Competition for Access and Influence Heighten Geopolitical Rivalries in the Horn of Africa

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 7

Somali Foreign Minister meets with his Ethiopian counterpart in February 2022 (Source: Shabelle Media Network)

The competition between regional and global powers for access to—and influence in—the Horn of Africa is intensifying. The Horn is Asia’s and the Gulf’s door to Africa’s vast natural resources. While great powers’ growing interest in the Horn may lead to greater development in the region, the battle between rival states also threatens to further destabilize the region.

On top of this, the ongoing war in Ukraine has amplified extant inflationary trends in global commodity markets. Gulf States, which have already invested in vast tracts of farmland in various African nations, are keener than ever to secure alternative sources for food. The same concerns apply to China, which notably opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti in 2017 (al-Jazeera, August 1, 2017). China has long recognized the importance of Africa’s vast underdeveloped natural resources. After two decades of investment and the clever use of debt, China’s influence now spans the entire continent. It is the Horn of Africa, however, to which the Chinese and, increasingly, regional powers attach particular importance.

Securing Influence with Weapons

Ethiopia and Somalia are the two countries on the Horn where the competition for influence and access between regional powers has markedly increased. The war in Ethiopia, which pits the government against multiple separatist groups, has provided China, Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with an opportunity to enhance their influence through the provision of weapons and expertise. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) provided by Turkey, Iran, and the UAE likely saved the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from being defeated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (al-Monitor, January 21; al-Jazeera, December 10, 2021; The Africa Report, January 25, Garowe Online, August 18, 2021). The armed UAVs manufactured in Turkey, Iran, and China were fundamental to turning back the TPLF’s southward advance toward the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa (Terrorism Monitor, November 5, 2021).

Using weapons to buy influence is nothing new. However, the types of weapons and the provision of armed UAV’s by regional powers like the UAE and Turkey to Ethiopia is something of a departure from previous policies. China has long favored the use of debt and investment to weave nations into its ever growing web of client states. The Gulf nations, meanwhile, traditionally use investment and aid to secure influence. Turkey is an exception, especially in the Horn, where it has engaged in a muscular foreign policy in Somalia. Turkey has invested heavily in Somalia, where it has its largest foreign military base at Camp TURKSOM (Daily Sabah, April 5).

In March, China delivered military aid to the government of Somalia. The aid, which included armored personnel carriers (APCs) and surveillance drones, is ostensibly for the government to fight against al-Shabaab (All Africa, March 19). [1] The overt delivery of military aid to Somalia by China is yet another sign that competition for influence and access is increasing in the Horn, and specifically Somalia. With its long coastline, ports, and potentially abundant on and off-shore oil and gas, Somalia’s importance will only grow. Yet, the involvement of multiple regional and global powers in Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa also suggests that instability will increase as rival powers back favored political parties and rebel groups.

Somaliland Bucks the Trend

The autonomous but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland is uniquely an outpost of stability in the Horn. Unlike Somalia, Somaliland has eschewed foreign involvement in its internal affairs. Instead, the government of Somaliland has encouraged investment by numerous states, most notably the UAE, all the while maintaining its neutrality. As an example of its commitment to neutrality, in 2019 the government of Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, revised an agreement with the UAE that would have seen the UAE build a military base near the port city of Berbera (Garowe Online, March 4, 2020). However, rather than a military base, the UAE and Somaliland agreed on the construction of a commercial center.

Somaliland is also one of the few African nations that has stood up to Chinese influence. Rather than give into lucrative offers of aid and investment from China, Somaliland is focusing on developing closer ties with the US, the UK, and the European Union (al-Araby, March 28). Furthermore, Somaliland even risked significantly angering China by exchanging ambassadors with Taiwan (Somaliland Chronicle, July 5, 2020).

At a time when regional and global rivals are determined to secure access to diminishing resources, Somaliland’s neutrality should be a model for the region. Yet, Somaliland, like the rest of the nations in the Horn, faces an array of challenges that range from drought to youth unemployment. Without considered support, the Horn’s one remaining bastion of stability could fall as rival powers exploit divisions to advance their own agendas.


The battle between nation states for natural resources will continue to drive interest in the Horn of Africa. The Horn has been plagued by decades of instability, which is now on the rise yet again with the notable exception of Somaliland. This comes at a time when US interest in the Horn appears to be waning and newly assertive regional powers like Turkey and the UAE are increasing their level of involvement in the Horn.

Ethiopia and Somalia both face acute and growing internal divisions. Rival states can and likely will exploit these divisions to secure footholds. Ironically, the competition for access and influence in the Horn may ensure that instability rises to a level that prevents the development of the region’s natural resources. At the same time, rising instability will continue to provide terrorist groups like Somalia based al-Shabaab with opportunities to expand their areas of operation.

[1] Author interview with in-country analyst, April 2022.