ISS Today: How the Gulf crisis is destabilising Somalia


    First published by
    ISS Today

    The Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE)
    decision to break relations with Qatar, and more importantly
    their insistence for others to follow their lead, has pitted
    the Federal Government of Somalia (‘Somali government’) against
    many of its federal member states. This has created a serious
    challenge for the country’s nascent state-building

    When Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar in June
    this year, it was the third time in three years that the nation
    (with the UAE close behind) had called on the Horn of Africa to
    remake its
    foreign policy
    in line with
    Riyadh. In 2015, Saudi Arabia convinced the entire Horn –
    except Ethiopia – to sign up to its coalition against the
    Houthi movement in Yemen; a key priority given Iran’s support
    for the Houthis, who are also Shia Muslims. Then in early 2016
    when Saudi Arabia broke relations with Iran, Djibouti, Sudan
    and Somalia did so as well.

    Both these developments demonstrated how Saudi
    Arabia views its relationship with the Horn first and foremost
    via the prism of its proxy war with Iran, and the success its

    policy has had on this front. After the break in relations with
    Qatar, Somalia – under the newly elected President Mohamed
    Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) – remained neutral. This threw
    Somalia into chaos, with the government coming under fire both
    internally and externally.

    At heart are two interrelated concerns –
    unclear definitions of the roles and responsibilities between
    the Somali government and the six federal member states in
    practice; and the undercutting of the weak Somali
    state-building project by external actors.

    In the first instance, Farmajo’s position has
    proved unpopular to many in Somalia who believe the potential
    benefits of siding with Saudi Arabia and the UAE far outweigh
    those associated with neutrality (which in essence is a vote
    for Qatar). Opponents note that the Saudi Arabia-UAE contingent
    offers Somalia much more in terms of a market for livestock
    exports, a source of migrant remittances and opportunities for
    ports management than Qatar can compete with. Nonetheless,
    Farmajo has held his ground.

    In August Puntland
    it was breaking
    from the Somali government’s position of neutrality, citing its
    strategic relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The
    Dubai-based P&O Ports
    a 30-year concession for
    Puntland’s main port of Bosaso earlier this year, which
    probably influenced the decision and underlined the claim that
    siding with the Saudi-UAE camp was more beneficial.

    This presented a clear challenge to the Somali
    government. Article 54 of the Somali Provisional Constitution
    allocates it the sole responsibility for foreign affairs, but
    Article 53 notes that the government should consult the federal
    member states ‘on negotiations relating to foreign aid, trade,
    treaties, or other major issues related to international

    It was the lack of consultation that Puntland

    . Its decision was
    followed in September by similar declarations from the South
    West and Galmudug administrations, openly challenging the
    Somali government’s policy. Both regions also cited the lack of
    consultation, again raising questions as to specific roles and
    responsibilities within Somalia’s federal system.

    The challenges have not stopped there. Days
    after announcing his break with Farmajo’s foreign policy,
    Galmudug regional president Ahmed Duale Gelle Haaf was voted
    out of office by a faction of his region’s lawmakers. The
    Somali government supported the move, which Haaf claimed was
    illegal, orchestrated from Mogadishu and in reaction to his
    foreign policy stance. Other federal member states
    , opposing Haaf’s
    ousting and the government’s apparent interference. Haaf
    himself maintained the support of another faction, in effect
    dividing Galmudug in two.

    These developments demonstrate how the
    relationship between the Somali government and its federal
    member states is being threatened, with the resulting
    politicking a worrying prospect for building Somali stability
    at a local level. A similar no confidence motion may
    in the South West,
    while ex-HirShabelle leader Ali Abdullahi Osoble was also removed from office shorty after opposing the
    government’s stance.

    The need for clearly defined roles and
    responsibilities in Somalia’s federal system is apparent now
    more than ever. The lack of agreement means that parties work
    together when convenient, but don’t when it’s not. It also
    allows for manipulation underpinned by a lack of trust, with
    accusations of the Somali government’s involvement in internal
    federal member state electoral processes, and the latter’s
    demands for a role in foreign affairs. 

    The tensions between the government and the
    federal member states go well beyond the Qatar crisis, and
    remain perhaps the biggest stumbling block to resurrecting a
    coherent Somali state.

    Nonetheless, while the crisis has highlighted
    this internal dilemma, this has been exacerbated by outside
    actors. Not being able to convince Farmajo to change his mind,
    the UAE set out instead to undermine his position by appealing
    directly to the federal member states. For example, South West
    leader Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden reportedly
    the UAE right before his decision,
    while Haaf
    there right after.

    The UAE has always maintained relations with
    Somalia’s federal member states in a way that other external
    actors involved in Somalia, such as Turkey, have not. Yet the
    UAE’s active bypassing of the Somali government in this case
    undermines its authority, contributing to an erosion of the
    state-building process in which the international community has
    invested so much.

    In this sense, it highlights another common
    problem inherent in the Somali arena – international actors may
    engage a weak Somali government when it suits their needs, but
    pursue other means when it doesn’t. (Saudi Arabia is taking a
    different tack than the UAE, however, as Farmajo recently
    visited the country and secured a $50-million
    for the Somali government.)

    In short, the Qatar crisis has highlighted
    some major tensions in Somalia’s state-building process,
    demonstrating how easily this fragile project can become
    unhinged. Until there is clear agreement between the Federal
    Government of Somalia and the federal member states on the
    roles and responsibilities of each, combined with
    implementation mechanisms and respect from external actors,
    state-building in Somalia will be subject to persistent crises
    and incremental gains.

    Omar Mahmood is a researcher, ISS Addis

    Photo: Somali President
    Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ Mohamed, March 2017. Photo: