A game of chess: Gulf crisis expands into the Horn of Africa
By James M. Dorsey
The six-month-old Gulf crisis has expanded to the Horn Africa, potentially fuelling simmering regional conflicts.
Renewed fears of heightened tension in the Horn, a region pockmarked by foreign military bases that straddles key Indian Ocean trade roots with its 4,000-kilometre coast line, was sparked by Sudan last month granting Turkey the right to rebuild a decaying Ottoman port city and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels on the African country’s Red Sea coast.
The $650 million agreement was the latest indication that East Africa was being drawn into the Gulf dispute and associated conflicts in the Middle East. Concern heightened as the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar appeared to have become the new normal.
Competition for influence between rival Gulf states stretches beyond the Horn that straddles the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait, links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and is plagued by the nearby war in Yemen, into the Sahel as well as Central and West Africa. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, toured six West African nations last month to shore up support for his country in its dispute with its Gulf brethren.
Africa is a battlefield not only in the Gulf crisis but also in the fierce rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is often fought in countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon and Mauritania primarily as a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite Islam.
The Sudanese-Turkish agreement raised anxiety in capitals on both sides of the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both worry about Turkish military expansion because of its support for Qatar. Turkey has a military base in the Gulf state and has said it would beef up its presence to 3,000 troops in the coming months.
Turkey also has a training base in Somalia and is discussing the establishment of a base in Djibouti, the Horn’s rent-a-military base country par excellence with foreign military facilities operated by France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan.
Hinting at a link between the Turkish presence in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on a visit to the African nation last month, the first by a Turkish head of state, that the ancient port of Suakin would boost tourism and serve as a transit point for pilgrims travelling to the kingdom’s holy city of Mecca.
Suakin was Sudan’s major port when it was ruled by the Ottomans, but fell into disuse over the last century after the construction of Port Sudan, 60 kilometres to the north. Suakin allowed the Ottomans to secure access to what is today the Hejaz province in Saudi Arabia and home to the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has bases in Berbera in the breakaway republic of Somaliland and in Eritrea, fear that the agreement will allow Turkey, with whom they have strained relations because of differences over Qatar, Iran and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, to station troops close to Jeddah. Saudi Arabia and the UAE suspect Qatar of funding the development of Suakin. Adding to tension is the fact that Turkey suspects the UAE of having supported a failed military coup in July 2016.
The agreement is even more stinging because relations between Saudi Arabia and Sudan had significantly improved after the African country broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in early 2016, an early Saudi victory in its fight for Africa with the Islamic republic.
Sudan has since contributed 6,000 troops as well as fighters from the Janjaweed tribal militia to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The Trump administration eased economic sanctions on Sudan in October at Saudi Arabia’s request.
Saudi Arabia this week agreed to re-establish banking ties with Sudan despite criticism in the Saudi press and on social media of the Sudanese-Turkish agreement. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has insisted that his country would keep its troops in Yemen irrespective of the agreement.
Concern about the agreement is not limited to Qatar’s detractors in the Gulf. Egypt suspects that the agreement will fuel a border conflict with Sudan over the region of Halayeeb. Sudan recently accused Egypt of deploying troops to the Sudanese side of the border and sending war planes to overfly the coastal area.
Sudan last month complained to the United Nations that a maritime demarcation agreement reached in 2016 by Egypt and Saudi Arabia infringed on what it claimed to be Sudanese waters off Halayeeb.
Egypt is further worried that mounting tensions will complicate already sharp differences with Sudan as well as Ethiopia over a massive demand that Ethiopia is building. Egypt believes the dam will reduce its vital share of Nile River waters that are the country’s lifeline. Negotiations over the dam are at an impasse, with Sudan appearing to tilt toward Ethiopia in the dispute.
"Sudanese President Omar Bashir is playing with fire in exchange for dollars. Sudan is violating the rules of history and geography and is conspiring against Egypt under the shadow of Turkish madness, Iranian conspiracy, an Ethiopian scheme to starve Egypt of water, and Qatar's financing of efforts to undermine Egypt," charged Emad Adeeb in a column entitled ‘Omar Bashir's political suicide.’
The Gulf crisis, even without Turkey joining the fray, was putting fragile peace arrangements in the Horn at risk.
Qatar, in response to Eritrea and Djibouti’s decision to downgrade relations with the Gulf state when the conflict erupted last June, withdrew its peacekeeping contingent of 400 troops from the Red Sea island of Doumeira.
Eritrea immediately seized the island that is also claimed by Djibouti in a move that could ultimately spark an armed conflict that may draw in Ethiopia.
While reaping the benefits of heightened interest, the Horn risks increased tension and violent conflict in what has become a high stakes chess game for both Middle Eastern and African adversaries.
“Post-Arab Spring…activism may unsurprisingly contribute to the militarisation of the Horn of Africa and, even more dangerously, alter the existing balance of power in this conflict-ridden region, warned Patrick Ferras, director of the Horn of Africa Observatory (CSBA).
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.