UAE’s strategic interests have Somali leaders worried over sovereignty

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UAE has hired Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, the former Somali prime minister as its new Somalia adviser.

The move is seen by Somalia as a ‘blatant disrespect’ towards its sovereignty and judicial system by UAE’s ‘interference’ which they saythreatens to destabilize the long-chaotic horn of Africa nation

By Judy Maina, judy.maina@alleastafrica.com

NAIROBI  – The United Arab Emirates which has already secured multimillion dollar contracts to run two major Somali ports continues to pursue a coordinated soft-power strategy throughout its sphere of influence, using political brokers to promote its agenda at the expense of fragile Somali government.

Having found it difficult to present itself as a better positioned ally to Somalia than Turkey, UAE was forced to use local influential politicians to increase its political influence, hiring a former Somali prime minister as its Somalia adviser, in a bid to press on its ambitions to control Somalia’s key economic sources amid rivalry with Turkey, officials say.

Meanwhile, the new strategy has made early success.

Earlier this year, the UAE’s world ports operator, DP World has signed a 30-years contract with the breakaway northern Somalia enclave of Somaliland to manage its largest port, Berbera, followed by another 30-yearsrecent deal by the Dubai-based P&O ports developer with the neighboring regional state, Puntland  to develop and manage the region’s Bossaso seaport.

However, UAE’s painstakingly planned Somalia strategy that are open to interpretation and context  has apparently prioritized one thing among others: Political influence which has played a key role in helping it to secure deals easily, thanks to heavy-weight politicians hired by the government that helped push its memo across the horn of Africa nation.

At first, the UAE has hired Bashe Awil, an influential Somaliland politician and the son-in-law of the president who helped secure the Somaliland’s port deal for UAE. And then again, the UAE has hired Omar Abdirashid, the former Somali prime minister as well as an influential politician from Puntland who brokered Puntland’s port deal for UAE as its Somalia advisor.

But Abdirashid’s new job is more challenging than others as he is tasked to broker further deals to have UAE control more ports across Somalia.

According to sources, UAE is currently eyeing a port in Barawe , a coastal town in Lower Shabelle region.  However, analysts warn that UAE will have more difficulties in securing that deal unlike ports in Somaliland and Puntland, two region operating outside the central government’s authority.

Barawe is controlled by Somali government  which maintains a close relationship with Turkey, a long time strategic rival of UAE. The Turkish government, a major ally for Somalia has been awarded with contracts to manage the Mogadishu port and airport by the government.

SECRET APPOINTMENT

In January 2015, Sharmarke who was a prime minister at that time met with the UUAE Somalia Ambassador Mohammed Ahmed Othman Al Hammadi at his Mogadishu office.

Despite secrecy involving the meeting which was disguised as an official and bilateral meeting by the two men, the UAE’s ambassador has raised the issue of pushing his country’s ambitions across Somalia, a grand plan which would start with brokering deals to manage Somali ports by shutting out the Somali government.

Impressed by the idea, Mr. Sharmarke  who pledged his support for UAE at that time has expressed concern over potential backlash over a possible public support by him for agendas contrary to the Turkish interests in Somalia, something he thought would cost him his job.

Turkey enjoys a massive support and praise among Somalis, thanks to the massive aid it sent to Somalia at the height of the 2015 famine in Somalia followed by development projects by Turkish companies in Somalia.

According to sources privy with the secret meeting, the UAE’s ambassador has in the last proposed the idea of supporting Mr. Sharmarke’s bid for Somalia presidency to defend its interests in Somalia. The UAE government has since channeled a financial support to Mr. Abdirashid’s presidential campaign during early this year’s presidential election.

THE NEW STRATEGY

Despite Sharmarke’s failure in winning presidency, the UAE government which eyed on the Puntland port at the time, having secured the deal for Berbera port in Somaliland hasn’t given up on him given his political influence  in the region but instead gave him a new position:  UAE’s Somalia political adviser.

Taking on his first assignment, Mr. Sharmarke has started brokering to secure a deal for UAE to manage Bossaso port in Puntland. His success in convincing Puntland leaders to sign the deal had won respect from UAE leaders who rewarded him with millions of dollars in bonuses, several officials told Alleastafrica.

The two controversial deals that UAE signed with both Somaliland and Puntland had Somali officials scratching their heads in frustrations, calling them ‘illegitimate’.

QATAR CRISIS

Frustrated by Somali government’s assertions to remain neutral in Gulf crisis, the UAE, using Mr. Sharmarke had to exert a political pressure on the central government to prompt it to side with the Saudi-led coalition that cut ties with Qatar.

In turn, several Somali regional states have since announced they sided with Saudi and UAE government and cut ties with Qatar, as a result of the influence and huge financial support by UAE.

The move is seen by Somalia as a ‘blatant disrespect’ towards its sovereignty and judicial system by UAE’s ‘interference’ which they saythreatens to destabilize the long-chaotic horn of Africa nation

Several countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in June, accusing the small country of supporting Islamist militants. Qatar vehemently denies the accusations.

Somalia and Kuwait, currently remain the only two countries in the Arab that maintain a neutral stance in the months-long diplomatic row.

Some African countries also took sides in the diplomatic row, with Chad recalling its ambassador from Qatar “for consultations” after Senegal recalled its envoy citing its “active solidarity” with Saudi Arabia.

However, despite challenges, Somali government which has steered clear of criticizing UAE HAS insisted it would maintain neutral stance in the crisis, rebuking the regional states for their decisions.

Notwithstanding the political differences with Somalia, Saudi Arabia has pledged support for Somalia’s post-war reconstruction efforts, and emphasized its commitment in helping Somalia to defeat al-Shabab rebels to restore law and order.

INITIAL PHASE

During his tenure as Somalia’s prime minister, Mr. Omar Abdirashid has started involving UAE’s port deals in Somalia, signing the deal of Berbera port in Somaliland and Bossaso port in Puntland currently managed by UAE’s DP World, officials say.

During his trip in Dubai, Mr. Abdirashid has also signed for UAE to manage the now defunct Hobyo port in Galmudug state in central Somalia, Merca port in Lower Shabelle region which is parts of Southwest State, southern Somalia and Kismayo port, in Jubbaland state, deals that UAE is currently working on secure.

(Additional reporting by Alleastafrica reporter in Mogadishu, editing by Jeff Mwaura in Nairobi, Kenya)

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