OPINION: UAE is using local instability to sow discord in Somalia

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A controversial UAE deal for Berbera port in the breakaway Somaliland republic in northern Somalia has sparked a major diplomatic row
The UAE stands accused of encroaching upon the sovereignty of Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen, over disputes arising from its control of regional ports.

Tensions between Somalia’s Federal Government (FGS) and Somaliland’s government have come to a head over a tripartite revenue-sharing agreement among the Republic of Somaliland, the Dubai-based company DP World, and the Ethiopian government, based on DP World’s management of a port in Berbera.

The revenue agreement, finalised on 1 March 2018, comes two years after Somaliland’s previous administration signed a 30-year contract with DP World to manage the port in 2016. Under the agreement, DP World retains 51 percent of generated revenues, Somaliland, 30 percent, and Ethiopia – a major recipient of imports – 19% percent of the total.

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) is notably absent from the deal.

In November 2017, days before the election of Muse Bihi Abdi of the incumbent Kulmiye party to Somaliland’s presidency, Djibouti seized its port in Doraleh, Djibouti from DP World control (managed under a 30-year contract signed in 2006), citing UAE overreach. The DP World deal in Berbera is made especially crucial for the UAE and landlocked Ethiopia, in light of the seizure.

In Yemen, the UAE has been a key ally to Saudi Arabia fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. However, the UAE has made a recent tactical divergence from Saudi Arabia to support a separatist movement in the South.

The UAE has taken advantage of fragmentation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden in pursuit of its regional interests

Southern Yemen has a 128-year long history of separate governance, administered by the British from Aden. As Somaliland prepared to break away from Somalia in 1990, northern and southern Yemen integrated under the national government of Yemen, with its capital in the northern city of Sanaa.

UAE-backed separatists took over the port of Aden in January, and barred the import of 170 billion Yemeni Rials ($680 million) destined to pay government salaries of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised government, who have gone without payment for a full year.

By now it is apparent that the UAE has taken advantage of fragmentation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden in pursuit of its regional interests.

The Berbera agreement has flared tensions between Somaliland and the FGS. On 5 March 2018, days after the agreement was announced, Somalia president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) visited Saudi Arabia to request that the Arab League intervene in the deal, which he argued bypassed the federal government.

The President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed,
also known as ‘Farmajo’, whose government was absent
from the DP World deal [AFP]
In a speech to parliament, Farmajo excoriated businesses seeking to operate in Somalia without federal government consent, “I am warning foreign companies not to interfere with our sovereignty.”

Somaliland’s Muse Bihi Abdi responded that Somalia’s failure to recognise the deal amounted to a “declaration of war”. Somalia’s Lower House of parliament voted 12 March to nullify the port deal, and prevent DP World from operating in Somalia altogether.

In the Puntland region, officials are now calling for the review of a 30-year contract there held by a subsidiary of DP World to manage a port in Bosaso.

Adding to the mix, UAE operatives, previously accused of hacking Qatar-based news sites, are accused of launching the hashtag #FarmajotearingSomaliaapart in an effort to discredit Farmajo, who faced threats of impeachment following the murder of an opposition leader.

Farmajo has criticised the UAE for bypassing federal government consent in its Berbera deal

While Farmajo has criticised the UAE for bypassing federal government consent in its Berbera deal, Somaliland has become a darling of international media.

Headlines such as “Somaliland wants to make one thing clear: It is NOT Somalia” contrast the legacy of conflict that tends to characterise Somalia.

Power has transferred relatively peacefully between three successive presidential administrations in Somaliland since its transition to a multi-party democracy from a more clan-based system in 2002.

Administered independently as a British protectorate prior to reunifying with Somalia in 1960, Somaliland has sought international recognition since declaring its separation from Somalia in 1991.

While supporting the federal government with recognition, the international community has also bolstered Somaliland’s capacity for independence. In Somaliland’s November presidential election, the UK invested heavily in iris scan technology, facilitating a fair and transparent election based on “one person, one vote”.

Somaliland’s Muse Bihi Abdi responded that Somalia’s failure to recognise the deal amounted to a ‘declaration of war’

An independent mission of international observers added credibility to the election, in which all candidates campaigned on a platform of Somaliland independence from Somalia. International media have deemed the November election evidence of Somaliland’s progress toward democratisation.

President Muse Bihi Abdi is deeply connected to Somaliland’s struggle for recognition and has pursued a foreign policy commensurate with being an autonomous republic.

Between 1988 and 1989, Siyad Barre’s Somali Armed Forces carried out a campaign of aerial bombardment which targeted civilians and displaced 400,000 primarily Isaaq clan members.

After flying as a pilot in the Somali Armed Forces during the 1970s, Muse Bihi became a veteran of the Somali National Movement that overthrew Barre and consolidated the Republic of Somaliland.

Decades after the US and its allies faced off with the Soviet Union in a regional proxy skirmish, Somaliland has allied with the UAE in exchange for economic and military support, to the chagrin of the federal government.

In 2017, Somaliland declared UAE had permission to launch attacks from its new military installation in Berbera, which previously housed a Soviet military base.

The UAE is taking advantage of regional fragmentation throughout Yemen, Somaliland and Puntland in order to strike long term commercial deals, and control strategic ports that even landlocked countries, namely Ethiopia, rely on.

Western governments have promoted stability by supporting Somaliland’s democratic process, while refraining from acknowledging that the path toward democratisation is seen by many Somalilanders as one that prioritises independence from the internationally recognised FGS, a reality that is not lost on the UAE.

Rose Worden is a researcher and writer based in New York. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from The New School and is focused on development and security in the Horn of Africa and MENA.

Follow her on Twitter @rswrdn

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Alleastafrica Media.