When Saudi Arabia and its allies severed diplomatic relations with Qatar earlier this month, the fate of the Ras Doumeira is unlikely to have figured high in their complex geostrategic calculations. And yet, on this barren, contested strip of land in the Horn of Africa, the ongoing Gulf Crisis threatens to dismantle nearly a decade of peace – and has put two African countries on a war footing.
Ras Doumeira is a tiny peninsula that juts out into the Red Sea, at exactly the point that the sea starts to narrow into one of the world’s most important shipping lanes – the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, known in Arabic as the Gulf of Grief.
It lies on the border between Eritrea and Djibouti, and both countries claim it as their own. Both understand that whoever controls Ras Doumeira also controls the ships that go past it.
Since 2010, a 450-soldier strong force of Qatari peacekeepers has kept a firm lid on tensions in the area, ensuring that neither side encroaches on a ‘buffer zone’ designed to keep them apart. But Qatar suddenly has bigger problems. Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others, has accused the tiny emirate of sponsoring terrorism, and imposed a land, sea and air blockade.
Fighting fires on multiple fronts, Qatar decided that Ras Doumeira would no longer be one of them. Doubtless contributing to this decision is the fact that Eritrea has been vocal in its support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which both have a military presence there.
Last week, without much in the way of prior warning, and without waiting for a replacement force, Qatar withdrew its peacekeepers from the disputed territory.
The consequences for Ras Doumeira were immediate. Djibouti accused Eritrean troops of occupying the area vacated by the peacekeepers, and has lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations. The African Union has got involved, sending a fact-finding mission to the area. All parties publicly profess a commitment to peace, but tensions remain high.
As veteran foreign correspondent Martin Plaut observed: “As ever, it’s difficult to predict how events will unfold, but sparks from Arabia can easily set the Horn alight.”
This might have been Qatar’s plan all along, with the tensions in their absence serving as proof of why their presence is needed – in this region and others. It could be interpreted as a warning, suggest the Doha Institute’s Sultan Barakat and Sansom Milton.
“…the potential fallout of the [Eritrea-Djibouti] crisis could have ripple waves spiralling out of the border dispute to the much larger Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict and the rest of the Horn of Africa at a time when the sub-region is facing a massive humanitarian crisis. This should serve as a cautionary note for the potential of escalation in other places where Qatari assistance has been keeping the lid on conflict…This should focus the minds of world leaders on the need to resolve the Gulf crisis amicably as soon as possible,” they wrote in an Al Jazeera op-ed.
There are plenty of sparks from Arabia flying around Africa at the moment. The Gulf crisis has already drawn in several African countries – mostly in support of Saudi Arabia – and revealed the extent to which Middle Eastern rivalries are played out out on the African continent.
So far, Egypt, Eritrea, Senegal, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger have cut ties with Qatar. Ethiopia and Sudan are on the fence. Only Somalia has come out in support of Qatar, having rejected an $80-million inducement offered by Saudi Arabia.
For long-time observers of the Middle East’s encroachment into Africa, these dynamics come as no surprise. Middle Eastern powers have been aggressively courting African allies over the past few years, said Na’eem Jeenah, head of the Afro-Middle East Centre.
“From an economic point of view, Africa is seen as a good opportunity. Sovereign Wealth Funds are investing here because of the benefits as investments. The other economy-linked issue is land, and a number of Gulf countries have been buying up a lot of land in various parts of Africa. From their perspective, that’s about food security, although I’m not sure it’s always of great benefit to the people in the countries in which the investment is taking place,” said Jeenah.
But it’s not just about money, argues Jeenah. The Gulf nations’ push into Africa takes place against the backdrop of the intense rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – both are attempting to project their particular religious beliefs on the continent – and Africa’s geostrategic significance. This is especially true in the Horn of Africa, where several middle eastern powers have built or are building military bases. These include a Saudi base in Djibouti, and UAE bases in Eritrea and Somaliland.
The sheer scale of the Gulf’s involvement in the Horn of Africa means that instability on one side of the Red Sea is almost certain to be felt on the other side – and right now, the Arabian peninsula is about as unstable as it has ever been.
“I am worried. This is serious,” said Harry Verhoeven, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
“The amount of money that comes from the [Gulf] side of the Red Sea as part of this rivalry or proxy war is so much, is so extensive, that it will be very hard for the different political system in the Horn to a) resist this money and b) to keep it out, because if one actor is not taking it then other actors in the system might take it. The effect is incredibly destabilising because it increases the financial stakes of domestic politics, as well as the relations between these countries. The effect will not necessarily play out in days, but in months and years to come,” he said.
All that money comes with plenty of ideological baggage too. “The second element that’s important and that’s hard to quantify but does matter is on an ideological level. I mean less that the three gulf protagonists in the story [Saudi, the UAE and Qatar] are necessarily promoting very different societal models, but it is that growing sectarianism in the Gulf is being transported to the Horn of Africa. And that’s a much longer standing worry in the Horn of Africa, that many of the religious and identity politics that are not necessarily always part of the politics of the region are becoming more important…that is a particularly poisonous trend that’s much older than this dispute, but that this dispute is aggravating,” said Verhoeven.
For now, an uneasy calm has settled on Ras Doumeira, as Djibouti and Eritrea explore diplomatic options to defuse the dispute. The same can be said for the region as a whole. While the Arabian Gulf goes through a painful, destabilising realignment, governments in the Horn of Africa know that they will feel the consequences – even if they are not entirely sure yet what those consequences may be.