Earlier this month, for the fourth consecutive year, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) convened the UAE Security Forum, where the United States, United Arab Emirates, and regional partners gather to find creative solutions to crucial security challenges.
European Eye on Radicalization attended the event, which was held at the New York University in Abu Dhabi, and analyzed the long-term implications of the latest political developments in the Horn of Africa.
The President of AGSIW Douglas A. Silliman, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and then Iraq, and the current U.S. Ambassador to the UAE John Rakolta Jr, gave the introductory remarks, both focusing on the cultural, commercial, and historical connections between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf region and on the efforts of Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to support stability in the area and peaceful transition in countries like Sudan.
The depth of the ties between the two regions, and the U.S. intention to expand its own relations with the Horn of Africa, with a special focus on security and commerce, represented two key points of the discussion.
The morning keynote speech was given by Brigadier General Miguel Castellanos, the Deputy Director for Operation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Brigadier Castellanos listed the key issues of the current security situations in the Horn of Africa, focusing on migrations and internally displaced people, the developments in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, and the complex political context of Somalia with the longstanding presence of Al-Qaeda’s branch in the country, Al-Shabab.
Undoubtedly, the four major lines of efforts that the U.S. wants to follow in the region include strengthening mutually beneficial partnerships, including with the UAE; enhancing security capabilities of partners; developing security in Somalia by forming and training Somali forces and containing Al-Shabab; and maintaining effective counter-piracy actions that, mainly thanks to the effort of the United Nations and the European Union, reached excellent results in the last few years.
Session one—organized as a public discussion among top experts—analyzed the growing global and regional competition in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea.
It featured Abdul Mohammad, Chief of Staff of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan; Ambassador Alexander Rondos, EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa; Susan Stigant, Director of Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP); and was moderated by Mina Al-Oraibi, Editor in Chief of The National.
The so-called “demographic earthquake” taking place in the region was one of the focuses of the discussion.
70% of people are under the age of 30 and the new generation is politically aware and connected. It is able to push for change without being scared of authority and it has led an unprecedented process of digitalization.
However, as Ambassador Rondos highlighted, it would be immature to just get excited about this: it is imperative to understand the developments in greater depth, questioning if they are actually going to create a stable future.
Beside the demographic issue, a second key notion relates to the relevance of multilateral institutions in the African context.
As Abdul Mohammed effectively explained, in Africa multilateral institutions have a unique role because of the fragmentation from which most African countries were born. Through multilateral efforts, African institutions are trying to articulate a specific view, which considers the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as shared spaces between the two shores: bridges instead of dividers.
Following the fruitful discussion of the first session, the afternoon keynote speech was given by H.E. Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates.
Minister Gargash walked the participants through the future trajectory of the global order, which remains uncertain, and the zero-sum game that seems to be the result of the competition between global powers.
At the same time, Gargash highlighted that uncertainty does not necessarily mean chaos: it means profound transformation. 2019 has seen unprecedented developments in the Horn of Africa. Sudan could become a blueprint for other countries. And the United Arab Emirates has played a significant role in these matters.
The UAE had a significant role in the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the beginning of the transition in Sudan. It was also a leader in the fight against Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), disrupting crucial supply chains between these jihadi groups. The UAE looks set to become a more pivotal actor for peace and security in the area.
A major insight from Gargash’s speech, and from the entire forum, was that, to be relevant, states have to accept burden sharing, since, “A solo strategy would be pointless”.
The afternoon discussion centered on Gulf-Horn ties and their future developments. It featured Ambassador Tom Kelly, the Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at Raytheon International and former U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti; Murithi Mutiga, the Project Director on the Horn of Africa for the International Crisis Group; and Abdullah al-Saud, Director of Research and Head of Security Studies Research Unit at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at AGSIW, chaired the event.
Abdullah al-Saud opened the ground for a discussion on the shared legacy between the two shores of the Red Sea, which have a shared space, largely shared language and religion, and the shared strategic commitment of preventing scattered Daesh supporters from finding new safe heavens in Africa.
Murithi Mutiga provided the public with a long-term perspective on different African countries, highlighting that, during some of the most recent protests and changes like in Ethiopia in 2017 and Sudan in 2019, both protesters and political elites displayed considerable maturity and commitment to non-violence.
Mutiga also mentioned the potentially destabilizing role of Turkey in the Horn of Africa. The Gulen network, for instance, regularly send its members to the most remote villages in Africa to try to gain a grip on the local communities, and it is not by chance that the largest embassy in Mogadishu is the Turkish one or that “young parents in Somalia have started to name their daughters Istanbul”.
The Gulf Arab states’ engagement with the countries of the Horn of Africa is not new. Over recent decades, however, the Horn of Africa has become a region of increasing geostrategic and economic significance. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia recently demonstrated they could leverage relationships to produce positive outcomes, and the future development of these relationships will be crucial for both the shores of the Red Sea, which has the potential to become a shared space of stability.