Many Somalis think that the United Arab Emirates is now as much or more in charge in Somalia than the Somali government.
I spoke to Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, Chairman of the Institute for Horn of Africa Strategic Studies, about the United Arab Emirates’ extensive influence in Somalia.
ANN GARRISON: Dr. Abdisamad, to make this intelligible to American readers, I think we probably have to start with a summary description of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Most readers will know it as a tiny country ruled by a sheik with a lot of oil. To elaborate on that, it seems to be a confederation of vastly oil-wealthy sheikhdoms where the hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi is president and the hereditary ruler of Dubai is vice president and prime minister.
There are roughly 1.5 million Emirati citizens and a guest worker population of between 7 and 8 million, largely from India and other parts of South Asia, but also from Somalia and other nations in the Horn. I believe the 1.5 million or so citizens all get oil royalty checks and are therefore quite comfortable, but the 7 or 8 million guest workers have no rights and are treated miserably.
Dissenters are routinely thrown in prison or disappeared, and there are no freedoms of assembly, association, press, speech, or religion, but the country is stable because all the Emirati citizens get oil royalty checks.
With such a small native population, it has few ground forces, but it has used its vast oil wealth to build a state-of-the-art air force, largely by buying F-16s, drones, and the like from the United States, and it’s considered a “middle power.” It recently expanded its navy and joined a joint naval force with Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, India and Pakistan to patrol the Gulf region.
Is there anything you’d disagree with in that summary, or anything you’d like to add?
DR. ABDIWAHAB SHEIKH ABDISAMAD: No, that is a good description.
AG: Now can you characterize Somalia by contrast?
ASA: Somalia has a population of 17 million people, most of whom are very poor. More than 80% are ethnic Somalis, with some minorities concentrated in its southern states. Most are traditionally pastoralists who live by tending livestock, with minority populations of farmers and fisherfolk, but now roughly eight million live in urban areas.
The country is divided into six federal states with a national government in Mogadishu, which is very weak. Nevertheless, many Somalis are struggling to be a nation despite pressures from outside, including that of the US , that encourage its fragmentation.
The country is oil rich, but most of its oil remains untapped. Various powers and corporations have been hovering around its oil resources, looking for future profits, most of which will not benefit the Somali people unless it has a stronger national government.
Its coastline is the longest in Africa, sitting on the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, at the interface of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and its ports are hugely valuable resources that are also coveted by various foreign powers, including the US and the UAE.
Having a very weak state, it also has a very weak military, with many outside forces, most of all the US, present in the country to, they say, fight the terrorist group Al Shabaab.
AG: Somali and Arabic are the two languages of Somalia. Could you tell us a few things about the history of Somalia and the Arab world it faces just across the Gulf of Aden?
ASA: Somalia has a long history of cultural, religious, and trade ties with the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Although Somalis ethnically are not Arabs, they identify more with Arabs, including those on the African continent, than with their fellow Sub-Saharan Africans. Thus it was not surprising when Somalia joined the League of Arab States (Arab League) in 1974, becoming the first non-Arab member of that organization. Initially, Somalia tended to support those Arab countries such as Algeria, Iraq, and Libya that supported Palestine and opposed United States policies in the Middle East.
After its defeat in the 1977-78 Ogaden War with Ethiopia , President Siad Barre’s regime aligned its policies more closely with those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, both of these countries began to provide military aid to Somalia. Tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia continued, and other Arab states, in particular Libya, angered Siad Barre by supporting Ethiopia. In 1981 Somalia broke diplomatic relations with Libya, claiming that Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi was supporting the rebel Somali Salvation Democratic Front and the nascent Somali National Movement . Relations with Libya were not restored until 1985.
AG: And what about Somalia’s particular history with the UAE?
ASA: Throughout the 1980s, Somalia became increasingly dependent upon economic aid from the conservative, wealthy, oil-exporting sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This dependence was a crucial factor in the Siad Barre regime’s decision to side with the United States-led coalition of Arab states that opposed Iraq following that country’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Support for the coalition brought economic dividends. Qatar canceled further repayment of all principal and interest on outstanding loans, and Saudi Arabia offered Somalia a $70 million grant and promised to sell it oil at below prevailing international market prices.
AG: Now can you explain the UAE’s involvement in Somalia now, and why you consider it a threat to Somali sovereignty.
ASA: A recent agreement inked in Abu Dhabi by both countries’ defense ministers purportedly intends to enhance security forces and preserve shared interests. The UAE has agreed to train 10,000 Somali forces to address Somalia’s security demands.
However, in November 2022, the UAE secretly recruited and funded the training of 3,000 young Somali men in Egypt with the support of the Egyptian government. This secret operation irritated Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia because of Ethiopia and Egypt’s dispute over Nile River waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Somali people and some government officials are concerned that the Arab nation’s recruiting and training of these Somali forces will be used to destabilize the government and further divide the country’s frail security sector, as it has in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, where the UAE trained some of the most prominent rebel groups.
According to some accounts, the UAE intelligence agencies oversee Somali security problems rather than the foreign affairs ministry, which is in charge of foreign relations.
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