There is no doubt that the United Arab Emirates has been a key ally of Somalia ever since the country descended into chaos. Since 2014, the UAE has trained and equipped thousands of forces in Somalia to help the country take control of its own security and decrease dependency on African Union peacekeepers. But the relationship between the two countries, both members of the Arab League, has deteriorated.
The bone of contention is the controversial Berbera Port deal. The bulk of the disagreement however is the Gulf diplomatic crisis in which Somalia is paying the price for declaring its neutral stance in the rift between the rich countries fighting over her. While the UAE has it is own agenda in intervening in Somalia, respect for the country’s territorial integrity is paramount. The UAE should not be seen to be propping a campaign to divide Somalia.
Even though Somalia is a federal state and the UAE, like any other country, has the option of engaging the federal member states, it should not do so at the expense of the Federal Government of Somalia. That would be a big diplomatic blunder. The two countries need to revisit their bilateral relations since the dispute is having a devastating effect that will be very hard to reverse. Since the fall of Somalia’s central government, the UAE has provided a sanctuary to Somalis fleeing the civil war.
As a result of the escalating dispute, the UAE this month halted it support for Somalia’s security forces and humanitarian support, closing down a hospital that used to treat 300 patients daily. According to security analysts, this will hamper the transfer of Somalia’s security to the country’s armed forces. The Institute of Security Studies think tank argues that the gap left by the training that was provided by the UAE will be very hard for Amisom to fill.
Its role was huge, despite accusations that some UAE-trained soldiers disobeyed Somalia’s army command structure. In a recent press briefing in Dubai, with the blessing of his UAE hosts, the President of Somalia’s Federal Member State of Puntland, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali (Gaas), made remarks that could be seen as very damaging to Somalia’s sovereignty. One could take the phrase, ‘Somalia is not Mogadishu, and Mogadishu is not Somalia’ as a clear warning shot to the federal government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo.
The remarks portray the level of mistrust between Somalia’s two levels of governments. It is a true reflection of the doubts many had about Somalia’s federal system, which seems to weaken the position of the internationally recognised federal government. Somalia’s Provisional Constitution, adopted in 2012, gives the federal government authority to handle matters foreign policy. However it seems the federal member states are not keen to give Mogadishu a free hand to execute its foreign policy.
Once respected as a key ally, the UAE’s decision to engage in a dual track policy seems to have backfired. Angered by what they called a blatant disregard of Somalia’s sovereignty, lawmakers declared the Berbera Port deal between Somaliland, Ethiopia and the UAE-owned DP World null and void. They banned the company from trading in Somalia. In March Somalia, through its ambassador to the UN Abukar Osman, protested to the UN Security Council and asked the UN to take action against the UAE for violating its territorial integrity by entering into a deal to build a military base in Berbera, which is in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland. In his statement, the ambassador said the deal is against international law.
For it to reclaim, its place as a trusted partner, the UAE needs to abandon its divide-and-rule approach and engage the Farmaajo administration while aiding the federal member states. This way it will be able to reverse the game and fight for space with its competitors positively without scuttling the fragile peace process in Somalia. The Farmaajo administration will need to re-engage the UAE in a sober manner and think about the repercussions of the UAE’s withdrawal. The tug of war could be detrimental to Somalia’s long-term stability efforts.