region, as the case of the Horn of Africa shows. Saudi and Emirati power projection behaviour in Horn of Africa, while being initially driven by Iranian presence in the region, did not exhibit any sectarian dimension despite the fertile ground for this discourse in East Africa. The Sunni-Shiite divide is constantly put to use by Saudi Arabia to mobilise constituencies across the Arab world in its struggle for regional influence in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Despite the presence of Shiite minorities in East Africa, the lack of similar strategy by the Saudi Kingdom and its allies shows that these endeavours of expansion in the Horn of African are driven by a will for power and influence. More importantly, the lack of a sectarian dynamic in the Horn could inform our understanding of sectarianization in the Middle East. Sectarian dynamics gained traction especially after 2003 and gained even a stronger dimension after the 2011 Arab uprisings. This last wave of sectarianism has emerged with the Syria crisis, where the sectarian discourse was used to mobilise Arab people at the regional level with a sense of urgency that their identity is under threat (Darwich and Fakhoury 2017). In the Horn of Africa, sectarian identities are present and the rivalry at the regional level intersects with local conflicts providing a fertile ground for religion to be securitised. The lack of sectarianism in the Gulf rivalry in the Horn of Africa could provide a heuristic case to illuminate the dynamics of sectarianization, or lack thereof, in the Middle East and beyond. Future studies could also explore Saudi diffusion of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism to Southeast Asia and its absence in the Horn of Africa.

Some ideas in this essay were developed in the context of a collaborative project with Dr. Jutta Bakonyi at Durham University. I would like to thank her for allowing me to use these in this piece.

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