One effect of the rift between Qatar and its GCC neighbours Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE has been the exportation of this division since 2017. Emirati and Saudi allies Eritrea, Comoros, Mauritania, and Senegal in the Red Sea severed diplomatic ties with Qatar at the beginning of the crisis, and cross-regional divisions only became sharper and more entrenched over time. Between 2017 and 2021, both sides of the GCC crisis sought to enhance their political positions and investments in the Horn of Africa. Now that the rift has formally concluded following the Al-Ula Accord in January 2021, a number of unanswered questions remain, particularly regarding the prospect for continued ideological and economic rivalry.
The Al-Ula Accord confirms the commitment of GCC member states to the organisation’s charter, particularly when it comes to working toward greater political and economic cooperation. Yet, it does not address issues related to foreign policy differences at the heart of the crisis, especially between Qatar and the UAE. These differences are linked primarily to divergent views of political Islam: while Qatar has proven itself willing to work with Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, the UAE has increasingly viewed movements linked to political Islam as existential threats. In the Horn of Africa, the Qataris have been more willing to work with Islamist-affiliated governments or actors, while the Emiratis work exclusively with secular actors. Despite the concrete steps that have been taken to mend the crisis, primarily involving the resumption of travel and trade links, they do not go to the heart of the drivers of the crisis. As Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash explained, “We have a very good start … but we have issues with rebuilding trust.”
Either side of the rift appears to be supporting different factions in Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. While Qatar has been investing in Sudanese ports like Suakin, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supporting Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, having promised the transitional government $3 billion in aid. Saudi diplomat Adel al-Jubeir explained the Saudi and Emirati position in Sudan by way of ideological alignment – the same issue that arguably fuelled the GCC crisis: “The Muslim Brotherhood has been opportunistic, they hijacked the changes in Egypt in 2011. I believe they may be trying to do the same in Sudan.”
In Libya meanwhile, the UAE has taken largely the same position, supporting Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army to quash other, most notably, Islamist rivals. Moreover, in Somalia, the UAE has backed governments of the federal states of Somaliland, Puntland, and Jubaland since 2017, while Qatar and Turkey have backed the central government in Mogadishu. Emirati and Qatari investments in Somalia have also followed this trend, further solidifying their division both in political and economic terms.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become so invested in the region that they have even built military bases there, indicating their intention to remain active in the region over the long-term and to potentially counter Qatari interests in the region. The UAE has established military bases in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somaliland, and Socotra Island, while Saudi Arabia set its sights on building a base in Djibouti in 2020. The Saudi creation of the Red Sea Alliance last year – which focuses on maritime security – notably excluded Qatar and Turkey, suggesting a desire to maintain separation from these states and their interests.
Such political alliances, backed by billions of dollars in aid and investments, are not easily reversed. With this level of institutional connection, inertia comes into play, making it unlikely that the Al-Ula Accord can alter priorities in terms of investment and foreign policy strategy, or that it will have much impact in the short-term beyond the re-opening of trade and travel among the GCC states. As a result, ideological lines may remain drawn, particularly in the Horn of Africa, as the UAE continues to back non-Islamist actors in an effort to quash those they consider the most dangerous actors in the region.
Yet despite these persistent ideological differences, it is important to highlight that the states on either side of the GCC rift appear to have similar interests in terms of expanding their ports and logistics capabilities on the Red Sea littoral, as well as using links with various African states to enhance their food security – an issue that has become more pressing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given these common interests, there is potential for competition to give way to cooperation over time, especially if the mechanism of the GCC can be reinvigorated after Al-Ula. Another common interest is participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in East Africa, which has already stimulated some increased GCC involvement in the region. Enhanced economic cooperation and a focus on common interests could potentially be the best way forward in terms of healing the rift, since the ideological triggers of it, and foreign policies attached to them, are unlikely to disappear in the short-to-medium-term.
The views expressed in the Near East Policy Forum are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Near East Policy Forum or any of its partner organisations.
About the author
Courtney Freer is an assistant professorial research fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a non-resident fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. She specialises in domestic politics and foreign policies of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as connections between the two, in addition to examining the role of Islamists in that region and in the Middle East more broadly. Freer is the author of “Rentier Islamism: The Role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf Monarchies” (Oxford University Press, 2018).