March 11, 2024

IntelBrief: The UAE Builds Its Strategic Position in East Africa

Abdulla Al Neyadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs/WAM via AP

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is trying to expand relations with the countries that border the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in order to project power and contain Iranian influence.
  • The UAE has forged formal relationships with East African leaders while also using its corporations and investment funds to build influence.
  • UAE leaders have also built ties with non-state actors in East Africa, sometimes engaging in illicit business with them.
  • Some aspects of the UAE’s strategy are at odds with major Arab partners, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE has sought to use its ample financial resources and the extensive training and experience it obtained through decades of security partnership with the United States to try to project power throughout the region. One key arena the Emirates has targeted has been the Horn of Africa, which lies across the Red Sea from Yemen – a vexing security problem for the UAE since the Iran-backed Houthi movement captured Sanaa in 2014. Emirati leaders assessed that extending UAE influence into the Horn of Africa would help it and its key partner, Saudi Arabia, outflank Iran and the Houthis and set back Tehran’s regional strategic position. Yet, Emirati leaders found that combating the Houthis and navigating the complicated and contentious politics among the various East African countries has been more difficult than they envisioned. In January 2022, more than two years after the UAE ended its ground intervention against the Houthis, the group launched ballistic missiles and drones at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, bringing home to Emirati leaders the risks of their strategy to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran and its many regional allies. And, some UAE efforts to advance its strategic position around the Red Sea have created tensions not only with its main Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, which borders those waters but also with another ally, Egypt, which has direct and material economic and political interests in the countries to its south. Some experts have accused the UAE of undermining Saudi efforts to settle the Yemen conflict by continuing to support separatists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), with the goal of preventing the Kingdom from bargaining away UAE access to ports and installations on the Gulf of Aden.

UAE strategy has also put the country in the crosshairs not only of Iran-aligned groups such as the Houthis but also terrorist movements, including Al Shabaab, that pose a significant threat to the government of Somalia and neighboring countries. The threat manifested again on February 11, when three UAE military personnel and a military officer of Bahrain, a key UAE ally, were killed in an attack at a military base in Somalia’s capital, according to the UAE defense ministry. Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the attack. UAE officers have been training soldiers from the Somali Armed Forces as part of a revived agreement between the UAE and Somalia to counter piracy and terrorist groups, and more broadly as a pillar of UAE efforts to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa. An earlier UAE-Somalia pact, which included UAE counter-terrorism training for Somali forces, collapsed in 2018 when Somalia’s then-leaders accused the Emirates of violating Somali sovereignty.

Although experts assessed that Somalia’s cancellation of the accord reflected Mogadishu’s alignment with the UAE’s Gulf rival, Qatar, others noted Somali nationalist opposition to the UAE’s expanding ties to the semi-autonomous Puntland and Somaliland regions of Somalia. The UAE has built a military base in Somaliland, and it is supervising a counter-piracy maritime police force in Puntland. In addition, the UAE has used its private corporations to support UAE government objectives; the large Dubai-based DP World port operations conglomerate has been steadily expanding its operations in Somaliland as part of a plan to turn the breakaway region into a major trade hub. In exchange for a nearly half a billion-dollar investment, DP World received a 30-year concession to manage the Somaliland port of Berbera.

Whereas the UAE's engagement with the semi-autonomous regions of Somalia causes tensions with Mogadishu, the UAE strategy has won it additional support in Ethiopia, whose 125 million people make it the most populous nation in Africa after Nigeria. Ethiopia is a landlocked country, and the DP World development of the port of Berbera gives Ethiopia an alternative to Djibouti as its main trading gateway, and more access to the Red Sea. Currently, about 90% of Ethiopia's trade passes through Djibouti's port. Ethiopia reciprocated the UAE’s efforts to expand Addis Ababa’s maritime options and its support for the Ethiopian government in the 2020-2022 war in the breakaway Tigray region by signing a bilateral maritime agreement with Abu Dhabi in August 2023. That pact signaled to Türkiye and Qatar – competitors for influence in the Horn - that the Emirates is a formidable player there. Yet, the UAE’s expanding relations with Ethiopia have given rise to suspicions that the Emirates colluded with Addis Ababa to forge the January 1 Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement granting port access to Ethiopia in exchange for Addis Ababa’s recognition of Somaliland’s independence. The UAE’s accommodating Ethiopian interests has also raised questions about UAE policy in a key Arab ally, Egypt. Cairo has accused Ethiopian leaders of trying to control Egypt’s water supply by building the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River.

In Sudan, which has a long border on the Red Sea, the UAE has demonstrated its willingness to support non-state actors and put UAE interests above national unity, stability, and adherence to international standards of human rights practices. Abu Dhabi reportedly has been arming and funding the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohammad Hamad Dagalo (Hemedti), in its all-out battle for power with the Sudan Armed Forces that broke out in April 2023. In 2015, Hemedti reportedly supplied Sudanese fighters to help the Saudi and UAE-led Arab coalition combat the Houthis, and Abu Dhabi sees him as a reliable ally. Should Hemedti prevail in the Sudan civil conflict, he likely would welcome significant UAE influence in the large country and would certainly continue to rebuff Iran’s requests to develop a base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. To support the RSF, the UAE reportedly is working with another divisive non-state actor, eastern Libya strongman Field Marshal Khalifah Haftar, who is competing for power with a U.N.-backed administration in Tripoli. Haftar is apparently allowing the UAE and Russian private military actors, acting on behalf of the Kremlin, to use the Libyan bases in territory under his control to ship weaponry to the RSF. The UAE, Haftar, and Russian mercenaries are also reportedly partnered with Hemedti on lucrative gold smuggling and illicit mining operations. However, the UAE’s support for the RSF puts the Emirates on the opposite side of Egypt, which supports the Sudan Armed Forces, and Saudi Arabia, which is trying to broker an RSF-Sudan Armed Forces ceasefire in the interests of de-escalation and stability.

Some of the UAE’s efforts to expand its influence on the Red Sea have faltered. In 2021, after ending its involvement in the Yemen ground war against the Houthis, the UAE closed a major base in Eritrea that it was using to stage the deployment of military equipment and recruits for its war effort in Yemen. Emirati leaders apparently determined that maintaining the base was overstretching UAE logistics and forces for no clear purpose. The UAE evacuation of that base would hamper any UAE re-engagement in active combat against the Houthis if there were a decision in Abu Dhabi to do so. Yet, despite the threat posed by the Houthis not only to global commerce but also to regional states that benefit from the Red Sea trade, neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi have expressed any inclination to risk a prolonged war with the Houthis and perhaps with Tehran as well, by resuming ground combat operations on the Yemen battlefield.