Somaliland signs controversial UAE military base deal amid Somalia protest

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Somaliland and UAE officials at the deal signing ceremony in Dubai on 25 Feb, 2017

Somalia’s government called the deal ‘illegitimate’, questioning Somaliland’s right to reach an agreement with the UAE.  However, Somaliland which considers itself independent from Somalia, but is not recognized by any country pushed back accusations by Somalia as an ’empty talk’

By Jamal Ibrahim, Jamal@alleastafrica.com

HARGEISA – Leaders from the breakaway northern Somalia republic of Somaliland and repressentatives from the United Arab Emirates have officially signed a deal  which would allow the UAE to establish a controversial military base in the region despite protests by Somali government which called the deal ‘illegitimate’.

The controversial plan for a UAE-funded military base in the enclave which is to be used for airstrikes against the Shiite rebel fighters based in Yemen has fueled debates over possible negative impact it could have on the relations between the enclave and its neighboring countries.

However, Somaliland leaders have insisted that the base would instead help the impoverished region’s efforts in creating employment opportunities for locals. However, the deal appeared unhelpful for locals after the UAE’s international ports operator, DP World has laid off hundreds of employees from Berbera port after it took over the port last month.

In addition, Somalia’s government called the deal ‘illegitimate’, questioning Somaliland’s right to reach an agreement with the UAE.  However, Somaliland which considers itself independent from Somalia, but is not recognized by any country pushed back accusations by Somalia as an ’empty talk’.

Somaliland officials pose for a photo group after signing the UAE's military base deal in Dubai on 25 Feb, 2017
Somaliland officials pose for a photo group after signing the UAE’s military base deal in Dubai on 25 Feb, 2017

Meanwhile, thousands of people including former employees of the port have since staged separate large protests and blocked major roads in Somaliland and in London in recent weeks, accusing the government and the UAE firm of depriving them of a few employment opportunities available to them instead of creating new jobs.

Protesters also argued that the deal will cost jobs and impact on Somaliland’s long-battle for sovereignty.

Signing the deal in Dubai last month, Somaliland officials have reiterated that the deal would not hurt relations with neighboring countries that repeatedly warned the region against proceeding to sign it.

Nevertheless, experts cautioned that the ambitious pact risks isolating the region, often considered an oasis of peace in the volatile region as both neighboring countries, Ethiopia and Djibouti have warned that “the renewed uncertainty surrounding” the military base deal would lead to a regional tension.

In the meantime, doubts over the Egyptian government’s involvement in military base deal have also gained momentum after DP World appointed an Egyptian manager Ibraahim E. Al Hammadi to run the port’s operations, replacing the long-serving Somali manager.

The Egyptian government has reportedly persuaded Somaliland officials to sign the deal with the United Arab Emirates after an Egyptian delegation including its ambassadors in Djibouti and Kenya and officials from the foreign ministry have paid the first official visit by high-level Egyptian officials to Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa on April last year, in what officials said  marked the beginning of talks over possibility of leasing the military base.

An Egyptian official handshakes with Somaliland president Ahmed Silanyo at the state house in Hargeisa, April, 23, 2016.
An Egyptian official handshakes with Somaliland president Ahmed Silanyo at the state house in Hargeisa, April, 23, 2016.

The development has raised eyebrows by Ethiopian officials who have long raised fears over potential involvement by Egypt in the UAE’s military base deal with Somaliland

Relations between Ethiopia and Egypt have been at a low ebb in recent years in a dispute over a giant dam Addis Ababa is building across the Nile.

The $5bn mega-dam far to the south, on the Blue Nile being built by Ethiopia has left Egypt worried about the impact on its water supply, sparking a new diplomatic row between the two countries.

In Addition, the dissident Djiboutian business tycoon Abdourahman Boreh and Bashe Awil, Somaliland’s ambassador to the UAE who helped secure the deal are currently visiting Dubai for further talks, according to officials.

Somaliland officials at the deal signing ceremony in Dubai on 25 Feb, 2017
Somaliland officials at the deal signing ceremony in Dubai on 25 Feb, 2017

No comment could be reached from the two officials on the deal.

The United Arab Emirates had earlier signed a 30-year contract with Somaliland to manage its largest port, Berbera. The controversial UAE firm’s $442 million investment deal would see the company owned 65% of Joint Venture with Somaliland Government.

According to economic analysts, Berbera’s management by UAE is parts of retaliatory measures against Djibouti which annulled the Dubai-based ports operator DP World’s terminal contract followed by arbitration proceedings by the Djiboutian government over alleged corruption by the company.

Berbera port
Berbera port

UAE has since cut diplomatic relations with Djibouti and picked Somaliland as its alternative base other than Somalia which signed multiple agreements with Turkey, a long time strategic rival of UAE to run its key economic hubs including Mogadishu port and the International airport.

Ethiopia and Djibouti had maintained warm relations with the breakaway republic before it moved to establish economic relations with the United Arab Emirates which analysts said had an impact of their relations.

According to officials, Djibouti’s government has repeatedly warned Somaliland leaders over their decisions and to embrace UAE as a closer ally, and allow UAE to maximize its strategic interests in the untapped horn of Africa market.

Djiboutian and Ethiopian officials were not available for comments.

(Judy Maina contributed to this report from Nairobi, editing by John Thiongo)

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