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What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf
What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf
Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After
Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After
Op-Ed / Africa

What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf

Originally published in The Atlantic

A year after the Qatar crisis began, it’s having potentially dangerous reverberations in the Horn of Africa.

The Gulf crisis that began last year appears to be living by reverse Las Vegas rules: What happens in the Gulf doesn’t stay in (or even have much impact on) the Gulf. Last June, a Saudi-led coalition cut off relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, invoking various and shifting rationales—Qatar was, allegedly, supporting terrorist groups, interfering in Saudi internal affairs, and displaying excessive closeness to Iran. Little progress been made in resolving the dispute, and all parties seem ready to withstand it for the foreseeable future. Qatar of course would much prefer to see its foes lift their blockade. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, are eager to have their neighbor curb its independent foreign-policy streak. On the whole, though, both sides have learned to live with a dispute that has become part of their habitual scenery.

But reverse Vegas rules means also this: What happens in the Gulf is increasingly having destabilizing and dangerous effects elsewhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Somalia.

I witnessed this last month when I landed in its capital, Mogadishu. After decades of civil war, I expected to find a bombed-out, militarized shell of a once great coastal city. Mogadishu is still plagued by violence; last October 2017, 600 people were killed by one of the deadliest truck bombs in history. Still, signs of progress abound: Streetlights function, food stalls overflow with produce, shops burst with merchandise, tuk-tuks weave in and out of traffic, people gather on the capital’s beaches, new buildings are under construction, and old buildings are being restored.

Yet this fragile progress is now under threat from an unlikely source. Rivalries among Gulf powers have spilled into the Horn of Africa.

Since Somalia’s central government collapsed in the early 1990s, civil war has gripped the country for nearly three decades in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. In 2006, al-Shabaab, a jihadist insurgent movement that later became affiliated with al-Qaeda, emerged and occupied swaths of the country, including much of the capital. A famine in 2010 that killed more than a quarter of a million Somalis was made worse by al-Shabaab’s grip on the south-central region of the country. It took until 2011, after the deployment of African Union forces, for al-Shabaab’s gains to be reversed, as African Union and Somali operations pushed the movement out of Mogadishu and began the slow process of stabilizing the country.

True, enormous challenges remained. Reconciling and allocating power and resources among Somalia’s fractious clans, and between Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or federal states, has proved an uphill and uneven struggle. So too has building security forces, which are often little more than an assortment of militias whose primary loyalty is to clans as opposed to any formal chain of command. Al-Shabaab proved resilient, often being a better service provider and revenue generator than the graft-ridden government. Overall, though, the general direction of the country appeared positive. The 2017 election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, who enjoyed support from across Somalia’s clans, was further cause for hope.

The Gulf crisis that began last June, however, has brought another layer of complexity and strife. I hardly expected the Middle East to dominate discussions with officials in the Horn of Africa. But in all my meetings, whether with the Somali prime minister, the national planning minister, the president’s national-security adviser, civil-society leaders—or indeed African officials and Western diplomats in the Ethiopian and Kenyan capitals—the overriding theme was how the rivalry between Qatar and other Gulf countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, would affect Somalia and the Horn of Africa more broadly.

In the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia out of the fray.

In the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia out of the fray. The U.A.E. didn’t buy it. It considered several of Farmajo’s appointments too close to Qatar and thus at odds with his professions of neutrality. In response, the U.A.E. appears to have doubled down on its support not only for competing Somali factions but also for Somalia’s federal states. In turn, Farmajo’s government, angered at what it views as attempts to undermine its authority, has cracked down on rivals, often using their alleged ties to the U.A.E. as pretext.

The Somali government’s confiscation in April of more than $9 million from an Emirati plane at Mogadishu’s airport brought the crisis to a boil. The government cites the cash as evidence of Emirati meddling. The U.A.E. denies the charge and argues the money was destined for Somali forces whose salaries it has long been paying. Regardless, the dispute has had destructive ripple effects. The U.A.E. cut off aid programs and withdrew personnel from the capital. The rift has exacerbated intra-Somali disputes, particularly between the Farmajo government and federal states. It is deepening the Somali state’s dysfunction—arguably the main reason al-Shabaab remains a threat—and risks allowing the group to muster further strength, despite thousands of lives and billions of dollars spent combatting it.

Not all of Somalia’s challenges can be laid at the Gulf’s doorstep. For years, the Gulf monarchies’ aid and investment has been a lifeline for many Somalis. Nor are Somali elites, long adept at navigating foreign clientelism, helpless victims. They often have been as skillful at manipulating foreigners as foreigners have been at manipulating them.

But rivalries among Gulf powers—which are increasingly on display in the fraught jockeying for influence around the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa—have brought a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s instability.  It’s not too late for all to take a step back: for Mogadishu to adhere to a position of strict neutrality between Qatar and the U.A.E. and to repair its troubled relations with the federal states; for Gulf countries to cease meddling in Somalia’s domestic politics; and for Somalia’s various actors to stop exploiting for their own ends Gulf states’ economic or strategic interest in their country.

None of that would put an end to Somalia’s long-running and tragic conflict. Even without Gulf meddling, efforts to stabilize the country, curtail the threat from al-Shabaab, reconcile clans, and overcome center–periphery tensions still face a hard and long slog. But if richer, more powerful states treat the country as an expendable battleground, and if they and Somali factions pursue a form of zero-sum competition ill-suited to the country’s fractious and multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted Somalia risk taking an even darker turn.

Commentary / Africa

Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After

As tensions between the federal government and semi-autonomous federal member states escalate, Somalia's February elections are expected to be intensely contested. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press for fair, transparent and inclusive elections, and to encourage whatever administration takes power after the vote to improve cooperation with federal member states.

The year 2021 will be pivotal for Somalia. Parliamentary and presidential elections due by February promise to be intensely contested. Already, tensions between the federal government and semi-autonomous federal member states have poisoned the air for cooperation on a number of fronts, including work on a provisional constitution and establishment of a national army and police force. The polls risk piling further pressure on the political system and triggering confrontations among various powerful actors. Meanwhile, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) looks set to begin drawing down at year’s end even as Al-Shabaab’s insurgency rages on. 

To support Somalia at this critical juncture, the European Union and its member states can take the following steps:

  • Use their diplomatic clout to push for fair, transparent and inclusive elections. Brussels and European capitals should lean on Mogadishu to avoid unilaterally proceeding with the vote, and on federal member states and the political opposition to avoid conducting the parallel polls that some contemplate. Rather, all sides should resume dialogue on election management, particularly on how to address the opposition’s complaints over what it says is the incumbent’s undue interference. Once parties reach an electoral management agreement, the EU should urge them not to take any challenges to the streets but instead to stick with the dispute resolution mechanism hammered out in September. 
  • To boost inclusivity, the EU and member states should call for a clearer plan for how Somali leaders will fulfil their own commitment to ensuring that women assume at least 30 per cent of elected offices.
  • Press whatever administration takes power in Mogadishu after the vote to improve cooperation with federal member states. Brussels should push the parties to use a formal institution such as an inter-state commission proposed in the provisional constitution as a regular mechanism for keeping centre-periphery dialogue going. This step will help rebuild trust between Mogadishu and regional capitals, allowing all sides to focus on achieving key aims related to the constitution and a national security plan endorsed at a London conference in 2017.
  • Signal support for a continued, albeit reformed AMISOM mission. Commit to fund the mission through the end of 2021, while clearly outlining the conditions under which European powers would extend financial support for an external security presence in Somalia in 2022 and beyond.

A Heated Electoral Contest

Somalia’s forthcoming elections will be fraught. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) is seeking to do what no Somali leader has done in recent years: secure a second term in office. He faces stiff resistance from an array of politicians who are united largely by the desire to prevent his re-election. His opponents include heavyweights such as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, former presidents who both can mobilise major clan constituencies. Meanwhile, the leaders of federal member states such as Puntland and Jubaland are also working to unseat Farmajo, risking a showdown that could pit federal against regional or clan forces if tensions between them do not dissipate.

The run-up to the vote has been marred by poor preparation and missed deadlines amid elite squabbling over management of electoral procedures.

The run-up to the vote has been marred by poor preparation and missed deadlines amid elite squabbling over management of electoral procedures. Farmajo’s opponents have declined to recognise newly formed federal and state electoral committees out of concern that the president has stacked them with loyalists. They are so worried about tampering that they are mulling conducting a parallel poll. The standoff, unless resolved, risks undermining the election’s credibility and could trigger violence if the opposition and their supporters either do not participate or reject the vote’s outcome. 

Far from seeking to build consensus, Mogadishu seems intent on barrelling ahead in defiance of the opposition’s protests. On 9 January, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble announced that voting in the indirect elections, in which clans nominate delegates who in turn select parliamentarians, would proceed in mid-January. The opposition has rejected this unilateral approach, warning that it may lead to conflict. They have urged Somalia’s international partners to lean on Mogadishu to change course. The potential showdown carries multiple dangers. It could set off fighting in the capital, where elements of the powerful Hawiye clan strongly oppose Farmajo, and in other areas such as Gedo, where federal forces are locked in a standoff with local counterparts allied to the Jubaland administration. It could also fracture some of Somalia’s security units along clan lines. 

Post-Election Reconciliation 

If Somalia can navigate the elections without major violence, whoever assumes the presidency will still face big challenges, including a deeply divided political landscape. Reconciliation, particularly between the federal government and member states, should be a priority. This fault line has only widened as Farmajo’s administration has tried but failed to dominate member states and centralise power. The lesson from the past few years is that such attempts cannot succeed in Somalia’s federal system. Instead, they sow discord and impede important national undertakings like finalising the provisional constitution and forming a national army and police force. All such reforms have sputtered in part due to non-cooperation between Mogadishu and member states. Quick progress on these fronts is important as by 2023 a new cycle of state elections will kick off, carrying on toward the next federal election in 2024 and preoccupying many politicians.

Reconciliation, particularly between the federal government and member states, should be a priority.

Dialogue will be critical. Any incoming administration in Mogadishu – whether Farmajo is re-elected or a challenger prevails – will need to institute a regular mechanism for sustained dialogue with member states, whereby the respective leaderships convene every month or quarter to discuss issues of mutual concern, including cooperation in fighting Al-Shabaab’s insurgency. Article 111(f) of Somalia’s provisional constitution calls for such an inter-state commission to facilitate federal-member state cooperation. Discussions of thornier questions, such as the nature of power and resource sharing in Somalia’s federal model, should also take place as part of a push to finalise the provisional constitution. In addition, federal and state officials should prioritise standing up a national army and police force, with representation from all member states, as prescribed in the 2017 national security plan. 

Tensions in the southern region of Gedo, where federal troops dislodged a local administration following a disputed Jubaland election in August 2019, will require special attention. Drawing down the federal forces in Gedo would be a good first gesture toward repairing the damage done by Mogadishu’s overreach and a prelude to deeper discussions among the federal government, the Jubaland administration in Kismayo, Mogadishu and Gedo residents on the region’s future governance. The Farmajo government committed to this drawdown in discussions with Jubaland regional president Ahmed Madobe in September 2020. The situation in Hiraan, a part of Hirshabelle state where the November 2020 election of a presidential candidate aligned to Mogadishu upset a local clan power-sharing arrangement, will also require dialogue between federal and local officials. 

If frictions can be soothed in Gedo and Hiraan, it will be easier to pull Somali elites into discussions about the provisional constitution and national security architecture.


Security nationwide will also be high on the new president’s agenda, given AMISOM’s proposed drawdown in 2021. The African Union (AU) mission is scheduled to hand over primary security responsibility to Somali forces by the end of the year, while the UN Security Council may further adjust AMISOM’s duties when its mandate comes up for renewal in February. The planned drawdown is driven by financial considerations, with the EU insisting that its commitment to cover AMISOM troop stipends is unsustainable. Yet international security assistance in Somalia will be needed after 2021, given Al-Shabaab’s continued potency. The insurgency is firmly in control of large swathes of rural south-central Somalia and has infiltrated several cities that the government controls.

Reform of AMISOM thus seems more likely than total withdrawal. Even if the force undergoes budget cuts, one option might be to remodel it to reinvigorate its focus on offensive operations against Al-Shabaab, by increasing the mission’s mobile capabilities, for example, while shifting responsibility for its current main task of holding major population centres to Somali forces. Yet discussions of AMISOM’s future are taking place amid frictions between external actors, including the AU and UN. Some AU officials believe the UN did not engage the AU sufficiently during a Somalia security assessment that the world body organised itself, rather than jointly as Addis Ababa had expected. The AU in turn viewed the assessment as narrowly focused on AMISOM rather than wider international security assistance to Somalia. The AU plans to conduct its own assessment instead. This disconnect symbolises the lack of coherence among international partners with regard to AMISOM’s future. 

What the EU Can Do

The EU and member states have contributed significantly toward stabilising Somalia, but much remains to be done. 

First is the election. The EU and European governments, working with the AU and the U.S., should press the federal leadership to convene urgent talks with the opposition to agree upon a consensual way forward before the expiration of Farmajo’s mandate on 8 February. All sides should abide as closely as possible by the terms of the September 2020 agreement. They will need in particular to come to agreement over the electoral committees’ composition. In addition, and to ensure inclusivity, the EU should prioritise achieving the 30 per cent quota for women’s representation in elected office, calling upon Somali stakeholders to present a plan for reaching that goal.

Following an agreement on election management, the next step is to enhance the dispute resolution mechanism called for in the September electoral agreement, limited as it may be within the confines of another indirect electoral process. The EU should press all Somali stakeholders to pursue any challenges to the election results through this mechanism and to commit publicly in advance to abide by its findings. It should urge Somali elites to allow the committee to work independently, as perceptions of manipulation by any party will undermine its credibility.

After the election, the EU should press Mogadishu to reach out to aggrieved member states.

After the election, the EU should press Mogadishu to reach out to aggrieved member states. It should push to initiate a regular dialogue mechanism for state and national leadership to discuss key issues, citing Article 111(f) of the provisional constitution. The EU can link future budgetary support to Somalia to the establishment of this mechanism, as a means of incentivising regular dialogue. 

The EU and European governments should pay special attention to the standoff in Gedo and the brewing discontent in Hiraan. It should call on Mogadishu to fulfil its commitment to draw down forces in the former region and nudge federal and local authorities into dialogue in the latter. 

On AMISOM, the EU could commit to new funding through the end of 2021. Then, following deeper collaborative discussions with Somali, AU and UN actors on the future of international security assistance, it could signal its support for the mission’s continuation under a reformed mandate. Stating now the possible scope of its financial contributions and the conditions under which it would continue to fund Somali security, including AMISOM, after 2021 will also allow all parties to better understand the limits of support they can expect and to find consistent alternative funding sources for 2022 and beyond.