How Somalia-Turkey defence deal torpedoed a rival UAE agreement

When the Somali cabinet approved a military cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates in February 2023, there was an uproar in Mogadishu. Parliamentarians believed the agreement was contrary to Somali sovereignty.

Since the early 90s, Somalia has grappled with war lords and armed groups like al-Shabab and earned a reputation as a failed state.

Yet, state-building efforts have borne fruit in recent years. In December, the UN removed its arms embargo on the country, recognising the progress the Somali government has made in terms of institutionalising its democracy and the constitution.

However, the Somali government is still in need of foreign aid. It received $2.4bn development aid from donors like the EU, US, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE in 2021.

But on top of this, the government also needs security aid and robust training for its security services.

Despite this, some MPs thought the deal with the UAE went too far.

The agreement, seen by Middle East Eye, mandates the UAE to “carry out military and security operations, including land, sea and air operations, which it deems appropriate, to eliminate terrorist elements”. It also authorises Abu Dhabi to “use the territory of” Somalia.

The UAE “shall have the right to use the land ports, sea ports and airports of the territory of the Federal Republic of Somalia” and establish military and training bases to further its operations.

The most controversial part of the agreement, however, was the fact that it gave the UAE military total immunity, which angered Somalis.

“All persons working under this agreement shall be granted safeguards and immunity against any international, legal, or administrative liability” in Somalia, the deal states. 

“Persons working under this agreement can’t be subject to any national or international procedure or claim or the application of a judgement rendered against them” in Somalia during the implementation of the agreement.

Heavy investment

Immediately after Somalia’s cabinet gave approval, the UAE redeployed some of the Somali forces it trained in Uganda back to the country, paying their salaries and expenditure. A month later, the Emirati military also began to construct a new base owned and operated by the UAE in the southern Jubaland region.

A year on, the Somali parliament is still yet to ratify the agreement to formally complete the constitutional procedure.

In contrast, MPs swiftly approved a similar defence and commerce deal with Turkey over a few weeks last month.

Two sources familiar with Mogadishu’s thinking said when President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government signed the deal with the UAE, it had in mind the May 2023 Turkish presidential elections, which every poll suggested Recep Tayyip Erdogan was likely to lose.

Under Erdogan’s watch, Ankara has heavily invested in Somalia since 2011, extending more than $1bn humanitarian aid, establishing the country’s largest overseas embassy, and setting up a military base in Mogadishu to train one-third of the Somali military.

Turkey-supplied drones are currently operating against al-Shabab, while Turkish firms run Mogadishu airport and port.

Erdogan’s possible departure could have denied Somalia a crucial backer. The Turkish opposition was quite clear that it didn’t feel the need to maintain such an assertive foreign policy in places like the Horn of Africa, nor did it have any willingness to spend any money or time on the East African nation.

So, according to the sources, Somalia approached Abu Dhabi to secure its long-term fight against militant groups and fill the possible vacuum that Erdogan’s departure would bring.

Erdogan, however, defied expectations and won the election, coming out on top in a second round.

Though this was no doubt a factor in Somalia’s shifting response to the UAE deal, what really changed Mogadishu’s thinking on Turkey was Ethiopia’s developing ties with the breakaway Somaliland state earlier this year, which deeply concerned Mogadishu.

In January, Ethiopia signed an agreement that grants it naval and commercial access to ports along Somaliland’s coast, in exchange for recognition of the region’s independence. Mogadishu declared the pact illegal.

Somalia lacks an air force as well as a navy. So, any Ethiopian attempt to impose its will in Somalia’s waters wouldn’t receive any response from Somali forces.

But Turkey could offer a counterbalance. It already has a military base and warships that operate off the coast of Somalia as part of a UN anti-piracy force.

Qatar concerns

Then came the defence deal with Turkey, whose contents are still kept confidential by the respective governments. Reportedly it mandates Ankara to protect Somali sea waters against infringements for the next 10 years. Some Ankara insiders say the deal is also backed by Qatar, the UAE’s Gulf rival.

“The United Arab Emirates is likely the country most disturbed by the Turkey-Somalia security and defence agreement,” wrote Mehmet Ozkan, a professor at the National Defence University in Turkey. 

“The UAE has been conducting serious diplomacy for the last year to sign a very similar or even more advanced security agreement with Somalia. However, the response from Somalia has been reluctant – which is why there is both reaction and disappointment on the part of the UAE about this development.”

Turkish officials say the deal hasn’t caused any fallout with Abu Dhabi. Erdogan has frequently visited the Emirates since 2021, when both countries officially reconciled and signed an investment plan for Ankara.

On Monday Erdogan called UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed, congratulating him on his birthday and inviting him to Turkey for a high-level meeting.

Yet Abu Dhabi’s passive-aggressive and indirect response to the Turkey-Somalia deal suggests it has some quarrels regarding the possible Qatari role in the deal.

Emirati officials told Mogadishu earlier this month that they would end $5m financial support to some Somali military forces.

“The Emiratis have ceased payments for five brigades positioned outside Mogadishu, maintaining financial support only for two brigades safeguarding the city and one special brigade assigned to protect vital installations,” the Somali Digest reported.

Even though the decision was also related to the fact that an al-Shabab attack in early February against a UAE base in Somalia killed a high-ranking Emirati official, Colonel Mohamed Mubarak, it is widely considered a response to the Somali-Turkish deal.

One source suggested that the UAE’s main concern is possible Qatari cooperation with Somalia rather than Turkey, whom Emiratis enjoy a closer relationship with.

Source: Middle East Eye

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