How the Saudi-Qatar rift is dividing the Red Sea

By Martin Plaut

Site of planned UAE base Berbera, Somaliland
Site of planned UAE base Berbera, Somaliland

Introduction

On the 5thof June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and their allies – nine governments in total – cut ties with Qatar. They accused Doha of supporting “terrorists” and being too close to Saudi Arabia’s Shiite arch-rival Iran – charges Qatar denied.

Land and maritime borders with the Gulf peninsula were closed, air links suspended and Qatari citizens expelled. Saudi Arabia also closed the Riyadh bureau of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Serious as these issues were for Qatar, they were to have ripples right across the region. Country after country was forced to decide where its loyalties lay: with the Saudi-UAE alliance or with Qatar and its Iranian backers.

The most serious implications were for Yemen, where the Saudis and the UAE have been prosecuting a relentless war against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran.

The latest Saudi backed Yemeni government offensive is close to the outskirts of Hodeida, a key port city the government says is a conduit for rebel arms. It is also vital for humanitarian supplies.

Forced to choose sides

Every country on the Red Sea has been forced to decide on whose side of this divide they wish to be. Both the Saudis and Qataris have moved mountains to win support. Here is a brief guide to how they have divided.

Egypt

The Egyptians under General Sisi have allied themselves with the Saudis, even if there have been recent tensions.

As one commentator put it, this was unexpected: “Riyadh had strongly backed President Sisi’s government after the 2013 military coup, offering tens of billions of dollars in aid and fuel supplies, and Cairo in return had pledged its full diplomatic, political and military support for the kingdom. Egypt even agreed to return control of two Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia.”

But Egypt sees itself as a major power, not to be pushed around, and this has led to friction. Although there are tensions, they will not be allowed to get out of control, insists the Egyptian President.

As the semi-official al-Ahram reported: “Attempts to create strife and discord between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not succeed, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi told Saudi Arabia lifestyle magazine Arrajol.”

Sudan 

The Sudanese have also backed the Saudis. Sudan terminated its long-term relationship with Iran and is now reported to have 5,000 troops in Yemen.

A Saudi deposit of $1 billion into Sudan’s central bank appeared to be the price for Sudanese support. The Saudis are also reported to have provided the Sudanese with $5 billion in military aid.

But the Sudanese appear prepared to play both sides. They recently granted the Turks access to the port of Suakin, where they are allegedly building a naval dockyard. Turkey is close to Qatar, which cannot be easy for the Saudis to swallow.

Eritrea

The Eritreans also ended their long-term relations with Iran. In  2008 the Eritrean government granted  Iran access to Assab Port,  providing  Tehran with  a  support base  from  which to  conduct  maritime operations in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Instead Eritrea has plumped instead for the Saudis.

President Isaias has been a visitor to Riyadh since 2015.

In return the UAE and the Saudis have been allowed to build bases in the Eritrean port of Assab and to use Asmara airport for attacks on Yemeni forces. Human Rights Watch accuses the UAE of torturing Yemenis on Eritrean soil. In return, the Eritreans are reported to have received military aid from the UAE.

Djibouti

Djibouti, once close to the UAE, broke ties after a spat. In April 2015, the UAE and Djibouti broke diplomatic relations due to a conflict between Emirati officials and the chief of Djibouti’s Air Force.

The government of Djibouti recently seized control of the port of Doraleh, previously run by the UAE based DP World.

Although the Saudis continue to have good relations with Djibouti, the government appears keen not to become involved in the Yemeni conflict, instead allowing China to join France and the USA in having a military presence on its soil.

Somaliland

The semi-independent territory of Somaliland has promised its support for the UAE and the Saudis. Somaliland’s parliament approved an agreement with the UAE to establish a base in the port of Berbera in February 2017.

The neighbouring region of Puntland has also established ties with the UEA. Dubai-based DP World has signed contracts to manage the commercial ports in Berbera and Bosaaso Port in Puntland.

This has infuriated Somalia, where the federal government has been attempting to prevent Somaliland from gaining international recognition as an independent state.

Somalia

The only state in the region that has chosen to maintain its ties with Qatar is Somalia, where the weak federal government under President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ is attempting to retain his hold on power, while fighting Islamist forces of al-Shabaab.

The UAE has been attempting to undermine this stance and in April Somalia intercepted a plane chartered by UAE diplomats and confiscated $9.6m cash, saying it would investigate the intended purpose of the funds.

UAE retaliated with a scathing statement describing the seizure of the money as a breach of diplomatic protocols. Both countries have separately issued statements ending a military cooperation program that was started in 2014, where UAE was training and paying some members of the Somali army.

Ethiopia

The Ethiopians have attempted to keep out of the Yemeni crisis and avoid taking sides between the Saudis and Qatar. But inevitably, they have been drawn in.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed chose Saudi Arabia as his first destination outside of Africa. The Ethiopians are nervous at Eritrea’s relations with the Saudis and keen to retain the UN sanctions on the Eritrean military.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Abiy has been busily finding alternative outlets to the sea. In addition to cementing his ties with Djibouti, he has signed deals with Somaliland and Kenya for new port facilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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