Qatar and the UAE have been taking the lead, with promises of multi-billion dollar investments and large aid flows in countries stretching along the east African coast from Sudan to Somalia.
At stake are the diplomatic, military and commercial ties between the two neighbouring regions. But the battle for influence also has wider geopolitical significance, given the large volumes of crude oil that pass through these waters en route from the Gulf to the Suez Canal and beyond.
The latest move has come from Qatar, which in the past few weeks has agreed a $4bn plan with the government of Sudan to develop the Red Sea port of Suakin. The announcement came just a few months after Qatar’s close ally Turkey agreed to develop a naval facility in Suakin and is a clear sign that the UAE – which until now has been the most active Gulf country in this part of Africa – faces a challenge to its position in the region.
In particular it has been Dubai – the UAE’s leading commercial hub – that has led the way over the past decade or more, having forged partnerships with Djibouti and the two breakaway Somali republics of Puntland and Somaliland.
However, it has had trouble with some of these relationships, with Djibouti proving particularly difficult. In February, the government of Djibouti cancelled Dubai-based port operator DP World’s 30-year contract to manage the Doraleh Container Terminal.
DP World accused the Djibouti government of “illegal seizure of the terminal” in what it said was an attempt to force it to renegotiate the terms of its contract. In response to the government’s action, DP World has launched proceedings at the London Court of International Arbitration.
The episode came almost four years after the last major setback when, in April 2015, the Djibouti authorities told the UAE and Saudi Arabia to remove their troops from the Haramous military base, following a clashbetween Djibouti air force commander Wahib Moussa Kalinleh and the UAE’s vice consul Ali Al-Shihi.
However, the UAE does still retain strong influence in Somaliland and Puntland – two self-declared republics that have broken away from Somalia, but are not widely recognised by other governments.