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Somalia’s quandary with UAE: A port in Somaliland

March 16, 2018 at 4:38 pm

Berbera Port in Somaliland [Siphon/Wikipedia]

Somalia is taking a bold step against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the regeneration of a port in Somaliland it considers “belligerent and illegal”.

In a tripartite agreement between the UAE’s port company DP World, Ethiopia and Somaliland, Berbera port is to undergo work to resemble the Emirates’ Jebel Ali port. Its roots and negotiation date back to 2016 when Somaliland’s parliament approved the deal with UAE’s operational port company DP World. The investment is some $422 million that would see a major gross domestic product (GDP) uptick, attract global investments and the ability to generate jobs for surrounding countries.

Ethiopia holds 19 per cent of the Berbera port while DP World remains the major share owner with a 51 per cent stake, and Somaliland 30 per cent. The Ethiopian government will invest in infrastructural development for the port.

But Somalia’s discomfort led to a hit back on the deal, refuting it as “null and void” as the federal government wasn’t consulted. All ports are “national property” according to the federal government of Somalia. Hasan Ali, Somalia’s prime minister, said last week the deal is “welcome” but needs to be “consulted”. Somalia went on to claim that it undermines its unity, sovereignty and violates its constitution.

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Somaliland, a breakaway autonomous region of Somalia, has simply ignored the federal government’s refutation, inflaming tensions. “The present agreement is nothing new,” Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi said in a statement on last Saturday, “it is an extension of the agreement entered into between the Republic of Somaliland and DP World and approved by the Parliament.” Abdi has since flown to Dubai to discuss the developing row with Somalia over the Berbera port deal.

Geo-political implications and ‘lawfare’

It was only last June when Somalia was pressured in to supporting one of two camps, the UAE and Saudi Arabia or Qatar, after the Arab states were vying for geo-political support as a result of the Gulf rift. Both camps have a history of supporting Somalia economically and with infrastructural development. In the midst of the quandary of which side to support, Somalia even rejected an $80 million from Saudi Arabia to support the blockade against Doha. Initially, Somalia backed Qatar, but after successful lobbying by Saudi Arabia, it supported the camp levying the blockade.

But 2018 has brought about new political challenges, and Somalia isn’t turning the other cheek. Somalia, defiant in its resolve to prevent the UAE from developing its commercial enterprise, submitted a complaint to the Arab League. Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the UAE, subsequently offered to mediate the row between Somalia and UAE, but nothing has transpired.

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Yesterday, 168 Somali lawmakers passed a law in a bid to outlaw the UAE’s DP World from operating at the Berbera port. On the same day, DP World announced its financial results for 2017, including its future investments which included Somaliland’s Berbera port deal – maintaining its position to continue the deal.

In response to the ongoing row, Somaliland’s prime minister announced today that the UAE will be building a military base in the country which will remain for 30 years. The details of the base have not been finalised, though there are two months left for negotiations. As part of the deal, Emirati forces will be training Somaliland’s security personnel.

It wouldn’t be disingenuous to believe there’s more to the UAE’s military base than meets the eye. One can be led to see it as a means to stabilise regional power dynamics in the Horn of Africa and more broadly the Red Sea region. The strategic positioning of the base would support the UAE’s grip over the Red Sea’s strategic water strait, Bab El-Mandeb, off Yemen. This surely goes hand in hand with the UAE’s military activities in Yemen, sidestepping the original goals of supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to ensure the secession of southern Yemen. Additionally, the UAE has taken over Socotra Island, just off the southern Yemen coast, using it as a military base for Yemen hostilities.

Amalgamation of these developments bolsters the UAE’s foreign policy for the region which may be seen as a threat.

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Turkey, a close ally of Qatar, opened a base in Somalia with 200 troops in deployment. Ankara has also cemented its future military landscape, enshrined in its 2022 National Security Council plan to deploy 60,000 troops worldwide including in Somalia.

DP World is already facing contractual problems in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti last month terminated a long-running partnership for operating Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT). Internal rifts over financial transactions between Djibouti and DP World led to the severance of the partnership which began in 2008. The contract to operate the DCT was supposed to run for 30 years but fell into jeopardy.

Somalia’s forces are being trained, equipped and its country is being fully supported which may explain its recent bold stance against the UAE. Off the back of this, Qatar has recruited scores of willing young Somalis across the country to train as soldiers in Doha last year. All of this adds to the turbulent dynamic in the Horn of Africa region, which is being blurred by the ongoing contentious politics of the Gulf rift.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.