Expectations of greater Gulf aid to the Horn of Africa
London- A widespread humanitarian crisis, including famine in the Horn of Africa, is leading to expectations of greater aid from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have increased their military presence on the Red Sea to enhance regional security.
The complicated regional picture took a turn for the worse with a stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as Doha withdrew some 200 peacekeeping troops from the disputed frontier between Djibouti and Eritrea.
The two East African countries have sided with Riyadh and its allies, including the UAE, which established a military base at Assab in Eritrea in 2015.
The Gulf rift has also affected the Riyadh-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, with a Qatari contingent stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of the coalition returning home.
Gulf countries have stepped up their presence in the Horn of Africa — including plans for a Saudi military base in Djibouti and a UAE base in Somaliland — to counter what they view as Iranian interference in the region.
The Gulf’s increased presence is viewed with suspicion by Africans who fear the delicate balance in the region, which is dominated by Ethiopia, could be upset. Ethiopia, which fought a border war with Eritrea from 1998-2000, has refrained from taking sides in the dispute between the Saudis and Qatar.
The “scramble for Africa” by the Gulf powers had threatened increasing the humanitarian risks in the region, said analysts, who fear the Qatari-Saudi rift could lead to further conflicts in East Africa.
The UAE’s presence in Somalia has provoked a backlash. Somalia’s auditor general accused Somali officials of taking bribes after the UAE signed deals to develop a port in semi-autonomous Puntland and a military base in self-declared independent Somaliland.
“The UAE and Saudi interventions in Somalia and its autonomous territories are more extensive than just military, including humanitarian support and economic cooperation and investments. The UAE ‘s charities are active there,” said Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at the Enough Project, a US-based human rights group.
The Gulf’s activities come amid warnings by the United Nations of famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria caused or exacerbated by conflict. “The Gulf should be more responsible for the humanitarian consequences of their intervention in Yemen first,” said Baldo. “The war there is having a disastrous impact on civilians.”
Gulf states are stepping up humanitarian efforts even as the Yemen conflict grinds on. Yemen could have as many as 300,000 cases of cholera within six months and an “extremely high” number of deaths, the World Health Organisation said.
The Arab coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 to end Houthi control over most of Yemen’s main population centres and restore its internationally recognised government to power.
“The King Salman Centre for Humanitarian Aid and Relief told us they put aside $8 billion in aid for Yemen alone between April 2015 and April 2017,” said Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen until 2013 and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“My understanding is they want to expand their scope in the Horn of Africa and work with USAID [United States Agency for International Development], DFID [Britain’s Department for International Development] and other key bilateral partners. They are going to be much more of a player going forward.”
The United Nations has warned that more than 20 million people are at risk of dying from starvation. Conflict in Yemen was the “biggest worry” due to restricted access for assistance and the slow movement of goods, said Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ top humanitarian official.
“Those [hunger crises] all share this terrible and devastating commonality: Violence and conflict which have contributed to or directly caused famine-risk conditions,” O’Brien said in a speech in May at Chatham House, a London think-tank.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation recently highlighted Somalia, saying the international community should increase assistance. “In Somalia alone, more than 6 million, about half of the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance,” the OIC said on its website, quoting Yousef Al-Othaimeen, the organisation’s secretary-general.
The previous famine to be declared by the United Nations was in 2011 in Somalia. This year, the United Nations has appealed for $4.4 billion to deal with the food crises in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria but has struggled to raise the funds.
The Gulf’s expansion into the Horn of Africa is of particular concern to Ethiopia, said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University and Gulf specialist. Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked country with some 100 million people, has very tense relations with Eritrea.
“Ethiopia is landlocked and Eritrea is off-limits so Ethiopia is concerned about the UAE and Gulf’s expansion into the region because it could give them enormous leverage over Ethiopia,” said Davidson, “but as far as the Gulf is concerned, they see the Horn of Africa’s coastline as strategically useful and the hinterland as less significant.”
In addition to the humanitarian crisis in East Africa, there has been an upsurge in piracy after years without a reported incident, following a peak in 2011, with “half a dozen or so” attacks this year, said US Defence Secretary James Mattis during a visit to Djibouti.
The risks in the region were rising, a senior European diplomat told Defense News recently.
“There is a scramble for bases and proxies,” said the official, who is engaged in EU-African policymaking. “We are engaging increasingly with the Gulf to warn them about over-competing for influence in a fragile region. The law of physics means blowback.”