African fallout of a rift in the Gulf

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It is easy to see how widely the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition has spread. Medium- and long-term effects will resonate far beyond the Arabian peninsula, affecting the diplomatic (and hence economic) relations of third countries that are not linked at first glance with the giant oil producers . Some African countries, for instance, stand with the alliance, backing the Saudi giant; nevertheless, reasons vary as each country has a story to tell.

The stand-off has cornered first and foremost the diplomats in the Horn of Africa. Geographically and economically, this region has a symbiotic relation with the Arab powers on the other side of the Red Sea. The first country that – against its will – was somehow touched by the dispute was Eritrea. One of the poorest, most oppressed country in the African continent, Eritrea has had tight relations with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the past years. Because of their proximity to the Arabian peninsula, Riyadh has been using Eritrean ports and harbours for its war in Yemen against the Iran-backed rebels. The UAE, allies of the Saudi emirs, also asked for and obtained the usage of Assab as a main military base for aerial incursions over western Yemen. Even more, Eritrea sent in troops to fight the Houthi rebels.

Qatar used to have privileged relations with Asmara as well. Apart from being a considerate benefactor to the weak Eritrean economy, Qatar also played a major role in the border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti that broke out in 2008. As such, Eritrea had refused to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, adducing historic good relations with Doha. Nonetheless, eventually the Eritrean government – the last among African states – has pledged support to the Saudi-led coalition in the rift with Qatar. In the words of the officials, the initiative taken by the Gulf nations builds on the realisation of full regional peace and stability. This decision is also consistent with the plans of the government for the country to serve its military allies: Egypt – which is part of the Saudi alliance – has declared its plans to build several bases in Eritrean territory. Qatar, which helped mediate the territorial dispute with Djibouti, has responded by pulling those troops, with a cross-border stand-off that is now at risk of cracking again.

All of this seems to have a silver lining for Ethiopia, the neighbouring giant which  has not-so-good relations with Eritrea. Contrary to most countries, Ethiopia has refrained from taking sides between the Saudis and the Qataris. Although both parties are reported to have sent representatives to Addis Ababa asking for support, the government has not (yet) taken an unambiguous position. Analysts suggest that this delay is due to its  policy towards Eritrea. Ethiopia is deemed to adopt whatever the position of the international community and play in this state of limbo in order to pick on Eritrea and depict it as a regional agitator. Now that Qatar has withdrawn its troops, the UN and the African Union are working towards a new solution for the territorial stand-off, and Ethiopia is expected to leverage on its presumed neutrality in the crisis to cut a favorable deal for Djibouti.

The same reasoning goes for Somalia. Surprisingly the torn country in the Horn sided with Saudi Arabia and its allies. This unexpected decision is such as it comes after Somaliland – the separatist, internationally unrecognised State in the north-west – had aligned with the alliance; the reason  being that the UAE is in the process of building a huge military base in the territory. Given that most international actions by Somalia tend to be taken to diminish Somaliland’s claims and outreach, one would expect Mogadishu to step out of the querelle. However, much was the pressure from Riyadh that the central government recalled its diplomatic representation from Doha. Some alleged that Saudi Arabia also promised international support on the never-ending stand-off with the separatists.

Undoubtedly, one of the sudden consequences of the crisis was felt on the oil market, with prices skyrocketing as soon as the news was out. But with the uncertainty that envelops the region, some economists believe that large importers of both oil and natural gas (where Qatar is world leader) might turn elsewhere for more advantageous conditions. For instance, despite being on the verge of negotiating an oil production cap with the Saudis, Nigeria could benefit from Qatar’s hardship as it has begun talks with potential buyers to replace some of the current contracts that will soon expire. With this scenario ahead in the mid-term, it is easy to understand why Nigeria  is sitting on the fence and has an interest in the crisis continuing.

Experts have also pointed out that countries with a largely Muslim population  pledged support to the alliance rather than to Qatar almost instantly. As a matter of fact, Mauritania, Senegal, Chad and Niger have all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. Both Mauritania and Senegal, for instance, are almost entirely Muslim countries, with most inhabitants adhering to the Sunni denomination and minor Sufi influences. Niger and Chad certainly do not reach those peaks, but their populations are definitely Muslim-dominated: both governments have complied to the requests of the Saudis and recalled their ambassadors. On the other hand, countries whose population is for the larger part Christian have been more cautious. Kenya, for instance, abstained from supporting the Saudis’ claims. Nairobi signed in April a memorandum with Doha on international cooperation, tourism and even culture: to this extent,  direct action of the Kenyan government is deemed unlikely. Further west, Gabon has called upon international diplomacies to find a conciliatory solution to the crisis in the GCC region, while other countries in subequatorial Africa did not offer a clear-cut position or declarations at all.

From a Realpolitik point of view, a decision to lend support to one of the parties simply arises from the country’s necessities. In that, governments take decisions based on their own – most of the time economic – contingencies, rather than spare ideology or a specific understanding of Gulf affairs.

In fact, countries that have higher interests at stake did not bide their time before taking sides; others, further both geographically, culturally and economically from the region, have less compelling attitudes. It is hard to predict how events will unfold, but it should be kept in mind that events in one region always reverberate further away.