Sunday, July 22, 2018
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By Abdi Amey

The phrase ‘Somalia is rising’ is often featured in the Somalia political discourse. There is a pervasive sense of optimism in the country that finally a state is being resurrected both physically and as an idea that majority of the country can buy into and participate. Of course, past a certain point, all this buoyancy becomes mythic. Almost as if by sheer force of will the past will be erased, the present comprehensible and the future at least hopeful.

FILE PHOTO – Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) walks with the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a welcoming ceremony upon Hamad al-Thani’s arrival to attend the Summit of South American-Arab Countries, in Riyadh November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

The diplomatic quarrel between Saudi Arabia and ten other countries on one side and Qatar on the other has exploded onto the international scene. Lines have had to be drawn and redrawn on both sides. Alliances are being hastily pursued and reinforced. Behind all the excitement is the little-noticed struggle for hearts and minds in Somalia. So then comes the dilemma for the fragile Somali federal government, who, in a very short time is being compelled into taking decisions that have to be in the country’s best interest. Because if they are not, it is not unimaginable to think of collapse – though that’s a long way off.

Uncomfortable choices

To my mind, it is probably in Somalia’s best interest to align with the Saudi-Emirati coalition at least for as long as it takes for this particular squabble to fade away. The reasons are simply economic and political. On the economic front, the Arab Monetary Fund holds a huge bulk of the country’s external debt. Presently the country requires access to international finance, but that would be impossible unless its debt is written off outright since it does not qualify for debt relief. Only then can a modern economy be revived and reintegrated. In line with this, one has to keep in mind that about a quarter of GDP comes from remittance routed entirely through Dubai. Therefore, there is a great consequence to taking the other side. While this threat is largely implied, the possibility that Somali businessmen in Saudi and the Emirates might be expelled is being underlined ever more boldly.

Politically, different federal states are absurdly crafting foreign policies. Somaliland has already thrown in its lot. But the potential cascade could be fatal for the revival. The UAE is building a base in Somaliland, and there are lucrative projects in Puntland with the potential economic windfall too tempting, or maybe even silly to overlook.

However, one should ask why anyone sane would align themselves to people who have shown only contempt for the people of Somalia. This whole thing was poorly conceived and pitifully executed. It seems like the Saudis think money buys a foreign policy, evidently last time they asked for a quid pro quo it involved severing diplomatic ties with the Iranians. That was done, but they never paid up -meaning the level of trust is incredibly low at this point. Particularly damning, Qatar and its ally Turkey are arguably more involved in Somalia. In short they are very willing to put skin in the game as Turkey’s presence in Mogadishu increases and direct investment on the up basically signalling long-term intentions. This has been solved somewhat pragmatically by the government by taking a neutral stance on the entire issue but neutrality does not always mean picking a side and in this case, neutrality tacitly signals sympathies for Doha.

Alternatives to status quo

This amount of discomfort could be avoided if the foreign ministry is empowered to conduct state business, for at this time, the origins of Somalia’s foreign policy seem to me rooted in the minds of two men. The president and his chief of staff Fahad Yasin, former Aljazeera reporter and well-known close ally to Qatar looked at in this way then the unimaginative neutral is unavoidable. Somalia needs institutions, not personalities, and it is a great disservice that the president will not empower ambassadors and the diplomatic corps simply because of his megalomania. As if that is not bad enough the amateurish messaging means some officials ought to take a good look at themselves since behind the neutrality mirror it has all been opaque. A clearer message in the media would allow for a consistent position, and foreign ministry officials can defend government policy publicly, in turn, mistakes can be avoided. It would also be a good move if the foreign minister Yusuf Garaad were more active, for through this crisis, he has been out of action and does not even look like trying. For example, since Kuwait is mediating he should be there, but it does not seem to have occurred to him. On the other hand, maybe pressure can be diffused if Somalia committed to a bloc i.e. the East African Community thereby they can be shielded and maybe then a neutral stance is credible.

Though one recognises the squalid choices on offer, there is significantly more at stake in ignoring the benefits that the Saudis can provide. The government has the opportunity to do this on their own terms if it is simply driven home that the Saudis have no immediate cards to leverage Somalia with. This cynicism (realism) is necessary for a state arguably in its infancy. It does the country no good to stand with quixotic policies that may be its undoing.

There is cause for hope and perhaps Somalia is truly rising, for this is the first time in a long while that a geo political quarrel has involved Somalia as a state rather than as a playground. If this is to be sustained, then some sort of international mediation is necessary to protect it but if that is not possible then hedge with the Saudis. If executed confidently and competently, then finally Somalia has risen with a foreign policy and is finally an equal player among nation states.

Abdi Amey

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