The latest diplomatic spat in the Middle East, over Qatar’s alleged ties to terrorism, risks engulfing and destabilizing Somalia, a war-torn Horn of Africa nation struggling to bolster its own fragile democracy after decades of civil war.
On Monday night, Somali civil aviation authorities reported increased Qatar Airways traffic over Somali airspace, according to the Associated Press. At least 15 flights were diverted to use the airspace, an increase from one or two flights a day previously.
This comes after a slew of nations cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday (June 6)—triggering a crisis in the Gulf and north Africa. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed relations with the tiny, oil-rich peninsula, and air carriers including Emirates and Etihad suspended flights. Yemen, the Maldives, and Saudi Arabia joined in, with the latter suspending flights, pulling Qatari troops from the ongoing war in Yemen, and closing both land and sea borders. Egypt and one of the three rival governments in Libya joined the diplomatic row, suspending flights and accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism and extremism—charges denied by Qatar.
But Somalia is the nation with, arguably, the most to lose in the spat. As the nation regains a semblance of peace, its geographic location and its links to the feuding nations could put it at the center of efforts to isolate one of the world’s richest countries. The current rift jeopardizes essential aid to Somalia, a poor state with a weak government, bedeviled by terrorism and facing a severe humanitarian crisis.
Somalia is a member of the Arab League, the 22-member body which brings together mainly Arabic-speaking states. Over the last two decades, it has maintained relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, who have provided humanitarian assistance and budget support, and have invested in key infrastructural projects. But as the long-simmering tensions escalate, Somalia might get caught in the middle, with different sides using their leverage to pressure the country to sever links with Qatar or stay put.
The Emiratis have been particularly hawkish in their engagements in Somalia. Just this year, the country signed agreements to fund the development of a multipurpose seaport in Puntland, alongside a controversial military base in the port of Berbera in the breakaway region of Somaliland—mainly to prosecute the war in Yemen.
Qataris have also looked to Somalia and the Horn of Africa region to spread their influence. In 2010, Qatar successfully mediated a festering border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti. Alongside the UAE, Qatar has allegedly also been buying off presidential candidates and politicians in Somalia, to secure business deals or edge out traditional powerful figures. Qatar’s influence in the current Somali administration could also be significant, given that President Mohamed Farmaajo recently appointed a former Al Jazeera Arabic reporter—who reportedly acted as his link to the Qataris during the campaign—as his chief of staff.
Saudi Arabia also uses its deep pockets to sway Somali support against the Qataris. Last year, under the presidency of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia received a pledge of $50 million from the Saudis on the same day it severed ties with Iran after protesters torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran. After his election in February, President Farmaajo’s first official visit out of the country was also to Saudi Arabia.
While the Somali foreign ministry has yet to comment or take a position, observers say the diplomatic rift puts the government at a “delicate dilemma.” Others are calling on Farmaajo’s government to stay neutral and not get involved in the tensions roiling the region.
“Somalia cannot afford to take any side,” Abukar Arman, the county’s former special envoy to the United States, wrote on Twitter.