Since around 2015, the importance of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, in the affair of countries in the Horn of Africa has been growing. At the same time, Turkey, which made a political choice nearly two decades ago to ‘open towards Africa’, has also strengthened its presence in the region. While the Horn of Africa is not the top foreign policy priority for the Gulf states or Turkey, its geographical proximity—part of the Gulf’s ‘near abroad’—means that the region demands consistent attention, particularly from a (maritime) security perspective.
Relations between the countries in the Horn of Africa and their partners in the Gulf and wider Middle East are asymmetric in nature. While the Horn countries in focus for this study—Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia—are relatively poor, politically volatile and affected by conflict, their partners across the Red Sea are comparatively wealthy, largely stable (at least internally) and increasingly asserting their positions as more proactive middle powers. For these middle power states, relations with global powers remain their geopolitical priority. Nonetheless, expansion into areas such as the Horn of Africa, where they can assert their (growing) political, financial and military strength, has become an increasingly important objective of foreign policy.
The scale of resources brought to bear by Turkey and the Gulf states in their business and humanitarian ventures in the Horn of Africa is substantial. This does not, however, necessarily correspond to the priority given to the Horn of Africa by policymakers in Turkey and the Gulf. For countries in the Horn of Africa, the growing involvement of these more powerful, wealthier powers in their economies and foreign relations has offered opportunities—although not without some risks—to drive domestic (or personal) agendas, and to continue a long history of avoiding capture by those of global powers.