Somalia remains wary as UAE walks back its dramatic political moves   

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Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Left) meets Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces during an official visit in Dubai this week.

While the UAE government assured of its intentions towards improving ties with Somalia, Somali government stymied by the use of political brokers and a financial leverage that have been bedrock of UAE’s Somalia policies in a bid to wield its political influence across Somalia remains paranoid over UAE’s next political move, which they say could perhaps be a ‘sugar-coated’ promise.

By Judy Maina, judy.maina@alleastafrica.com

NAIROBI – The United Arab Emirates has used this week’s official visit by Somali president to Dubai to engage delicately with Somalia to put in place a structure for talks about its new approach towards the impoverished horn of Africa nation, in an indication of a possible shift in the its political approach, often marked by suspicions and controversies towards Somalia.

For months, Somalia’s government has turned a blind eye on the aggressive political gamble, framed as Somalia’s rebuilding initiative by the United Arab Emirates, in a brazen bid to increase UAE’s political influence across Somalia amid rivalry with Turkey, its long time strategic rival.

However, UAE’s shadowy role in the country’s recent political crisis in which saw regional leaders unleashed a new political challenge against the government in an attempt to force it to abandon its neutral stand towards the Gulf crisis has further fuelled wariness in Somalia, which has in turn curved a road to a new political battle that brought it more closer to Turkey than before, prompting UAE perturbed by the development to send an official invitation to Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed for talks in Dubai

Meanwhile, Somali president’s visit to the Emirates this week appeared to be an important opportunity for the UAE to walk backs its controversial Somalia policy, that ratched up tensions and set off a spiral of reactions and anger in Somalia that seemed to have caught UAE off guard.

According to officials who attended talks between Somali president and UAE officials, Mr. Mohamed who has garnered a reputation for being decisive and dismissive towards UAE’s strategic interests in Somalia since he came to power earlier this year has reportedly complained that UAE’s current engagement with Somalia constituted ‘violations’ of his country’s sovereignty, heaping pressure on UAE which has pledged a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries.

During his two-day trip in the UAE, Mr. Mohamed has also held talks with the UAE’s president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in decades, becoming the first Somali president to meet the oil-rich nation’s powerful leader in decades, with the Emirati president vowed that his country would participate in Somalia’s post-war reconstruction process.

However, the Somali leader who was cautious of being overly critical towards UAE’s Somalia policy has called for an end to its proxy politics in which UAE has used political brokers against the government in retaliation for its disinclination to give its green light to UAE’s port deals with the breakaway northern Somalia enclave of Somaliland and its neighboring Puntland state.

The visit by Somali president, widely seen as a potential turning point in relation between the two countries had left the Emirati government looking to diversify into wider set of alliances including Somali government.

TENTATIVE STEPS

While the UAE government assured of its intentions towards improving ties with Somalia, Somali government stymied by the use of political brokers and a financial leverage that have been bedrock of UAE’s Somalia policies in a bid to wield its political influence across Somalia remains paranoid over UAE’s next political move, which they say could perhaps be a ‘sugar-coated’ promise.

“The main objective of the UAE’s invitation to the president might have been a PR stunt to show the world that its not working against the government, rather than a serious engagement.” said a Somali minister in a telephone interview from Mogadishu. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the secret talks.

“It remains to be seen if they materialize their promises.”

Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, the former Somali prime minister of Somalia and the current UAE’s Somalia political adviser

THE TWO-WAY POLICY

According to Somali officials, just two days before Somali president has embarked his trip to Dubai, the UAE government has dispatched Omar Abdirashid  Sharmarke, the former Somali prime minister as well as UAE’s main Somalia political adviser to Nairobi from where he is expected to start a new political campaign against Somali government.

With $5 million packed in suitcases paid by UAE which is pushing Somalia to take sides in the Gulf crisis, Mr. Abdirashid who landed in Nairobi this week is expected to hold talks with key members of the country’s opposition group, in a major push aimed at adding pressure on the government which maintains its neutral stand towards the Gulf crisis, officials say.

THE UNLIKELY ALLY

Faced with the possibility of blunt and public resistance by Somalia which continued to avoid a public criticism against UAE’s policies, the Emiratis have been forced to scale back their political pressure, thus resorting to an unlikely ally that it believes can have an influence on Somalia’s decision-making process: The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) an eight-country trade bloc in Africa of which Somalia is a member, officials say.

On Saturday, 18th November, UAE has released a $15 million funding to IGAD to shore up its campaign against the Somali government, considered by UAE as a major stumbling block in its efforts to rise above Turkey, in the race for Somalia’s resources, two Somali officials told Alleastafrica. Both officials asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive of the matter.

According to Somali officials, the experienced Ethiopia’s supreme army general Gabre Heard is to take charge of IGAD’s new political push in support of the United Arab Emirates’ efforts to sway Somalia towards the Saudi-led coalition against Qatar. Mr. Heard also currently works as IGAD’s senior adviser to Somalia.

IGAD officials were not immediately available for comment.

However, political analysts say that the UAE’s ‘double standard’ policy has the potential to further complicate its efforts to tiptoe through Somalia’s political minefield.

“The plan of coming down hard on Somalia at this point because of its refusal to abandon Qatar will only push it more closer to Qatar and Turkey, and that will probably bubble up to a level that Somalia takes aggressive steps to fight back which is something UAE would not want to see as the outcome of its highly-invested efforts.” said Jacob Moses, a Nairobi-based horn of Africa political analyst.

With Somalia’s geographic location and its links to the feuding nations, the Saudi-led coalition that cut ties with Qatar continue to flex their muscles on the government in a bid to force it to support them against Qatar, a scenario which could put the impoverished horn of Africa nation at the center of efforts to isolate one of the world’s richest countries.

BROADER DISCORD  

According to experts, Somali government’s reluctance to sign port deals between UAE and regional administrations is another key factor driving Saudi and UAE governments’ pressing push which is to go about wielding influence across the Somalia.

Despite early success in UAE’s strategic interests in Somalia which saw its global ports operator, DP World sealed two separate 30-year contracts to run two major ports in the breakaway northern Somalia enclave of Somalia and the neighboring regional state of Puntland, part of a regional power struggle with Turkey which had won long-term contracts to run both the Mogadishu port and airport in Somalia, its growing political influence continues to unnerve the fragile Somali government.

A cargo ship being loaded in the port of Berbera in Somaliland. PHOTO: ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Using both political, diplomatic and financial leverage, UAE which officials say has never bothered to seek government’s authorization in its dealings with both Somaliland despite declaring an independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991 hasn’t so far been recognized as an independent state and Puntland has is currently eyeing other ports across Somalia.

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

(Additional reporting by Alleastafrica reporter in Mogadishu, editing by John Thiongo in Nairobi, Kenya)

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