East of the African continent, in an area known as the Horn of Africa, which includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti, there are currently big stakes at play for both traditional and regional powers. The Horn of Africa has changed from being a vital battleground for old competitor regional actors to one that is now crucial for new rival regional actors. In the past, the focus has been on “great power” rivalry in the region, especially that of China and the United States. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, Qatar, Iran, and Egypt are the primary regional countries pursuing their interests in the Horn of Africa.
The Horn borders the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mendeb Strait, one of the busiest maritime lanes in the world, which contributes to the region’s importance in luring Middle Eastern power. The majority of trade between the markets of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe uses this route, demonstrating the strait’s strategic importance. Every year, more than 10% of all maritime cargo in the globe transits via this region, including the majority of Asian trade with Europe. Many countries aim to increase their presence in this region for strategic reasons. The second thing that makes the Horn of Africa so significant is the fact that Asian and Middle Eastern countries view it as one of their primary entry points into the African market.
Djibouti: A Small Country with High Interests
The countries involved have concentrated their efforts to establish a military presence in Djibouti, which has a population of one million and aspires to become a true regional strategic hub, which is seen as the entrance to East Africa. Six military bases are located in Djibouti, and they belong to the United States, Japan (which has its only facility outside of its borders), Italy, China, Saudi Arabia, and France (its largest military base abroad). Actuality, Djibouti hosts the most of such foreign military facilities anywhere in the world. The Horn of Africa’s countries, especially Djibouti, are home to an increasing number of foreign military installations and a steady presence of soldiers of many nationalities, which emphasizes the Bab el-Mandeb Strait’s importance for regional geopolitics, trade, and security.
Russia and the United Arab Emirates both have military installations in Eritrea. Turkish troops have a base in Somalia as well, while Somaliland, a province that broke away from Somalia, is home to the second UAE post. In addition to recently signing a deal with Somaliland, the UAE, which has made significant investments in ports in the area (including Djibouti, Puntland, and Somaliland), opened a base there in 2015.
Even while the fragile economies of the countries in the region benefit from the commercial scale of these facilities, this could have long-term effects on the peace and security of the Horn of Africa. The internal security of the Horn countries, who are battling terrorist organizations like “Al-Shabab”, “Boko Haram”, and “the Sahel”, is also threatened by the presence of foreign forces and their actions in the area.
On the other hand, competition over the use of the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia remains unresolved. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Ethiopia claims is necessary for its development, is the source of ongoing hostilities between Cairo and Addis Ababa. Egypt is worried that the project will decrease its portion of the Nile’s flows. Since the start of the dam’s construction in 2011, tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt have been raised by it. Egypt is concerned that the project would diminish its share of the Nile’s waters. Previous attempts by Ethiopia to unilaterally restart operation of the contentious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile have been denounced by Egypt. Ethiopia maintains that the dam will be essential to the prosperity of the nation.
Geopolitical Struggle between Middle Eastern Powers in the Horn
As a result, struggle for power in the region are centered on two poles with divergent strategic goals: on the one hand, an alliance of nearby Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates), and on the other, a gathering of foreign states (Qatar, Türkiye linked to Iran). The area is particularly significant to Türkiye because of its historical ties to the Ottoman Empire; Türkiye has recently increased its influence in Africa.
The importance of the region has grown for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula as a result of their participation in the regional conflict in Yemen that began in 2015 and their diplomatic dispute with Qatar that began in 2017. Qatar has had to examine its foreign policy, particularly with regard to countries in the Horn of Africa, after being subjected to the embargo imposed by its neighbors during the Gulf crisis in 2017. Qatar was also accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The competition for investments in the Horn of Africa’s coastline regions is one example of how Qatar and the United Arab Emirates compete with one another. The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are the most important places to manage through this process. Due to its economic diplomacy, which draws in the poorest nations in the region, the United Arab Emirates seems to have a significant impact in the countries of the Horn of Africa. An analysis of the UAE’s African policy is warranted in light of its political involvement in the significant events roiling the Middle East and the Arab world. While the influence of the Chinese, the Russians, and even the Turks can be disputed, it is important to recognize the importance of Arab influence, notably that of the Emirates and its allies. For the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, oil carried from Gulf States to Europe via the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden boosts the Horn’s geostrategic position.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar’s security concerns, Türkiye’s commercial and military interests, and the region’s explosive expansion in political and economic activity all add to the region’s precarious condition. The fact that Türkiye has already constructed its own military base in Somalia is being exploited. It expects that the soldiers of the central government would be able to put together an army powerful enough to take on the “Al-Shabaab” militias. Türkiye, financed by Qatar, has expanded its political, economic, and military ties to the Horn’s northern neighbors, Somalia and Sudan. Late in 2017, Sudan and Türkiye reached an agreement to lease Suakin Island in the Red Sea for 99 years. It is a historically significant former Ottoman port since it served as the necessary crossing point for Muslims traveling to Mecca from sub-Saharan Africa. Türkiye plans to restore the island’s historical landmarks so that it serves as a significant stopover for African pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Suakin may possibly turn into a naval station for Türkiye, providing Ankara with its first direct route to the Red Sea. However, the future of the Suakin Island restoration project has become incredibly questionable following the change of administration in Sudan after the coup in 2019. The new administration in Sudan seems to be more pro-western oriented, contrary to the previous government, which may make Türkiye’s ambitions difficult in the region.
For several years, the US and European presence in the Horn of Africa has therefore gradually taken a back seat. China has become the main investor in the region, where it continues to develop its commercial activities. Türkiye, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are attracting the attention of experts because of the fierce competition for their share of the pie. On the other side, conflicts remain unresolved between the region’s countries, noting that Egypt and Ethiopia do not arrive to solve the barrage problem. The future will tell how the countries of the Horn of Africa will position themselves, as they are often very fickle and can easily adapt to changes depending on the countries involved in the region. It is obvious that the Horn of Africa is likely to continue to be a complex area of infighting and strategic confrontation in the years to come.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.