What’s new? Middle Eastern states are accelerating their competition for allies, influence and physical presence in the Red Sea corridor, including in the Horn of Africa. Rival Gulf powers in particular are jockeying to set the terms of a new regional power balance and benefit from future economic growth.
Why did it happen? Regional instability, a relative power vacuum and competition among rising Middle East states have prompted Gulf countries to seek to project their power outward into the neighbourhood. They are looking at the Horn of Africa to consolidate alliances and influence.
Why does it matter? Many new Gulf-Horn relationships are highly asymmetrical, driven more by Gulf than African interests. Gulf states are injecting resources and exporting rivalries in ways that could further destabilise fragile local politics. Yet they also carry the potential to resolve conflict and fuel economic growth.
What should be done? Horn and Western policymakers should seek to limit intra-Gulf sparring in Africa, notably by expanding the role of regional multilateral organisations to boost Horn states’ bargaining power. Gulf rivals must become convinced – by their allies or their own experience – that their actions are undermining long-term security across the Red Sea basin.
The Horn of Africa, long the site of great power competition, today sees a new rivalry playing out on its shores. Gulf Arab countries, as well as Turkey, are accelerating their push for allies and influence in the Horn, such that two of the Middle East’s primary political fault lines – between Iran and Arab states, and among Arab states – are becoming visible across the Red Sea corridor. These longstanding, intersecting rivalries are grafting themselves onto existing local conflicts and generating new tensions. African policymakers, as well as Gulf countries and Western allies, are only beginning to discuss how to prevent competition from evolving into open conflict. A growing number of leaders in the Horn argue the region must achieve greater bargaining power for itself, for example seeking to engage multilaterally with the Gulf and Turkey. Given their enormous influence – as allies, investors, donors and mediators – Gulf states and Turkey should use it to reduce rather than stir up conflict in the Horn.
For political, economic and ideological reasons, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Turkey are locked in a push-pull to set the rules for a Middle Eastern region long in turmoil. Two overlapping rivalries drive and define this engagement: a split within the Gulf pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey; and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In both those struggles, the main rivals see Africa as a new arena for competition and building alliances, particularly as the Horn is poised for strong economic growth over the next generation. With their significant financial resources, the Gulf countries and Turkey see a chance to adjust the future economic and political landscape of the Red Sea basin in their favour. They are all expanding their physical and political presence to forge new partnerships and ring-fence their enemies – most often one another.
In strengthening their relationships in the Horn, Gulf states and Turkey hope to secure both short- and long-term interests. In the short term for example, the Yemen war made it imperative for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to obtain a Red Sea military base. The internecine Gulf crisis that burst into the open in 2017 accelerated efforts by both sides of the rift to seek new allies. In the long term, each country is jockeying for a prime position in the Red Sea corridor’s economy and politics. Economically, they seek to enter the Horn of Africa’s underserved ports, energy and consumer markets as gateways to rapid economic expansion across the continent. All four describe China as the emerging dominant force in the Horn, and hence one with which they will need to ally, as U.S. and European influence recedes. The UAE, Qatar and Turkey, in particular, view China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), with projects planned across East Africa, as a chance to bolster their relationships with Beijing.
The tools in this new power scramble range from transactional to coercive. Gulf countries and Turkey can offer aid and investment in amounts that few others can, or in market conditions that many Western firms consider too risky. Their terms for dispensing aid are often more attractive for local political leaders than those of Western donors. Instead of democratic or market reforms, Gulf states expect preferential access to new investment opportunities and ask aid recipients to take their side in either of the two rivalries in which they are involved. In exchange for military assistance, Gulf states may ask their local allies to push back or suppress domestic political forces aligned with their external enemies.
This competition for influence raises risks of new conflict. The Gulf states and Turkey each say they are seeking “stability” in the Horn, but their definitions differ dramatically and put their interests directly at odds. Saudi Arabia and the UAE view civil unrest as something to control lest the region become a playground for Sunni Islam-inspired political movements or Iran. They privilege short-term stability imposed by strong security states. Although they urge allies to open their markets to investment, they would rather bandage economic grievances and postpone hard reforms that would threaten the status quo. Qatar and Turkey, meanwhile, are more inclined to see popular uprisings as a way to empower groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that they believe will promote their interests in the long run. Yet the Brotherhood and its local spinoffs have overreached in some cases since the 2011 uprisings by imposing their ideological agendas and thus creating as many new grievances as addressing existing ones.
With their competing views, these two camps consider relationships in the Horn to be a zero-sum game, pressing states to take sides and supporting domestic opposition groups or local leaders if national capitals do not oblige. They can do this because relations between the Gulf and the Horn are deeply asymmetrical and favour the former.
African leaders have raised alarms about the implications of a more activist Gulf foreign policy for some time, but Western policymakers have only recently woken up to the gravity of these dynamics. Together, they should consider how to set institutional boundaries on competition, such that the Horn can resist the most destructive external rivalries, penalise behaviour that undermines local institutions and oppose unfair stipulations in commercial contracts. Efforts are already under way to create regional forums at which Gulf and Horn countries can discuss their concerns, including separate initiatives led by the Horn’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the EU and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In the meantime, African and Western diplomats ought to try to convince Gulf countries to rethink their modus operandi in the Horn.
Ultimately, the Gulf States and Turkey must become convinced – whether through diplomacy or their own experience – that while competition and rivalry may serve their immediate political and commercial goals, it is just as likely to harm the long-term stability of a fragile region that sits just across the water, and ultimately redound to their own disadvantage.