The Great Game                       









(L to R) Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Sudan's President Lt Gen Omar Hassan al-Bashir,

Somalia's President Abullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh

pose during a summit meeting of the Sana‘a Forum for Cooperation group

in the southern Yemeni city of Aden December 28, 2005.


Arab League Envoy to Somalia Abdalla Mubarak (R) talks to officials of the

Somalia Islamic Courts Union, before departing for talks with their interim government in Sudan,

at the airport in Mogadishu July 14, 2006.


Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (R) meets Somali counterpart Abulahi Yusuf Ahmed (L)

at Aden International Airport December 28, 2005. Ahmed arrived for a two-day summit

of the Sana'a Forum for Cooperation group set to begin in Aden on Wednesday.

The leaders of Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia are to discuss means to boost joint security

and economic cooperation.




The Arabs and the Great Game in Somalia


October 31, 2006



Somalia is now officially at the epicentre of a regional Great Game that threatens to unleash a devastating war that could draw in over 12 countries in Northeast Africa.


The Horn version of the Great Game is much more serious than the cloak-and-dagger stuff of imperial espionage and diplomacy that pitted Czarist Russia against the British Empire in the period between 1813-1907 in Central Asia. Rarely before in post-colonial Africa have we seen such an intense regional power struggle to shape the destiny of a country.


A report prepared for the US State Department by the former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Somalia, Prof David Shinn, entitled: "Somalia: Regional involvement and implications for US policy" warns up to 12 countries in the Greater Horn of Africa could be sucked into the Somalia conflict if the current stand-off between the powerful Islamists and the weak interim government leads to a full-scale war.


The report, whose content was highlighted this week by Kenya's The EastAfrican newspaper, confirms what many have suspected for long. Indeed, no-one disputes the fact that the perennial instability in Somalia is largely fuelled by this ferocious regional power struggle.


While it is true the new competition over Somalia has its origin in the old historical fault lines in the Horn - a complex mix of political, geo-strategic, and even religious rivalries - the story is much more complicated.


The principal actors in the new Great Game in Somalia are Ethiopia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - three powerful states that have for decades vied with each other to ensure Somalia is little more than a satellite state. The other named states - Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Yemen, Iran, Libya, Tanzania, Uganda and the UAE - are merely playing a supplementary role.


The role of Ethiopia and Eritrea in the current tension has been commented upon and is well known. Eritrea's growing profile in Somalia essentially stems from its border dispute with Ethiopia. What is not well-known, though, is the role being played by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states such as Yemen, Libya and the UAE.


Egypt's "southern front"


Egypt's interest in Somalia goes back a long way. Cairo has for long regarded a strong and united Somalia as a linchpin in its national security strategy, no doubt attracted by the country's geographical proximity to Ethiopia and one of the principle sources of the Nile waters. Egyptian strategists see Somalia as a crucial pressure card which Cairo can use in its tussle with Ethiopia over the use of the Nile waters.


Relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa have been worsening in recent years, mainly because of the growing dispute over how the Nile waters should be utilized more equitably between the Nile Basin states.


In fact, Ethiopian officials have recently been claiming the Egyptian armed forces are being trained in jungle warfare in preparation for a possible future military intervention in the Nile Basin.


Egypt on the other hand suspects Ethiopia of being behind the regional campaign to have the colonial treaty on the usage of the Nile Waters drawn up in the late 1950's renegotiated. The campaign attracted wide support in the Great Lakes region and in east Africa, and Cairo felt increasingly isolated and had to eventually abandon its hardline stance.


To rally wider Pan-Arab support for its policies, Egypt has also sought to portray Ethiopia as a threat to Arab national security and a regional bully bent on undermining any peace effort in Somalia by encouraging regionalism and arming the warlords.


An editorial by the semi-official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram on 14 June entitled "Next Stop Somalia" called on Arabs not to be consumed too much by the conflict in Iraq and thus forget the conflict unfolding in the "southern front".


"It is high time the Arabs start focusing on the southern front, not just the eastern one," Al-Ahram said.


It is revealing the newspaper, which reflects the views of the Egyptian establishment, sees the current Horn tension in military terms.




If it is true Egypt is supporting the Somali Islamists with weapons and cash, the motive is clearly to help the Islamists challenge Ethiopian "designs" in Somalia. Cairo must be pleased with the growing military and political clout of a militant anti-Ethiopian movement in Somalia.


Egypt, like many Arab states, says it recognizes the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but has made little secret of its dislike for the TFG's pro-Ethiopian president, Abdullahi Yusuf. The TFG president is largely viewed in Arab circles as an Ethiopian puppet.


Abdullahi Yusuf has found it difficult to get along with Arab leaders. He regularly visits Arab states and attends Arab League meetings, but it appears his relationship with major Arab powers is still frosty.


In an angry speech before the parliament in Baidoa recently, Abdullahi Yusuf dismissed the Islamists in Mogadishu as a bunch of "Arabophiles frothing at the mouth". Such rhetoric is bound to further distance the weak TFG from the Arab world.


With the Khartoum talks now entering a delicate phase, Egypt appears to be stepping up its diplomatic offensive to ensure any outcome is one favourable to Cairo. A report by the Somali Islamist website, Goobjoog, on 29 October, said Cairo had officially invited the de facto head of the Somali Islamist movement, Shaykh Hasan Dahir Aweys for talks. The subject of the talks has not been made public, but it may be related to the troubled Khartoum peace talks.


It is perhaps significant here to note that Aweys frequently visits Arab states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia despite the fact he is on the UN Security Council's targeted sanctions list in accordance with Resolution 1267 of 15 October 1999.


It is no secret Egypt was deeply unhappy with the IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) process that led to the creation of the Somali Transitional Federal Government in Kenya in October 2004. Cairo felt wrong-footed by Ethiopia, which wielded so much influence over the whole process. It now wants to ensure the Arab League keeps a tight control of the talks in Khartoum so that any power-sharing deal struck between the Islamists and the TFG is one that would not disadvantage its geo-strategic interests in Somalia.


This new tug-of-war between the Arab League and the IGAD over the Somalia peace process is adding another troubling dimension to the Somalia crisis. It is bound to further complicate matters if not derail the whole effort to find a lasting peace.


"Bottom-up policy"


Another area of difference between Ethiopia and Egypt is the question of what kind of state a future Somalia should look like. Egypt is unimpressed by the "bottom-up policy" favoured by Addis Ababa, which led to the creation of Somaliland and later Puntland. Cairo's argument is that the creation of mini-states militates against the emergence of a strong united Somalia. Consequently, Cairo has been energetically campaigning against the recognition of Somaliland.


Somaliland commentators often paint Egypt as the biggest obstacle to Somaliland's quest for international recognition. Some even suggest Egypt is behind the move by Saudi Arabia to maintain the punishing ban on the import of livestock from Somaliland. While these claims cannot be proved with any certainty, it is true the emergence of Somaliland and its staunchly pro-Addis Ababa ruling elite must have been a great setback for Cairo.


Somalilanders have also been infuriated by claims in recent years the authorities in Hargeysa have been conducting secret negotiations with Israel and that Somaliland may have signed a secret military pact with the Jewish state. These reports became even more strident when a six-year-old Somaliland boy was treated in September 2004 in an Israeli hospital.


Somaliland authorities have since denied these claims, suggesting they are being disseminated by hostile powers that want to drive a wedge between them and their Arab cousins.


Saudi connection


While Saudi Arabia and Egypt may share the common strategic goal of curtailing Ethiopian influence in Somalia, Riyadh has two primary geo-strategic interests that Cairo may not necessarily share. One of this is actually a security imperative, largely of its own making.


During the oil boom in the 1970's, Saudi Arabia launched an ambitious programme of extending its sphere of influence in the Horn. Saudi teachers were sent to the region, especially Somalia and Saudi-funded madrassas established. Somali students were given free scholarships to study at Saudi universities. Saudi NGOs and charities spread their activities to the remotest corners of the country. Within a decade, Saudi Arabia overtook Kuwait, Libya and Egypt - the traditional Arab benefactors of Somalia - to become the largest Arab donor.


One of the consequences of this Saudi financial and educational aid was the rapid growth of the puritanical Wahhabi sect, especially the Salafi strand of Wahhabism. Saudi authorities actually encouraged this development and had no problem until the emergence of Al-Qa'idah - itself an extremist Salafi movement - as a global threat following the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and later 9/11. Suddenly, there were fears in Riyadh, and indeed, elsewhere, lawless Somalia could become a haven for Al-Qa'idah militants escaping manhunts elsewhere.


Saudi Arabia, which is currently engaged in its own bitter struggle with "Al-fi'at al-zala" (the deviant group) - a code-word for the extremist Salafi militants - fears Somalia may become a magnet for Saudi Salafi zealots who may later cause problems back home.


The respected Middle East commentator, Adel Darwish, in a commentary published by Al-Sharq al-Awsat on 12 August warned events unfolding in Somalia may have deep implications for the national security interests of Arab states in the region, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


"The price of ignoring the Afghanization of Somalia will be costly. The national interests of nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be threatened, especially if the war moves closer to the sources of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia... These [Islamic] courts are an extension of the Salafist-Takfiri [ultra-puritans who consider other Muslims as apostates] forces which do not recognize the legal boundaries of states. They will not hesitate to set the world ablaze, subdue it by the sword and impose their own vision of what they see as Islam," Mr Darwish warned.


Containing Iran


The other Saudi objective is to counter the growing influence of Iran - its traditional Gulf foe - in the Horn and the Red Sea regions. Riyadh was alarmed at the ease with which Iran recruited Sudan into its camp. Comoros, a traditional Saudi ally, is now ruled by a cleric trained in Iran and looks like its drifting towards the Iran camp. The nightmare scenario for Riyadh, as some analysts suggest, is to be encircled by states loyal to a belligerent nuclear-armed Iran.


Saudi Arabia maintains close ties with the leadership of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Shaykh Hasan Dahir Aweys is a regular visitor to the Kingdom and recent Somali media reports say Aweys received treatment at a hospital there. Aweys spent some years in the Kingdom and is thought to have established links with prominent Saudi business leaders and officials.


The Saudis appear keen to maintain and cultivate this relationship, possibly to ensure the UIC does not give refuge to fugitive Saudi militants.


If it is true Iran is now also an active participant in the Great Game in the Horn, then Riyadh would have more reason to strive to cosy up to the UIC.


The minnows


Libya, the UAE and Yemen - the so-called minnows in the Great Game in the Horn - each have their own reason for involvement in Somalia.


Yemen appears to have broken ranks with the Arabs and is said to be currently backing the TFG, although there have been previous claims it backed the Islamists in Mogadishu.


Sanaa is primarily wary of Eritrean influence over the UIC. The relationship between Eritrea and Yemen is far from cordial since the two countries fought a brief border war over the disputed Hanish Islands in December 1995. Though the dispute was settled after arbitration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the rancour left by the crisis continues to fester. Indeed, Yemen's decision to spearhead the formation of the Sanaa Cooperation Forum with its main regional allies Ethiopia and Sudan in 2002, was largely seen in Asmara as a hostile move to further isolate Eritrea.


The UAE for its part is primarily motivated by economic reasons. The country is now the main hub for Somali-run telecom and money transfer businesses. With the increasing importance of remittances and investment by Diaspora Somalis, and the growing entrepreneurial energy in Somalia, UAE's economics-driven foreign policy sees the country as a potentially lucrative growth area. UAE investors are keen on Somalia's untapped oil and mineral potential. They are also keen in investing in the country's infrastructure like the main port of Mogadishu.


It is worth noting that many of the profitable telecom and money transfer agencies with offices in Dubai and the other emirates are run by supporters of the UIC.


Libya's alleged support for the UIC is as surprising as it is inscrutable. Perhaps all one can say is it is yet another example of Al-Qadhafi's predilection for backing militants groups overseas irrespective of their ideological leanings. In fact, Libya is not the only guilty party in this sad saga. All the actors are primarily motivated by their own geopolitical and geo-strategic interests as they perceive them. It is cynical for secular Arab regimes that are engaged in a bitter struggle with their own domestic militant Islam to be seen to be promoting it abroad.


© 2006 The British Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.  







Somali Joint Islamic Courts head of the delegation Mohamed Ali Ibrahim arrives

at the Friendship hall for the start of the Somalia peace talk in Khartoum June 22, 2006.

Sudan and the Arab League on Thursday launched an attempt to mediate between the interim government of Somalia and the Islamist movement whish controls the Somali capital Mogadishu.


A consignment of oil and rice are loaded onto a dhow at the port of Dubai for export as aid to Somali May 11. The dhow, a traditional wooden boat, has been used for centuries to transport cargo by sea within the Arabian Gulf. Dubai which is the hub for trade in the Gulf still relies heavily on the dhow for export of goods to neighbouring Gulf, African and other markets.


EGYPT-SOMALIA:CAIRO,5NOV98-Somali faction leader Hussein Aideed (L) smiles at Arab League Secretary General Esmat Abdel-Meguid (R) during talks November 5 at league headquarters in Cairo, where Aideed is trying to drum up Arab support for a reconciliation conference among the African country's feuding factions.


Somali leader Hussein Mohammed Aideed from the National Salvation Council (NSC) (R) and his main rival Mohamed Ali Mahdi (L) exchange documents after signing a peace agreement December 22 in Cairo to safeguard Somalia's independence and sovereignty as the Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa (C) looks on. The factions plan to hold a reconciliation conference in February aimed at rebuilding state institutions shattered by six years of clan warfare.


 President Hosni Mubarak (L) meets with Rival Somal faction leaders Hussein Mohammed Aideed (R) and Ali Mohammed Mahdi (C) in Cairo December 25. The two leaders signed peace accords in Cairo on December 22 to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of their country.







                                              Roobdoon Forum            Back to Main Page