EXCLUSIVE: Doubts grow over Egypt’s role in UAE military base in Somaliland

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An Emirati jet which is parts of Saudi-led Arab coalition takes off from a military base to partake operation against Houthi rebels in March 2015.

Although Somaliland officials reiterated that the base would solely be used by the UAE military, it remains unclear whether other coalition forces fighting against Yemeni rebels would also employ the base which is close to the Gulf of Aden for the coalition’s missions.

By Jamal Ibrahim, jamal@alleastafrica.com

HARGEISA – Doubts about the role that the Egyptian government played in persuading leaders of the breakaway northern Somalia republic of Somaliland to lease a military base to the United Arab Emirates have gained momentum after reports emerged that it will be used to fight rebel fighters in Yemen.

In April last year, 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, 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.
An Egyptian official handshakes with Somaliland president Ahmed Silanyo at the state house in Hargeisa.

Speaking to the reporters during the two-day visit, Haydam Omar, the deputy Egyptian ambassador to Djibouti shrugged off to give more details about the visit, saying that the two sides discussed about strengthening relations between Egypt and Somaliland, according local media.

Acting on behalf of the Arab Coalition fighting the Shia Houthi fighters in Yemeni, the seven-member delegation which held behind closed doors meetings with Somaliland’s president Ahmed Silanyo have reportedly persuaded the president to start a bargain with the United Arab Emirates to lease the military base in the enclave, according to officials privy with the matter who spoke to Alleastafrica on condition of anonymity.

Egyptian officials hold talks with Somaliland officials at the state house in Hargeisa, April 2, 2016.
Egyptian officials hold talks with Somaliland officials at the state house in Hargeisa, April 2, 2016.

UAE officials have since assumed the talks that have led to the conclusion of the two deals.

The development which fuelled fears over possible negative impact it could have on the relations between the enclave and its neighboring countries has also sparked controversy among Somaliland leaders.

Although Somaliland officials reiterated that the base would solely be used by the UAE military, it remains unclear whether other coalition forces fighting against Yemeni rebels would also employ the base which is close to the Gulf of Aden for the coalition’s missions.

Egyptian officials arrive at Somaliland's presidential palace, April 2, 2016.
Egyptian officials arrive at Somaliland’s presidential palace, April 2, 2016.

Meanwhile, Somaliland’s foreign minister Saad Ali Shire, a critic of UAE’s port with Somaliland was the first officials to express fears over the matter, cautioning that both deal which would see the UAE government leased Berbera port and the military base and noted that Ethiopian officials were opposed the deal.

The United Arab Emirates had earlier signed a 30-year contract with Somaliland to manage its largest port, Berbera.

Upon his return of visit to Ethiopia, Mr. Shire had also warned that Somaliland would not afford to lose its relations with neighboring countries, namely Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Ethiopian officials 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 Djiboutian government has also warned Somaliland against allowing for the United Arab Emirates to establish a military base in Somaliland.

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.

The United Arab Emirates 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, a major ally for Somaliland is the only country to have an embassy in Somaliland. Other countries that have relations with Somaliland have merely maintained consular missions in the enclave.

Ethiopia also assists Somaliland in maintaining security in Somaliland, a region often considered an oasis of peace in the volatile region.

At last, Somaliland’s parliament has given the green light to a proposal by the United Arab Emirates to establish a military base in the region, ending a protracted dispute in the region.

The breakaway northern Somalia republic has declared a unilateral independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991; however, no country has so far recognized it as an independent state. Somali government considers Somaliland as parts of Somalia’s territory, an assertion long dismissed by Somaliland which considers itself as an independent state.

Somaliland also maintains its own separate army, currency and government.

(Writing by Judy Maina, editing by Jeff Mwaura)

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