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Somalia and its (Arab) Neighbors: New President, New Chapter

President Mohamoud has rebalanced the country’s foreign relations as the United Arab Emirates becomes Somalia’s key partner again.
“Soomaali heshiis ah, dunidana heshiis la ah!” –  “Somalia at peace with itself and the world!” 

This was Hassan Sheikh Mahamud’s motto during the last presidential campaign, which he won in May 2022. Since assuming office as Somalia’s new president, this slogan became the mainstay of the president’s two-pronged roadmap for the country, which seeks to elevate Somalia’s federal project and repair relations with those countries that were at odds with Mogadishu during the divisive presidency of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo’s between 2017 and 2022. Most significantly, relations with the United Arab Emirates have been restored on the basis of a new security agreement. This move falls squarely within Somalia’s foreign policy recalibration aimed at mustering broad-based support for the ongoing military offensive against al-Shabaab, which still rules large swaths of Somalia in the center and the south.

Farmaajo’s Lopsided Policies

Under Farmaajo's leadership, Somalia’s relations with many countries fell to a historic low. The former president lined up with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to set up a tripartite regional alliance that proved a failure. For its part, Farmaajo’s one-sided diplomacy impaired Somalia’s ties with Djibouti and Egypt, both mired in feuds with Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively. Relations with Kenya were also fraught over a whole host of issues. Across the Gulf of Aden, relations with the UAE faced veritable ordeals. When the Gulf crisis broke out in 2017, Farmaajo did not side with the blockading countries, leaning instead towards Doha, a move that sparked Abu Dhabi’s wrath.

The Emirates’ thriving relations with the breakaway region of Somaliland and some Federal Member States thwarted Farmaajo’s hectic efforts to centralize power. Between 2016 and 2018 the UAE, through DP World, signed military and commercial agreements with Somaliland and Puntland on the refurbishment and management of Berbera and Bossaso ports. Farmaajo dismissed the deals and the federal parliament described them as “a threat to Somalia’s sovereignty, independence and unity.” Meanwhile, his tenure saw the country’s relations with Qatar flourish. It is noteworthy that Doha backed Hassan Sheikh’s first election in 2012, before switching to Farmaajo in 2017.

Hassan Sheikh Mahamud’s All-Out Diplomacy

In the first months of his tenure, Hassan Sheikh Mahamud reached out to Somalia’s regional and international partners to repair and bolster ties, giving priority to foreign relations. Fences with William Ruto’s Kenya were mended, as well as with Djibouti, owing in part to Hassan Sheikh’s affinities with long-serving leader Ismail Omar Guelleh. Somalia’s incoming president travelled twice to Eritrea in a bid to repatriate 5,000 Somali soldiers sent there for military training by Farmaajo and then held captive by Afewerki who, according to the UN, dispatched some of them to the front line in Tigray where the Eritrean army committed atrocities during the recent war.

Hassan Sheikh’s flurry of state visits last summer nevertheless bypassed Addis Ababa, while his enhanced relations with Egypt raised concerns in Ethiopia. At the moment, Hassan Sheikh is preforming a tightrope act between Ethiopia and Egypt, which are at odds over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Initially accused in Ethiopia of siding with Cairo, Hassan Sheikh denied to have taken any side. Meanwhile, Abdelfattah el-Sisi’s readiness to foster military and security cooperation with Somalia fuels Ethiopia’s suspicions. Described by the media as “torn” between the two nations, Hassan Sheikh’s relations with the Ethiopian premier Abiy Ahmed did not get off on the right foot, and the latter was said to have been unpleased with Somalia’s rapprochement with Kenya. But Hassan Sheikh never sought to alienate Ethiopia – quite the opposite. The two men first met in late September 2022 and relations have improved ever since. Abiy has shown support for the offensive against al-Shabaab whose militants waged a cross-border attack on Ethiopian forces last July – one of the group’s largest incursions ever in Ethiopia.

Hassan Sheikh’s balancing act has been smoother with the Gulf states, after the al-Ula agreement of 2021 had toned down the intra-GCC competition. In this respect, Somalia’s relations with the UAE have steadily progressed. Hassan Sheikh handed them back $9.6 million held since April 2018, after a dispute had led Abu Dhabi to disband its military training mission and close the Sheikh Zayed hospital in Mogadishu. Former Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, who remained in office until June 2022 when Hamza Abdi Barre  was appointed, returned the money personally. In fact, Roble had mounted Somalia’s rapprochement with the UAE while Farmaajo was still in office. This eroded the relationship between the two men, who were already at loggerheads as the former President frantically clung to power while his prime minister strived to hold the long-delayed elections. Roble further played a key role in securing humanitarian assistance from the Emirates to stymie the effects of a drought that put millions at risk of starvation. Go-between for Somalia’s new government and the UAE since he left office in June 2022, Roble is said to be soon appointed ambassador to Abu Dhabi – which would be no surprise.

Posted on Twitter in February 2022, this cartoon by Amin Amir depicts former Prime Minister Roble and an Emirati individual who says: “Now we found the type of people we needed. He’s a needy person!” Amin Amir is a cartoonist whose biting drawings often decry external influences in Somalia. In this cartoon, he ostensibly condemns Roble’s cozying up with the UAE.

As another signal of diplomatic renewal, Ahmed bin Juma al-Rumaythi was recently named UAE ambassador to Somalia, replacing Mohammed bin Ahmed al-Hammadi, who served there from 2012 to 2022. Likewise, a new Qatari ambassador, Abdullah bin Salem al-Holi al-Nuaimi recently substituted Hassan bin Hamza Hashem, whose nine years in Mogadishu entrenched Doha’s foothold. But Hassan Sheikh’s readjustment of the skewed foreign relations inherited from his predecessor ineluctably stripped – but not completely cleared out – some of Qatar’s political influence.

New Somali-Emirati Relations

On 5 March 2023, Hassan Sheikh Mahamud landed in Doha for the 5th UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries. It is worth to note, however, that his first trip to the Gulf took place in June 2022, just a month after his election, bringing him to Abu Dhabi for his first state visit. Although discussions allegedly addressed DP World’s activities, details remain unknown. By and large, Hassan Sheikh has shown no hostility to the UAE’s initiatives in Somaliland and the Federal Member States. Signed during his first tenure from 2012 to 2016, the commercial and military agreements in Berbera sparked no outcry. Today, Hassan Sheikh is conspicuously close to his counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan whom he last met in February at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference held in Abu Dhabi.

In January 2023, Somalia and the UAE struck a deal to foster military and security cooperation, including on counter-terrorism. The Somali Minister of Defense Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur boasted an agreement that should support the “ongoing efforts to eradicate al-Shabaab from Somalia.” But the lack of details publicly released elicited mixed reactions, which is no surprise given the two countries’ contentious relations over the past few years. The Minister of Information Daud Aweys Jama also denied the agreement set off a dispute amongst cabinet ministers.

Another agreement was recently resurrected. In April 2018, DP World subsidiary P&O Ports concluded a deal to manage and modernize the port of Bossaso for $336 million. Development work was never begun due to economic, political and security concerns, as reflected by Bossaso P&O chief Paul Anthony Formosa’s assassination in 2019. More than three years later, DP World’s Managing Director for Middle East and Africa, Suhail al-Banna, signed off on the upgrade of the port in 2023. Besides, since 2011, security cooperation has never ceased with the autonomous region where the UAE funds and trains the Puntland Maritime Police Force. For years, President Said Abdullahi Deni has been travelling back and forth between Puntland and the Emirates where he carved out a large network from which he presumably, although unsuccessfully, tried to secure financial support for the last federal presidential campaign. Garowe Online, a Puntland-based media outlet, recently claimed that Deni also “asked the UAE to provide him with equipment to eavesdrop on his [growing] opposition and critics”.

Buoyed by good relations with the political elites in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Garowe, the UAE was able to play a greater role in Somalia’s politics. Already in 2018, rumors circulated about a mediation between Somaliland and Puntland when clashes broke out in the disputed city of Tukaraq in the Sool district. Presently, Abu Dhabi’s political capital on both sides could be built on to de-escalate the on-going conflict in Las Anood between Somaliland and the local Sool, Sanaag and Cayn militia supported by Puntland. Heavy fighting still rages at the time of writing, in March 2023. Speculating on a third-party mediation led by the UAE is consistent with the country’s past attempts to mediate conflicts to ramp up influence and curb the wealth of criticisms over its presumed destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa. Abu Dhabi helped Ethiopia and Eritrea to strike a peace agreement in 2018. Minister of State Sheikh Shakhboot bin Nahyan Al Nahyan also expressed interest in mediating the GERD spat between Ethiopia and Egypt, as well as the al-Fashaga border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan, to no avail. These mediations were never carried through.

Far-reaching support for Hassan Sheikh Mahamud-led offensive

Hassan Sheikh’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy – dubbed from and used for one of Somalia’s major partners, Turkey, – aims to underpin military operations against al-Shabaab, which so far have focused on the Middle Shabelle, Hiiraan and Galgudud regions, resulting in the recapture of large swathes of land. The jihadi militants have responded with an uptick in mass-casualty violence, making 2022 “the deadliest year for civilians since 2017,” with the UN reporting an increase of 60 percent victims compared to 2021. Mogadishu has been particularly affected, when a surge in attacks and assassinations peaked in October 2022 with a bomb blast that tore through the Zoobe junction, claiming over 120 lives. In response, several countries dispatched support, including Turkey and the UAE who provided medical treatment to the most injured. In lockstep with incremental diplomatic rapprochement at the behest of former Prime Minister Roble, charities like the Emirates Red Crescent and the Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation had also driven up emergency support to offset the calamitous effects of the long-running regional drought. 

The international community has widely supported Hassan Sheikh Mahamud’s offensive, with President Biden redeploying hundreds of special forces and increasing airstrikes. But despite the setbacks inflicted, some newly-liberated villages have already been taken back by the militants. Accordingly, there are concerns over the federal forces’ ability to retain gains and over the lack of strategy to address the root causes of al-Shabaab’s sway. Hassan Sheikh has nonetheless adopted a multi-pronged approach that challenges the group not only militarily, but also ideologically. Mukhtar Robow’s appointment at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowment was one of Hassan Sheikh’s boldest early moves. Robow, a former al-Shabaab deputy leader who had a $5 million US bounty on his head, defected in 2017 and sought to run the presidential elections in Somalia’s southwest Federal Member States. Jailed in 2018, his release and appointment was meant to reflect the possibility of defection and rehabilitation. International partners not only expressed concerns on Robow, but also on counter-terrorism measures that infringe human rights, including freedom of expression, and on incitements to commit extra-judicial killings in the on-going offensive. Hiiraan regional governor Ali Jeyte, for instance, called for “al-Shabaab wives and mothers to be killed.”

To conclude, Hassan Sheikh’s manifesto of “a Somalia at peace with itself and the world” provides a twofold national strategy that seeks to devote all national and international forces behind the war against al-Shabaab. Accordingly, Somalia’s new president has put in renewed effort to enhance bilateral relations with nearby countries, especially those with troops in the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (namely Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda), the Arab Gulf states, and the wider international community. As a whole, Hasan Sheikh’s multi-directional foreign policy has so far paid off. His all-out war and subsequent all-out diplomatic activism has nonetheless required a subtle balancing act, particularly where the zero-sum game logic prevails, such as in the GERD dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. But warming up and building ties with partners like Qatar and the UAE, who – to some extent – reversed this logic has proved simpler.

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