By Farah Adan
In January the United Arab Emirates sought to get permission from authorities in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, to agree to the establishment of a U.A.E military base at the port city of Berbera, which has been under the control of the secessionist authorites since Somalia’s central government disintegrated in 1991. On Sunday, Somaliland’s parliament officially approved the deal.
The U.A.E is a small country with an insignificant military and thus it’s not immediately clear why it needs a military base in Somalia. However, the U.A.E has been involved in Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen and this base may therefore be used to serve that conflict, as well as the larger ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East.
Compared to the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has been remarkably peaceful, however, the introduction of this base may soon introduce instability into the region. One of the main reasons why Somaliland has been relatively peaceful is because the region has very little resources to fight over. Somaliland is dirt poor and receives very little international development aid because it is not recognized by the outside world, being viewed as a rebellious province of Somalia. This depravity of resources has paradoxically produced an oasis of peace: bereft of resources to fight over, the region’s elites and various clan groups have been able to work together to establish a budding democracy that has been largely at peace since the mid 1990s. In contrast, the rest of Somalia, although itself desperately poor, nevertheless has been on the receiving end of tens of billions of dollars of international assistance because it is a “recognized” country, and elites there have fought bloody conflicts amongst themselves to capture this windfall.
In establishing this base, and also a new port at Berbera as well, the U.A.E will infuse billions of dollars into Somaliland, and thus will introduce a major potential source of conflict for the various power groups in the country. This might not have been so alarming had the U.A.E signaled that it would introduce this resource bonanza responsibly, taking care not to disturb the fragile political equilibrium of this new, not-yet mature democracy in a highly volatile part of the world, but signs already indicate that the U.A.E is behaving in an irresponsible, reckless manner. The oil-rich kingdom has allegedly distributed briefcases full of cash to Somaliland parliamentarians and gifted a multi-million dollar Dubai mansion to the influencial son-in-law of Somaliland’s 80-year-old president in order to get favorable terms for itself. This introductory resource infusion has disproportionately favored the elites currently running Somaliland’s government, and these elites clan-wise come from or are allied with the people who settle in Berbera. The other Somaliland elites and clans who are not from Berbera, and who are currently in the opposition parties seeking to unseat the current Somaliland government, have become alarmed that their opponents have found much greater resources than they possess, and are even more concerned that this advantage will only grow as the U.A.E settles permanently in Berbera and begins to regularly pay off the clan living there and its elites. Because of this, the Wadani political party, Somaliland’s major opposition party which represents the interests of the large but currently marginalized Habar Yonis clan, has issued vehement denunciations of the U.A.E’s Berbera deal, and it has even reportedly made surreptitious contact with the Somali federal government in Mogadishu to have the deal derailed. The Habar Yonis fought the Habar Awal clan and their Habar Jeclo allies (the clan that settles Berbera and its political partner respectively, which are also the clans currently “in power” in Somaliland), during Somaliland’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. The conflict was in large part over the rents from the port of Berbera, which exports much of Somalia’s livestock to the middle east. The U.A.E’s deal may reignite that conflict, which although long ceased, has left bad blood between these clans and the political competition between them has gotten worse in recent years, leading to some calling Somaliland a “power keg.”
In addition to potentially igniting a conflict within Somaliland, the U.A.E’s deal may also destabilize the wider region as well. Ethiopia, Somaliland’s powerful neighbor, fears that the Gulf Arab state will invite Egyptian troops into the base. Egypt and Ethiopia have been in a longstanding diplomatic standoff over Ethiopia’s decision to build a damn on a tributary river of the Nile within Ethiopia’s territory. Egypt fears that this dam will reduce its share of the river’s waters and has been working to pressure Ethiopia to cease construction of the dam, at times even threatening military action. An Egyptian military presence in neighboring Somaliland will undoubtedly become a launching pad for Egyptian destabilization programs against Ethiopia, and such activity, or the fear of it, may stimulate Ethiopia to take actions that could destabilize Somaliland and bring a wider conflict to the region. Ethiopia has reportedly criticized the deal in meetings with Somaliland authorities. Additionally, Iran and its shia Houthi allies in Yemen have also denounced the deal, angry over the military expansion of their Gulf Arab enemies and worried (quite reasonably) that the base will be used against them. It’s entirely plausible that the Houthis will try to attack the base if it is built. They’ve already demonstrated a remarkable ability to strike military targets that threaten them, recently attacking a Saudi war ship and bombing a Saudi military base near Eritrea with ballistic missiles. Somaliland and Yemen are relatively close to one another, and many in Somaliland now legitimately fear reprisals from the well-armed Houthis and other shia militant groups in the Middle East.
In sum, the U.A.E’s planned military base in Somaliland has the potential to become a major source of regional instability and it should be scrapped. The plan seems not only irresponsible but also lacking common sense. Why build a military base in a rebellious province of a failed state, whose authorities don’t even have the legal authority to enter into binding international agreements? But then again, the U.A.E is the country that idiotically spent billions of dollars building the so-called “World Islands”— hundreds of country-shaped sand islands out in the ocean, an extravagant, poorly thought out scheme that is now sinking. While schemes like that one have done little harm except burn up a foolish sheikh’s money, the U.A.E’s soon-to-be military base in Somaliland has the potential to get people killed.