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Out  of shadow: UAE’s new political war creeps wider into Somalia’s sovereignty

In Somalia, UAE’s latest political moves as seen to be an attempt by the gulf state to perpetuate a ‘divide and rule’ game in violation of the country’s sovereignty to increase their influence at the expense of ‘greater Somalia’.

By Judy Maina, judy.maina@alleastafrica.com

NAIROBI – Hidden behind the hundreds of stories in recent years about the United Arab Emirates’ secret strategic interests in Somalia lies a basic process obscured by the talk of diplomacy and deals that officials say are aimed to drive a wedge among Somalis to further increase its political influence.

For years, the rich Gulf state had used proxy networks including regional states in Somalia to exert further pressure on the central government in a bid to compel it to change its neutral stand towards the Gulf crisis, an attempt which has thus far proved difficult for the Arab nation, thanks to Somali leaders’ blunt refusal in bowing to the demands.

According to Somali officials, UAE’s aggressive political moves in the country have eclipsed its principle of non-interference approach in the internal affairs of the impoverished horn of Africa nation, further straining the already troubled relations between the two countries.

However, the United Arab Emirates which is currently locked in a relentless economic battle with Turkey, a long-time strategic rival has since escalated its political expedition, systematically promoting political divisions across Somalia, reflecting the twists and turns of its new revised Somalia policy.

STUCK BUT PERSISTENT 

But for UAE which despite multiple attempts to settle scores, but found it difficult to present itself as a better positioned ally to Somalia than Turkey, its new political game termed by Somali officials and ‘divide and rule’ scenario has come at a heavy political price, with Somali government is heavily turning towards Qatar and Turkey against UAE.

Much to the UAE’s frustrations, Turkey is also becoming a major power player in Somalia, with the construction of a Turkish military base in the Somali capital last year has also caught UAE offguard.

Turkish military officers parade during the opening ceremony of a Turkish military base in Mogadishu, Somalia September 30, 2017 © Feisal Omar / Reuters

According to analysts, the base which had cost an estimated USD$50 million for Turkey and inaugurated last year is expected to train and house over 1000 Somali soldiers at a time by 200 Turkish military personnel stationed at the base has deepened a sense of suspicion in the Saudi-led coalition which has last year cut ties with Qatar which has since forged closer relations with Somalia and Turkey, a longtime UAE strategic rival.

Unnerved by UAE’s aggressive strategic interests and support for the opposition politicians, Somalia has in turn resorted to a subtle behind-scenes diplomatic war with UAE, a move which has since failed to address the problem.

“In a wider context, the construction of the Turkish base has caught UAE entirely off guard and dealt a major blow to its Somalia plans.” says professor Ahmed Mohamed, a university political science lecturer in Mogadishu by email.

“The latter has put Turkey in a more dominant position than it were earlier in the post-war Somalia.” he said.

Turkey, a major ally for Somalia has invested hundred millions of dollars in multiple projects in Somalia has won hearts and minds in Somalia, having become the first country to have come to Somalia’s assistance at the height of the 2011 famine which killed more than half a million people.

Despite the fact that Turkey and UAE are engaging in geopolitical and economic competitions Across the world, but the tide is apparently turning in favor of Turkey whose influence is also on the rise in Mogadishu and beyond, thanks to its passive political and economic approach.

EVERYTHING BUT SHORT OF WAR

In view of the growing rift between the two sides, Somali government’s persistent opposition towards a 30-year contract that the UAE-owned international ports operator, DP World had signed with the breakaway northern Somalia republic of Somaliland to manage its largest port has further fuelled UAE’s anger.

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

However, Somalia has again declared the tripartite agreement over Berbera port which was signed last week ‘null and void’, claiming that it undermines its unity, sovereignty and is a violation of its constitution. Somalia considers Somaliland is parts of greater Somalia, a suggestion repeatedly dismissed by Somaliland which maintains its status of being an independent state.

Ethiopia holds 19 per cent of the Berbera port, in an agreement with Somaliland’s Port Authority and UAE Company DP World. DP World remains the major share owner; with a 51 per cent stake, while Somaliland holds 30 per cent. The Ethiopian government will invest in infrastructural development for the Berbera port.

DP World Group chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem.

In response, DP World’s chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem has angrily reacted to the Somali government’s statement, dismissing it as an ’empty talk’, referring Somaliland as an independent state.

“Somali government cannot have any say in the internal affairs of Somaliland. Somaliland is an independent state.” he said in a statement widely circulated in the Arab world media last week.

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

Meanwhile, Mr. Sulayem’s remarks, the first official comment by a UAE official who have long maintained their secret agenda on the controversial port deal have added animus to the already tense relations marked by suspicions and  have moved through a cycle of alliance and enmity between the two countries, further threatening to sink relations to the bottom.

Somaliland’s new president Muse Bihi Abdi

In addition, Somaliland’s new president Muse Bihi has also echoed the Emirati official’s remarks, warning Somali government to stop interfering in the enclave’s internal affairs, saying that it was an independent state.

SOMALI PM’S MYSTERIOUS DUBAI TRIP

The controversial port deal has been signed during a mysterious visit by Somali prime minister Hassan Khaire in Dubai late last month which has came under public scrutiny, with many have cast doubt over the purpose of the visit. However, Mr. Khaire who fell short of giving further details about his trip has opposed the deal, saying that it violates his country’s sovereignty.

‘DIVIDE AND RULE’

Though Somali government is yet to respond to the UAE’s irked response, thousands of Somalis took to the social media accusing the gulf state of trying to perpetuate a ‘divide and rule’ game in violation of the country’s sovereignty to increase their influence at the expense of ‘greater Somalia’.

The development has also marked a moment of unity among the politically polarized Somalis across the world who found the matter through one telescope in this case.

Even some of the country’s fiercest opposition leaders, often accused of having received funds from UAE have rallied behind Somali president who is facing a large-scale social media troll by dozens of suspected UAE-sponsored bloggers.

And journalists, perhaps moved by patriotism sentiment were not an exception at this point, too.

“These three accounts – @CibaadoHadaqL, @AyaanKhudairS, @DhoolshafieP – have one thing in common – they joined Twitter on January 4, 2018, time 13:01, 13:07, 13:52. They share one other thing – they’re all attacking @M_Farmaajo.” Tweeted Harun Maruf, a prominent Somali journalist and Twitter personality.

But for others, the matter is more of division of the country than a political and economic war.

“This is a systematic divide and rule policy that UAE is consciously attempting to split our country into small fiefdoms.” Tweeted Mohamed Ahmed, a Somali university lecturer in Zambia.

In the meantime, the timing of the remarks have raised the eyebrows of Somalis, with many say that it was a carefully planned to stop an ongoing plan by Somali government and Somaliland to hold the third round of talks to discuss about the country’s unity.

“UAE is grudgingly doing this so that there will be no unified Somalia that can challenge its illegal interests.” tweeted Anab Ahmed, a university student in Mogadishu.

While a handful of other countries continue to pursue their special agendas in Somalia, many in the country and diaspora have raised suspicions about political and military demands that Arab nations may seek to impose as they embark on their mysterious strategic interests.

As political complications continue to arise, analysts hope that UAE can stir the pot in Somalia but remained skeptical the likelihood of it achieving any decisive breakthrough in rolling back the widening Turkish influence.

“At the end of the day Somalia would stand with Turkey, and that’d complicate the diplomatic row further,” said Jacob Moses, a horn of Africa political analyst, based in Nairobi.

“But in the present circumstances, UAE would be determined, more than ever to bite back more venomously.” He noted.

(Additional reporting by John Thiongo in Nairobi, Kenya, editing by Timothy Moses)

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