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How the Israel-Hamas war is destabilizing the Horn of Africa

How the Israel-Hamas war is destabilizing the Horn of Africa

The Biden White House has not prioritized the region, leaving Washington with little influence in the deepening crisis.

Analysis | Africa

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.

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.

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