Alwaght- Over the past years and specifically in the past decade, the UAE has been extensively busy expanding its presence in the Horn of Africa, turning into a key foreign player in that part of Africa.
Last week, Abu Dhabi announced opening a consulate in the city of Laayoune in Western Sahara contested region, where the Polisario Front and Morocco are in dispute over its control. Ambitiously seeking transformation into a top regional power with a high profile position globally, the UAE under its de facto ruler Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan seems to see Africa as the main route towards this high-flying dream.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has designed a set of procedures to increase its presence in the geopolitical competitions of Africa that include political alliances, economic aids, investment, and economic and military pacts with the regional states.
Although its outlook and strategic goal are to change into a top regional power, a set of calculations shape the country’s foreign policy in the Horn of Africa.
The port cities of the Persian Gulf have a long history of links to Africa with the marine trade being central in this interaction. The links date back to before the emirates became united under an independent country. Emirate’s economic growth model, which is based on attracting foreign investment, oil sales, and transformation into regional trade and finance hub, is unavoidably tied to the development of ports and connections to the high seas. This is the model in which the freedom of navigation in the two strategic straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb should be guaranteed. But these two vital waterways that are key to the UAE and even the world’s economy are easily closeable to the oil tankers and other cargo vessels. So, for the UAE having friends and even allies along the Red Sea is a strategic priority. Not surprisingly, one of the first cross-border trade deals of the UAE’s ports giant, DP World, was signed with Djibouti, where the company in 2006 started to develop the Port of Doraleh.
Abu Dhabi has been watching the security of the Suez Canal in Egypt, especially in mid-2010 when piracy in the Red Sea and the southern gate of the canal posed risks to the oil shipments and commercial vessels of the UAE. At the time, the country trained a marine police force in the semi-autonomous Puntland in northern Somalia and conducted drills of operations against the Islamist rebellious group Al-Shabaab.
After 2011 and the start of the Arab uprisings in North Africa and the Red Sea coastal states, Abu Dhabi’s sensitivity and attention more than ever went to the developments of the region. Yemen’s developments posed threats and opportunities to Emirati economic interests. On the one hand, Abu Dhabi was extremely concerned about Bab-el-Mandeb falling to the hands of the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen. The country formed a military alliance with Saudi Arabia and waged a war against Yemen. They put as top priority recapture of the southern and western coastal lines of Yemen.
On the other hand, Abu Dhabi has always given attention to the southern ports of Yemen on the Red Sea Coasts which made potential rivals to the important UAE ports. Succeeding in Yemen's strategy required attention to the Horn of Africa. According to a UN report published in 2018, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to pay Eritrea in return for helping their campaign against the Ansarullah Houthi movement. They asked the small African country to allow them to use its territorial waters, airspace, and soil for military action against Ansarullah, which is in control of the capital Sana’a.
Eritrea officials rented out Assab port for 30 years to the UAE in 2018. According to the contract, the Arab emirate constructs a military base and an airport in the port. Also, the role of the marine trade is clear in the UAE’s alliances with other African countries. The country is working in Africa via its important wing the DP World. The company is currently bolstering its activities in Senegal to operate Port de Futur in the capital Dakar, as it is engaged in partnerships in Mozambique, Somaliland, Rwanda, and also Algeria. Last year, it signed agreements with Mali to construct marine logistics facilities. It also signed a deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to build a deep-water pier worth $1 billion in Banana port.
While currently over 25 percent of the Chinese exports to the Arab countries pass through the UAE, Abu Dhabi, according to Al-Akhbar newspaper, considers joining the Chinese “Road and Belt” initiative to develop its sea trade. The tendency to cooperate with China was apparent in the agreement between the DP World and Zhejiang China Commodities City Group in later 2018. The cooperation brings the two sides to a partnership in Traders Market within the Jebel Ali Free Zone Area that would facilitate the Africa-West Asia trade.
UAE security and political interests in Africa: From the Arab uprisings to normalization agreement
Beyond its economic interests, the UAE has security interests in Africa that give Abu Dhabi important reasons to strengthen its role in that region. Internal developments of the North African states after the 2011 uprisings and involvement of regional and international powers in the revolts set off the alarm bells to the UAE. The uprisings forced the UAE to have a larger role in such countries as Egypt and Libya.
Egypt and Libya uprisings led to the rise to the rule of Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Emiratis saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and key enemy, as the conflicts across the Arab world are increasingly tied to each other and developments in one region influence other regions.
Feeling a danger from the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE embarked on more interventionist policy. Like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it supported its allies in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere.
After Libya's Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, a power struggle between the Qatari and Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and Saudi, UAE, and Egypt-supported Eastern Libya Parliament (ELP) led by warlord Khalifa Haftar overshadowed the developments of Libya. Meanwhile, the UAE and Turkey are involved more than others in support of the opposite Libyan sides.
The Persian Gulf crisis of 2017, in which Saudi Arabia along with its allies the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut off diplomatic and trade ties to Qatar, pushed the leaders of the opposite sides to press for competition in which they shored up their regional alliances especially in the Horn of Africa. In 2018, Abu Dhabi opened six more embassies in Africa to increase its diplomatic representation to over 12 in this continent.
The rivalry between the Saudi-Emirati camp and Qatar was dragged to Somalia, increasing the tensions among Somalian leaders. In 2018, the UAE played a crucial role in the Eritrea-Ethiopia agreement to end the two-decade wars between the neighbors. The surprise visit to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in June 2018 and offering a $3 billion aid package was an attempt from the UAE to include Ethiopia in its circle of allies and keep it distant from Turkey and Qatar. Ethiopia has many economic and military agreements with the two countries.
But in addition to security interests, the UAE tries to bring to its side as many as possible Arab countries in the normalization with the Israeli regime so that it can take Saudi Arabia’s place in one of the Muslim world’s most important issues and thus step out of isolation as it faced decisive Palestinian and Muslim public opposition to thaw with Tel Aviv. The Emiratis not only press the military rulers in the post-coup Sudan towards normalization but also use the Western Sahara dispute to put strains on Morocco to normalize with the Israelis.
Western Sahara is located in northwest Africa and south of Morocco and rich with fish and phosphorus. It had been under Moroccan attacks since the end of the Spanish colonization in 1974. Polisario Front is struggling to secure the region's independence.
Emirate economic tool to get a toehold in Africa
With respect to the security and economic interests that highlight the African place in Abu Dhabi foreign policy, the UAE seeks to deepen its influence in this continent through soft power and economic tools. The country empowers its wings in Africa under economic partnerships with the regional states.
One tool is the banking sector. Stepped up its activities and presence in Kenya and other African countries, the Dubai Islamist Bank is one of these tools.
The UAE, Al-Akhbar newspaper reported, predicts its investment in Africa increases by the end of 2020 as regional states get loans from the Emirates and Abu Dhabi finances projects in hydrocarbon and renewable energy, health, education, agriculture, railways, roads, trade, and logistics. African Development Bank estimations suggest that just the continent's infrastructure needs between $130 and $170 billion.
Abu Dhabi has already started investing in the Nigerian oil industry as it seeks to use the country as the gasoline hub in West Africa. Additionally, it invested $3.3 billion in 52 projects in Mozambique agriculture, education, and oil sectors. Abu Dhabi also sponsors renewable energy projects in Seychelles in East Africa. Besides, Emirates Global Aluminum started exports of Bauxite ore from Guinea Alumina Corporation, its mining project in the Republic of Guinea in West Africa in August 2019. As the UAE considers to become one of the top five trade partners of Africa, its network of regional influence and power in the continent grows day by day.