Despite the return of piracy off Somalia’s coasts in 2017, the UAE and others continue to bank on the region, sinking millions into new infrastructure.
The historical roots of engagement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Somalia harken back centuries to when Arab merchants controlled trade routes circumventing what now constitutes Somalia and the semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland regions. In March 2017, word broke that UAE-based heavy hitter DP World was planning to manage and develop a port in Berbera, Somaliland. In addition in April, UAE-based P&O Ports won a 30-year contract for the Puntland port of Bosaso. What is unfolding is a bid for strategic trade relevance, as well as for political clout and access to a troubled and opportunity-rich corner of the world.
Simultaneously, the timing of these agreements coincides with an uptick in regional security risks. While piracy in the Eastern Horn may be on the rise, will the international community’s attention, and increased foreign engagement, be sufficient to reverse this trend?
While foreign powers have been developing a presence in East Africa for some time, — including the UAE’s naval base in Eritrea, bases in central Somalia and Somaliland, as well as US and Turkish facilities — these newest additions show an increasing focus on the UAE’s regional portfolio and its efforts to maintain regional relevance. While the UAE, USA and others provide training to security forces in Somalia, there are some overlapping interests. A prime example is the UAE’s training of the Puntland Maritime Police Force, a proxy who also counters the smuggling of weapons to Houthi rebels across the sea in Yemen, thereby working in the UAE’s interests.
Members of the UAE trained Puntland Maritime Police Force
The multi-million dollar concession to develop Somaliland’s Berbera port could be problematic on several fronts. Some note that one major issue is that agreements were made without the approval of the central Somali government, under the helm of a new President, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, since February 2017. Somalia’s central government is busy dealing with other foreign influences, including Kenyan troops working to quell the al Shabaab insurgency across swathes of the country. U.S representatives stated on April 14 that American troops are being sent to bolster Somali army training in order to combat the stubborn militant presence.
Al Shabaab is persistent, supported by the age-old insurgent-tactics of providing services to community members in order to establish a support base in the population necessary for success, key to any successful insurgency.
Piracy made a shocking resurgence in the spring of 2017, after a dearth of attacks since 2012. With multiple hijackings, and even more attempts perpetrated around the Eastern Horn in the past two months, the situation shocked many who are connected to the $700 billion worth of goods that are transported through this critical passage each year. Whereas NATO ran a multinational counter-piracy force around the Eastern Horn since 2009, the program ended in December 2016, after four years passed without a piracy incident. The fact that piracy has returned to the region shows that the motivation to carry out such acts persists. While many shipping companies loosened the prevalence of armed guards, security lapses have became increasingly visible.
Concerns include growing famine, over 25,000 cases of cholera so far this year, and the enduring operational, tactical, and strategic relevance of al Shabaab remain, a daunting list for the central government and its international partners. Examining the issues at hand in the context of a deteriorating humanitarian situation, the on-going piracy and militancy threat could be difficult to dislodge. As illegal fishing sanctioned by corrupt officials often contributes to piracy, it is likely that major gains across the fragmented region would begin with a focus on security and good governance practices.
In spite of the obvious risks, the UAE and other actors in Somalia proves the classic phrase ‘location, location, location’, as many will be willing to bolster security as a necessary expense in order to guarantee continuing influence in what is ultimately a strategic corner of the world.