Hamas’s attack into Israel and massacre of Israelis, followed by Israel’s war of obliteration on Gaza backed by the United States, is a political earthquake in the Middle East. Its tremors are shaking up the politics of the Horn of Africa, bringing down an already tottering peace and security architecture.
It’s too early to discern the shape of the rubble, but we can already see the direction in which some of the pillars will fall.
The most obvious impact is that the Israel-Palestine war has legitimized and invigorated protest across the wider region. Hamas showed that Israel was not invincible, and Palestine would no longer be invisible. Many in the Arab street — and Muslims more widely — are ready to overlook Hamas’s atrocious record as a public authority and its embrace of terror, because it dared stand up to Israel, America, and Europe.
Hamas’s boldness has given a shot in the arm to Islamists, such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab. As the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia draws down, al-Shabaab remains a threat— and will likely be emboldened to intensify its operations both in Somalia and neighboring Kenya.
Kenyan President William Ruto gave strong backing to Israel while also calling for a ceasefire. For the U.S. and Europe, Kenya is now the anchor state for security in the Horn — but it desperately needs financial aid if it is to shoulder that burden.
The war is consuming Egyptian attention and terrifies President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is treading a fine line between sponsoring pro-Palestinian protests and suppressing them.
Red Sea Security
The Red Sea is strategic for Israel. One quarter of Israel’s maritime trade is handled in its port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, an inlet of the Red Sea. Eilat is Israel’s back door, vital in case the Mediterranean coast is under threat. Israel has long seen the littoral countries of the Red Sea — Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia — as pieces in the jigsaw of its extended security frontier.
Historically, Egypt has shared the same concern. Last year, revenues from the Suez Canal were $9.4 billion— its third largest foreign currency earner after remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf States and tourism. Neither Israel nor Egypt can afford a disruption to maritime security from Suez and Eilat to the Gulf of Aden.
The Red Sea is also the buckle on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with China’s first overseas military base — strictly speaking a “facility” — in the port of Djibouti near the Bab al-Mandab, the narrow straits between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. More than 10 percent of world maritime trade is carried on 25,000 ships through these straits every year.
Having long neglected its Red Sea coastline, Saudi Arabia has reawakened to its significance in the last decade. In the 1980s, amid fears that Iran might block tanker traffic through the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia built an east-west pipeline from the Aqaig oil fields to the Red Sea port of Yanbu al Bahr. Its strategic significance is back in focus.
In parallel, the United Arab Emirates is well on track to securing a monopoly over the ports of the Gulf of Aden, which forms the eastern approaches to the Red Sea. It has de factoannexed the Yemeni island of Socotra for a naval base. The UAE is looking for a foothold in the Red Sea proper, and a string of satellite states on the African shore.
All these factors intensify the scramble for securing naval bases in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is already host to the U.S.’s Camp Lemonnier along with French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese facilities. Turkey and Russia are actively seeking bases too, focusing on Port Sudan and Eritrea’s long coastline.
Empowered Gulf States
Well before the recent crisis, the Horn of Africa was becoming dominated by Middle Eastern powers. This process is now intensified. Decades of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for alignment of Sudan and Eritrea has swung different ways. Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, formerly political partner of Benjamin Netanyahu and signatory to the Abraham Accord, cut an ill-timed deal with Iran in early October, to obtain weapons, which has embarrassed his outreach to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. More recently, Turkey and Qatar’s regional ambitions have clashed with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, especially over the Muslim Brothers — supported by the former, opposed by the latter. The latest emerging rivalry is between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the regional anchor. While running for president, Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” But it is now indispensable to the U.S.
Among the Arab states. the UAE has been the most restrained in condemning Israel for its actions in Gaza. It has also said that it doesn’t mix trade and politics— meaning that it will continue to implement the economic cooperation agreements it signed with Israel following on from the Abraham Accords. The UAE is also positioned at the center of the U.S.-sponsored India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC), unveiled at the September G20 summit in India as a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The UAE also has a free hand in the Horn of Africa, and in the last five years it has moved more rapidly and decisively than Saudi Arabia.
Sudan’s Fate between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi
After the eruption of war in Sudan in April, the joint Saudi-American mediation was in large part a gift from Washington to try to mend fences with the Kingdom. Talks in Jeddah resumed in late October, with the modest agenda of a ceasefire and humanitarian access, and a pro forma “civilian track” delegated to the African Union, which has shown neither commitment nor competence.
Meanwhile, the Emiratis are backing General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti,” who is currently driving the Sudan Armed Forces out of their remaining redoubts in Khartoum. This followed more than six months of fighting in which Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces gained a reputation for military prowess and utter disregard for the dignity and rights of civilians. Despite widespread revulsion against the RSF, especially among middle class Sudanese, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, known as MBZ, stuck with his man.
In charge of the ruins of Sudan’s capital city, Hemedti will soon be in a position to declare a government, perhaps inviting civilians for the sake of a veneer of legitimacy. What’s holding him back is the ceasefire talks in Jeddah. His rival, Gen. al-Burhan is meanwhile floating a plan to form a government based in Port Sudan — raising the prospect of two rival governments, as in Libya. The real negotiations there are between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. If the two capitals agree on a formula, the U.S. and the African Union will applaud, and the Sudanese will be presented with a fait accompli.
Ethiopia Goes Rogue
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rule is underwritten by Emirati treasure. MBZ has reportedly paid for Abiy’s vast new palace, a vanity project whose $ 10 billion price tag is paid for entirely off-budget. Abiy told lawmakers that this bill was none of their business as it was funded by private donations, directly to him. Other megaprojects in and around the capital Addis Ababa, such as glitzy museums and theme parks, have similarly opaque finances.
Ethiopia’s wars have depended on largesse from the UAE. Ethiopian federal forces prevailed against Tigray, forcing the latter into an abject surrender a year ago, on account of an arsenal — especially drones — supplied by the UAE. Abiy is currently rattling his saber against his erstwhile ally, Eritrea, demanding that landlocked Ethiopia be given a port, or it will take one by force. The likely target is Assab in Eritrea, though other neighbors such as Djibouti and Somalia have been rattled too.
Eritrea unexpectedly finds itself as a status quo power and is relishing this role, tersely expressing its refusal to join in the confusing discourse from Addis Ababa. It suddenly has allies in Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and even Kenya — all of them threatened by Abiy’s bellicosity.
If Abiy does invade Eritrea, he will violate the basic international norm — the inviolability of state boundaries — and risk plunging his already failing economy deeper into disaster. This will pose a sharp dilemma for the UAE. It is ready to override multilateral principles, but whether it would bail out its errant client in Addis Ababa, and jeopardize its winning position in Sudan, is a different matter. It would also present Saudi Arabia with the dilemma of whether to back Eritrea’s notorious dictator, President Isaias Afewerki.
America and the Pax Africana
Peace and security in the Horn of Africa isn’t a priority for the Biden administration. Despite a rhetorical commitment to a rule-based international order, Washington has neither protected Africa’s painstakingly-constructed peace and security architecture nor brought the Ethiopian and Sudanese crises to the U.N. Security Council.
While the American security umbrella was in place over the Arabian Peninsula, the countries of the Horn of Africa had the chance to develop their own peace and security system, based on a layered multilateral structure involving the regional organization, the InterGovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union, and United Nations, with peacekeepers and peace missions funded by the Europeans. This emergent Pax Africana was already imperiled as the U.S. drew down and the Middle Eastern middle powers became more assertive. President Donald Trump authorized his favored intermediaries — Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to pursue their interests across the Horn of Africa. The Biden administration has not pulled that back.
It's possible that the administration cares about peace, security and human rights in Africa. But for as long as the U.S.’s Horn of Africa policy is handled by the Africa Bureau at the State Department — whose diplomats scarcely get the time of day from their counterparts in the Gulf Kingdoms — Washington’s views will remain all-but-irrelevant. The Horn of Africa doesn’t make the cut when staffers prepare talking points for President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken or national security adviser Jake Sullivan to speak to their Arab counterparts. It’s a prioritization that leaves the region in a deepening crisis, at the mercy of ruthless transactional politics.
America’s well-established practice of treating Israel as an exception to international law is rubbing off on Israel’s allies and apologists across the Middle East, who are actively dismantling the already-tottering pillars of Africa’s norm-based peace and security system. Those African countries most in need of principled multilateralism are paying the price.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs, Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: 200 years of the war on disease and its alternatives (Polity 2021).
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - August 18, 2023: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, attend the inauguration of the Water and Energy Exhibition, at the Ethiopian Science Museum. Abdulla Al Neyadi/UAE Presidential Court/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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