How the Gulf States’ Investments are Destabilizing the Horn of Africa

An Ethiopian farmer watches as his farmland is confiscated and reworked by foreign investors. Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle

By: Jordan Abu-Sirriya, Columnist

In December of 2018, diplomats from six states—Jordan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, and Egypt— adjacent to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea arrived in Saudi Arabia to discuss and form the Red Sea Security Alliance. The Alliance is intended to reinforce peace and security in and around the North of Africa while protecting water navigation lanes for trade. By January of 2019, Saudi Arabia and the six other states in the Red Sea Security Alliance conducted naval exercises known as “Red Wave 1.”[i] Yet the Red Sea Security Alliance is only one policy by which Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are trying to exert greater influence on the Horn of Africa. As part of this growing campaign of influence, the Saudi and Emirati governments have increased their military presence, bought significant amounts of land, and attempted to quell Turkish, Qatari, and Iranian influence in the Horn.[ii] As Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE attempt to spread economic and military influence in the Horn of Africa, the long-term result will likely be further instability in the region, rather than peace.

Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s infatuation with the Horn of Africa began as a result of the 2008-2010 food price crisis. Prices for wheat and corn more than tripled, while rice “climbed fivefold, spurring riots in nearly two dozen countries and pushing 75 million more people into poverty.”[iii] Gulf States—who import 85% of their basic food requirements—were devasted by the fluctuations in food prices, and as a result, these oil-rich states have been buying land and water resources in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.[iv] In most instances, African governments will sell or lease the land to Gulf State magnates, who then force local African populations off the land into other locations of the country where healthcare and education are significantly worse. Furthermore, these relocated local populations are provided little to no compensation for their land lost because agricultural acreage can only be owned by the government.[v]

In 2016, this exploitation of locals resulted in massive protests in Sudan, after the Sudanese government continued to lease and sell land to Gulf State investors, at a time when much of the country was entering a food crisis.[vi] [vii] That same year, Ethiopia faced protests when local Ethiopians burned scores of foreign investors’ vehicles and investors’ buildings in response to “land grabbing” and human rights violations.[viii] The Ethiopian government’s response resulted in the death of 55 protestors, and no government reforms were persuaded to assist the local Ethiopian people. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to purchase agricultural property and water resources from this ethnically diverse region, these African governments will face more violence and riots from these local populations. Local ethnic populations will be displaced and move into new areas within or outside of their state and compete for resources and jobs with other populations—who will likely be of a different ethnic background.

Chatham House’s Jason Mosley explains the consequences of investors purchasing agricultural land by stating, “Given the long and continuing history of conflict in the Horn of Africa…there is potential for large-scale agricultural projects to exacerbate or create tensions over the land in question between the investors and the local population, or between local communities.”

In addition to Gulf States investing in agricultural projects, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have developed military bases in the region. In 2016-2017, the UAE built a military base in Eritrea and will also build a base in Somalia, within the self-declared republic of Somaliland by June of 2019.[ix] [x] Concurrently, Saudi Arabia partnered with Djibouti to open a Saudi base there in 2017.[xi] These military bases are in a strategic location to support the continued Saudi and Emirati involvement in the Yemen Civil War. For example, the UAE military base in Eritrea has contributed a number of air operations around the Hodeida Port in Yemen.[xii] Furthermore, in addition to its base in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia has coerced Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan—to allow “their airspaces, waters, and military bases available for the [Yemeni Civil] [W]ar.”[xiii] Yet, these military port bases are likely to pit rival African states and groups against one another. For instance, the internationally-recognized Somali government declared that the Somaliland-UAE military port deal as void because Somaliland is a secessionist state that will not contribute any revenue to the government of Somalia.[xiv] Additionally, the UAE intends to train Somaliland forces to protect the coastline, at the expense of future efforts by the internationally-recognized, Mogadishu-based Somali government to extend its influence into this region.

Saudi and Emirati adversaries—Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—have also pursued the same exploitative policies on the Horn of Africa, which has exacerbated the problem because the two groups of nations are competing for power in the region. For example, much of the reason the Somali president nullified the UAE-Somaliland military port agreement is because Turkey already had a port—and 10,000 troops—in Mogadishu. Turkey and all Gulf States have continued to demand that leaders in the Horn of Africa choose a side. The Gulf States’ competition thus exploits local populations and pits them against their own governments, neighboring governments, and other ethnic populations. To halt this growing problem, the United States should press its allies in the region—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey—to stop buying land or building military ports in the Horn of Africa. If Gulf states or other states in the region intend to purchase resources in the Horn of Africa, African governments must work with local ethnic populations to form an agreement between the local population and the Gulf-based investors.


[i] Arab News, “Saudi naval forces prepare for Red Wave 1,” Arab News, December 27, 2018,

[ii] World Peace Foundation, “Pax Africana or Middle East Security Alliance in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea,?” The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, 2019,

[iii] Matt Pomroy, “Why are Gulf States buying land in Africa?” Esquire Middle East, May 21, 2018,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Jos Meester, “The political economy of Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa,” Clingendael, April 2018,

[vi] PressTV, “In Khartoum, protest against land grab turns violent,” PressTV, October 26, 2016,

[vii] Oxfam International, “Hunger Crisis in South Sudan,” Oxfam International, 2018,

[viii] Aaron Maasho, “Ethiopian protesters attack factories in Africa’s rising economic star,” Reuters, October 7, 2016,

[ix] TesfaNews, “Analysis of the UAE Military Base in Assab—Eritrea,” TesfaNews, December 8, 2016,

[x] Nizar Manek, “U.A.E. Military Base in Breakaway Somaliland to Open by June,” Bloomberg, November 6, 2018,

[xi] Middle East Monitor, “Djibouti welcomes Saudi Arabia plan to build a military base,” Middle East Monitor, November 28, 2017,

[xii]Sella Oneko, “Arab Gulf states in the Horn of Africa: What role do they play?” Deutsche Welle, September 9, 2018,

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Global Security, “Somaliland – Berbera,” Global Security, 2018,

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