Hot Issue – The Race for Bases, Ports, and Resources in the Horn of Africa Heats Up

Somaliland's Port of Berbera (source:

Executive summary: The battle for access and influence in the Horn of Africa is intensifying as the Gulf States, Turkey, and China race to secure footholds. At the same time, rivalries between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Turkey are shaping how these countries interact with state and non-state actors in the Horn. The insertion of the Gulf States’, Turkey’s, and Iran’s regional disputes into the politics of the countries that make up the Horn will exacerbate instability in what are already fragile states.

Over the last five years, the battle between outside powers for influence in—and access to—the Horn of Africa has intensified. The Gulf States, Turkey, and China, in particular, are all competing for footholds in what is one of the world’s most strategic regions. After years of relatively little interest in the countries that make up the Horn of Africa, outside powers are investing billions of dollars in the region.

The race for bases and ports in the Horn of Africa is well underway. Somalia hosts Turkey’s largest overseas military base and Turkish companies run Mogadishu’s port and airport. Turkey’s ally and benefactor, Qatar, is also working to establish itself in southern Somalia. Further north in the independent but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland and in the autonomous region of Puntland, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based companies operate the ports of Berbera and Bosaso. The UAE has also built a naval and air base at Assab in Eritrea. Djibouti, wedged between Somaliland and Eritrea, hosts bases for the United States, Japan, France, Italy, and China. Saudi Arabia has an agreement with Djibouti to build its first overseas base in the country, but construction of the base has not begun.

The reasons for growing interest in the Horn of Africa are twofold: first, the countries that make up the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia) are regarded as the eastern door to Africa and its abundant natural resources. Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea all have coastlines that border what is arguably the world’s most important shipping corridor. In 2018, an estimated 6.2 million barrels per day of petroleum products passed through the 30-kilometer strait, the Bab al-Mandeb, which is located between Eritrea, Djibouti, and Yemen. Second, Gulf States—primarily the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—want the strategic depth that greater involvement in the Horn of Africa may deliver.

However, as the high-stakes battle for influence in—and access to—these countries intensifies, so does the risk of increased instability in the Horn of Africa. Regional rivalries between the Gulf States, Iran, and Turkey are already shaping how these states interact with state and non-state actors in the Horn of Africa. Just as the Cold War competition between what was the Soviet Union and the United States contributed to instability in the Horn of Africa, regional rivalries could undermine security and stability in what are already fragile countries.

The Eastern Door to Africa

The impetus for the interest of Gulf States in the Horn of Africa can, at least partly, be traced back to the 2008-12 rise in global food prices. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are almost wholly dependent on imported food. Soaring prices for staples like wheat brought the problem of food insecurity to the fore for these countries. The role that soaring commodity prices played in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, was not lost on the ruling families who preside over the three countries. To partly address the issue of food insecurity, from 2008, the Gulf States started buying up agricultural land in Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa.

After China, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest overseas investors in Ethiopia, where much of this investment is focused on agriculture. UAE-based companies are also buying up agricultural properties in Ethiopia and are exploring opportunities in Eritrea where it and Saudi Arabia are active. Ethiopia’s agricultural potential is immense and its proximity to the Hejaz and the Persian Gulf mean that transport costs are low. In addition to investments in agriculture, the Gulf States are investing in ports in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Global port operator DP World, of which the UAE government is the largest shareholder, has aggressively expanded the number of ports it operates in the Horn of Africa since 2006. Despite DP World’s loss of the concession to operate Djibouti’s Doraleh container terminal in 2018, DP World maintains a strong presence in the Horn. DP World operates the port of Berbera in Somaliland and the port of Bosaso in semi-autonomous Puntland (Gulf News, July 31; The National, October 11, 2018).

The UAE’s regional rival, Qatar, has indicated that it, via Qatar Ports Management Company, will build a new port at the northern Somali town of Hobyo (al-Jazeera, August 20). Qatar’s ally, Turkey, already manages the port of Mogadishu and Mogadishu’s airport via Turkish companies (Hurriyet Daily News, October 23, 2014).

Concurrent with Qatar’s agreement to build a wholly new port in Somalia, the gas-rich nation has promised to invest billions in Somalia. Many of these proposed investments will target southern Somalia’s once highly productive agricultural sector. At the same time that there is a keen focus on agriculture, the Gulf States, and the government owned companies they work through, are also looking closely at the oil and gas potential that exists on and off shore in Somalia and Somaliland.

The Gulf States are not alone in their interest in the Horn of Africa. China, just as elsewhere in Africa, has invested billions of dollars in Ethiopia and Djibouti. In Djibouti, China Merchants Group displaced DP World and now operates Djibouti’s container port at Doraleh, just outside of Djibouti City (China Daily, March 16, 2018). In Ethiopia, China has cultivated deep ties with the government and business elites where it has funded numerous infrastructure projects, including the reconstruction of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway.

Taking Regional Rivalries to the Horn

While the Chinese generally work to minimize their overt involvement in the politics of the countries that they invest in, the same cannot be said for the Gulf States and Turkey. The ongoing dispute between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Qatar and Turkey on the other has influenced how all four countries operate in the Horn of Africa. The dispute between the four countries, which dates to 2017, arose when Saudi Arabia and the UAE persuaded their regional allies to sever diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over the country’s alleged ties to “terrorist groups.” The Qatari government denied the charges. Qatar does support the Muslim Brotherhood which both the UAE and Saudi Arabia view as a threat.

The break between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Qatar and Turkey is playing out in the Horn of Africa where the four countries are forcing those countries they invest in to take sides in the dispute. This, combined with the deeply divisive war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are involved, has introduced a new layer of complexity to the region.

Before the diplomatic row with Qatar, the UAE played an important role in Somalia where it has provided aid and small numbers of soldiers tasked with training Somali forces. However, following Somalia’s decision not to support the embargo of Qatar, relations between the UAE and Somalia deteriorated. Following an April 2018 altercation between the UAE and the Somali government over a plane carrying Emirati soldiers and $9.6 million in cash, the UAE terminated a military training program that it ran in Somalia (al-Jazeera, August 9, 2018; Middle East Eye, April 15, 2018). In response, Qatar redoubled its efforts to deepen its relationship with the government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmaajo.

Somalia’s refusal to take sides in the dispute with Qatar prompted the UAE to upgrade its relations with the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland where Dubai-based DP World agreed to a $442 million investment in the port of Berbera. Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, and is a bastion of relative stability has welcomed the UAE and its investments. However it has been far more cautious about the establishment of a proposed UAE military base near Berbera’s airport. To this end, the administration of Somaliland President Musa Bihi Abdi has renegotiated that part of the deal with the UAE. Rather than building a military base, the UAE has agreed to fund the construction of a commercial hub adjacent to Berbera’s airport. A senior adviser to the president of Somaliland said, “we don’t want any part of the battle between the UAE and Qatar, but our options are limited, and the wealthy Gulf States know this and take full advantage of it.” [1] The government of Somalia reacted to the UAE’s investments in Somaliland by banning DP World from operating in Somalia (Middle East Monitor, March 15, 2018).

The UAE has also maintained and enhanced its relationship with the semi-autonomous region of Puntland which lies between Somaliland and Somalia. Puntland has a longstanding relationship with the UAE which has contributed to the training of some security forces. DP World subsidiary, P&O Ports, has a 30 year concession to operate and upgrade Puntland’s port at Bosaso (The National, April 6, 2017). The government of Somalia has stated that it regards the UAE’s actions in Somaliland and Puntland as an attack on Somali unity.

In what could be an ominous sign of how the rivalry between the Gulf States is infecting local power dynamics, The New York Times obtained a recording of an alleged call between the Qatari ambassador to Somalia and a Qatari businessman. During the call, the businessman, identified as Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi, mentions a May 2019 attack in Puntland’s port at Bosaso, which was attributed to al-Shabaab. Al-Muhanadi suggests that this attack was in the interests of Qatar since the attack would discourage the UAE from investing in Puntland (al-Arabiya, July 23). Qatar subsequently denied the reports published in The New York Times (al-Jazeera, July 23).

Regardless of the veracity of the report, it points to the ease with which immensely wealthy countries with ambitious foreign policies can become enmeshed in local power struggles. Somalia is home to dozens of armed factions and al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab is, yet again, resurgent. Navigating Somalia and the region’s treacherous politics is something that even the most practiced global powers have struggled with. The United States’ own involvement in Somalia has yielded few results and has cost it billions of dollars.

While Ethiopia and Eritrea are both more stable than Somalia, neither country is immune from the instability that increased interest from the Gulf States may bring. In Ethiopia, there have already been bloody disputes over land claimed by both locals and foreign companies (Ethiopia Insight, March 8; The Reporter, March 9). A former officer with the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) explained, “this and the previous government’s willingness to lease land that is claimed by various groups is contributing to the rise of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, tensions that are already boiling over in many areas.” The same officer went on to argue that, “Gulf-based companies and their purchases of land leases contributes little to local economies while costing the government millions of dollars in added security expenses.” [2]

Eritrea has thus far received limited actual investment beyond the UAE’s rehabilitation of port facilities at Assab where it maintains an airbase, naval and training facilities, as well as alleged prisons (The National, December 27, 2018; al-Jazeera, March 20). However, Ethiopia’s proximity to Yemen and the Bab al-Mandeb and its agricultural potential, mean that interest in the country from the Gulf States will persist and increase. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are also keen to ensure that Iran, which has had cordial relations with the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in the past, is prevented from renewing its ties with Eritrea.


Of the Gulf States, the UAE has been the most active in the Horn of Africa. This interest in the Horn has, at least partly, been driven by the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen. The UAE’s engagement with Eritrea was prompted by its need for bases close to the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah where it was fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The UAE now appears to be winding down its overt involvement in Yemen, but this is unlikely to affect its plans for the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden where it now operates Yemeni ports and exerts some control over the Yemeni island of Socotra (Middle East Monitor, September 6).

James Spencer, a former British infantry commander and expert on Gulf affairs said, “if the UAE’s de-facto leader Muhammad bin Zayed can wield influence in a future south Yemen, Oman (when a new sultan takes over), and both sides of the Bab al-Mandeb as far as Cape Guardafui, then he can dominate two major global chokepoints.” [3] While this may seem exceedingly ambitious, the UAE’s focus on establishing itself in medium and even small ports—some of which may never be profitable—throughout the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden points to just such a plan. However, as the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s costly intervention in Yemen has demonstrated, plans are one thing, while successful execution is another.

The war in Yemen has also revealed that the Gulf States and their newfound desire to take on the role of regional powers may come with considerable costs to those countries in which they are involved. The strategic depth and regional influence that the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia want may prove to be too costly and short-lived due to persistent instability in the Horn of Africa, most especially in Somalia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both underestimated the political complexity of Yemen which is, in some respects, similar to Somalia. This failure has cost both countries billions of dollars and it is likely that their intervention in Yemen has ensured that Yemen will remain unstable for years to come.

The repercussions of the war in Yemen are being felt throughout the Horn of Africa. Tens of thousands of Yemeni refugees have fled to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland (The New Arab, September 26, 2017; al-Jazeera, March 2). While many of these refugees arrived with some means and have set up businesses in these countries, the majority have to be provided for by their host nations and international agencies, if they are provided for at all.

The war in Yemen has also produced an outflow of small and medium weapons, many of which are making their way to the Horn of Africa. The commander of Somaliland’s Coastguard, Admiral Mohamed Hussein Farah, commented, “we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of illegal weapons shipments from Yemen in the last two years.” Somaliland’s coastguard is small and chronically underfunded. Yet as the admiral went on to explain, “there are almost weekly seizures of small arms that mostly originate from Yemen.” [4] Saudi Arabia and the UAE have flooded Yemen, which was already one of the most heavily armed nations in the world, with small and medium weaponry. Prices for these weapons are, on average, many times higher in the Horn of Africa and East Africa than in Yemen.

Weapons and refugees are not the only things Yemen is now exporting. An already extensive relationship between Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Somalia-based al-Shabaab is deepening. Due to the war in Yemen, AQAP has had increased access to relatively advanced weaponry and tactics that it will almost certainly share with al-Shabaab.


Global competition for East Africa’s abundant and still largely untapped natural resources guarantees that interest and investment in the Horn of Africa will continue to increase. The Horn’s strategic location along the Red Sea shipping corridor means that, as has been the case for two millennia, foreign powers will vie for access to—and influence in—these countries.

While the UAE has been the most aggressive of the Gulf State countries with respect to engaging in the Horn of Africa, it faces determined competitors like Qatar and China whose more subtle policies and even deeper pockets may erode the gains that the UAE has made. For its part, Saudi Arabia remains the junior partner with respect to the Horn of Africa. Given Saudi Arabia’s internal problems, this is unlikely to change.

Qatar’s ally, Turkey, is, at least for now, focused on Somalia where it has built meaningful rapport with numerous political factions due to its aid and investments. Iran has made little headway in establishing its influence in the region. This is an area where the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s assertiveness has yielded results. Both countries have undermined what little influence Iran enjoyed in Eritrea. However, the gains made by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey and their billions of dollars in investments could all be upended if these countries continue to bring their disputes with one another to the Horn.


[1] A senior advisor to the President of Somaliland. Interview with author. Hargeisa, Somaliland, September 2019.

[2] Former NISS official. Interview with author. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 2019.

[3] James Spencer. Interview with author. October 2019.

[4] Admiral Mohamed Hussein Farah. Interview with author. Hargeisa, Somaliland, September 2019.