Fri, May 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Gulf state rivals and Turkey scramble for Somalia

By Maggie Fick  /  Reuters, NAIROBI

A battle for access to seaports is underway in one of the world’s unlikeliest places: Somalia, now caught up in a regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side, with Qatar backed by Turkey on the other.

At stake: not just the busy waters off the Somalian coast, but the future stability of the nation itself.

Somalia has been at war for decades and until the last few years, it has struggled to attract foreign investment. However, rivalries in the nearby Arabian Peninsula are resulting in serious inflows into Somalia.

A year ago, a company owned by the UAE government signed a US$336 million contract to expand the port of Bosaso, north of Mogadishu in the semi-autonomous Somalian region of Puntland.

Less than a year before that, another UAE-owned firm took control of the Berbera port in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland and pledged up to US$440 million to develop it. In March, Ethiopia took a stake in the port for an undisclosed sum.

At the same time, Turkey, an ally of UAE-rival Qatar, is ramping up a multibillion-dollar investment push in Somalia. A Turkish company has run the Mogadishu port since 2014, while other Turkish firms have built roads, schools, and hospitals.

The rivalries have intensified since June last year, when the most powerful Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Iran and Islamist militants.

That Middle Eastern feud is driving the desire to control the Horn of Africa and its waters, according to diplomats, businesspeople, academics and Somalian officials.

Somalia is close to vital oil routes and its ports could also serve landlocked Ethiopia, which has a population of 100 million.

Gulf nations have had trade and religious ties with Somalia for centuries, but those relationships are now up in the air as new rivalries emerge.

“Somalia has been caught in the middle of this effort to try to expand influence, commercial and military, along the coast,” said Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the Somalian coastline — and Djibouti and Eritrea to the north — as their “western security flank,” according to a senior Western diplomat in the Horn of Africa region.

Qatar and Turkey, whose investments are almost all in Mogadishu, are focused on supporting Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. He and his chief of staff are widely viewed in Somalia and by Western diplomats as loyal to Doha after receiving funds for their election campaign last year.

Doha had provided US$385 million in infrastructure, education and humanitarian assistance to the central Somalian government, a Qatari official said.

Making deals directly with regional governments in Somalia, as the UAE has done, undermined the central government, the official said.

Somalian Minister of Finance Abdirahman Duale Beileh agreed.

“The Gulf region has a lot of money and if they want to invest in Somalia, we welcome them with open arms,” he said. “But it’s a question of going through the right doors.”

The federal government in Mogadishu has long been at odds with the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland. The latter operates virtually as an independent state and has for years sought to secede from Somalia, but has not won international recognition.

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