Iran and Saudi diplomatic dispute expands to the Horn of Africa (By: Guleid Ahmed Jama )

Diplomatic tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalated after allies of Saudi Arabia severed their diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain, Kuwait and UAE either cut or downgraded their diplomatic ties with Iran.

Saudi-Iran diplomatic crisis erupted when the Saudi Kingdom executed prominent Shia clerk, Nimr al Nimr, along with other people. Anxious demonstrators burned Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi royal family decided to cut already crippling relations with its main rival in the Middle East.

Three Horn of African Sunni countries, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia, followed Saudi Arabia’s attempt to isolate and deter Iran. This crisis is knitting together two longstanding instabilities. Why Horn of African countries want to interfere in the Middle Eastern problem while they have enough headache in the region?

The three governments share lack of political legitimacy and growing Salafi influence. Advancement of Salafi ideology in the region along with Saudi money strengthened Saudi say in this poor, conflict ridden and highly troubled region. Since early 1980s, Salafi teaching has been spreading and intensifying in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somali inhabited areas. Now, Salafism is the main religious group among the urban Somali speaking people in the region. Thus this new development is a sign of a long cultivated and deeply rooted Saudi influence.

Both Somalia and Sudan are controlled by governments who are in one way or another based on religious ideology. The tiny, but strategic, country of Djibouti leadership has internal and growing opposition movement challenging president Guelleh who extended his presidential term limit to stay indefinitely. The new development in Djibouti questioned president Guelleh’s long closeness to the West.

In Somalia, Islamists insurgents are fighting weak Somalian government supported by African peacekeeping mission. The presence of violent Salafi Jihadi militia in the country created a religious based political spectrum. The Somalia government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed, a man believed to be a member of a religious group called Damul Jadid, is closely allied with Saudi Arabia in a way that Somalia, despite its lack of any viable diplomatic influence, echoes any diplomatic announcement Saudi Arabia makes.

For instance, Somalia issued on March 2015 a statement denouncing Sweden on its dispute with Saudi Arabia over Sweden’s criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record. Many Somalis do not forget Saudi treatment of Somali refugees. The military oppression in 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent civil war forced many Somalis to flee from their country. Saudi Arabia up to now forcefully returns the Somali refugees back to dangerous places. Many Somalis languish in Saudi prisons and many more are exploited.  In contrast, Sweden welcomes Somali refugees and provides humanitarian aid to Somaliland and Somalia.

Somalia in this month arrested Iranians allegedly spreading Shia in Somalia. Somalia is in profound religious based war and dragged, almost endless, bloodshed. Adding this flame into sectarian row is unwise choice.

Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan and Somaliland also supported Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The support of the Saudi-led coalition strikes against Yemen has changed the security dynamics. Influx of refugees added the economy of the region new burden. But in security wise, it is a concern that the insecurity of Yemen will lead to enhanced ties between al Qaida in Horn of Africa and that in the Arab Peninsula. Furthermore, Yemen hosts hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who fled the civil war. The bombs in Yemen already costed the lives of Somali refugees, and displaced others within Yemen and beyond. Thousands returned to the region.

The ill-advised decisions of the governments in the region are partly caused by Salafi/Wahabi influence. The alliance between the Saudi royal family and the Salafists who are nowadays strong religious authority in Somalia and Somaliland are turning these countries into Saudi puppets. Contrary to long held policy, Somaliland has backed the bloody Saudi intervention in Yemen. Religious leaders linked to Saudi Arabia held in Somaliland series of religious deliberations demonizing Iran and Shia sect, although there is no Shia community in Somaliland.

Guleid Ahmed Jama


Centre for Policy Analysis, Hargeisa Somaliland