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The Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa: Competition Over the Red Sea Heats Up

Under the recently announced deal, Turkiye will provide training and equipment to strengthen Somalia’s navy, allowing it to better protect its territorial waters. For Somalia, the deal offers crucial support for security and development. For Turkiye, it represents an opportunity to expand influence in Africa and the strategic Red Sea region.

Somalia’s deal with Turkiye was spurred by Ethiopia’s recent memorandum of understanding with Somaliland to gain access to a naval port there. Somalia considers Somaliland part of its territory and is prepared to go to war to block Ethiopia’s ambitions. Enhancing Somalia’s naval capabilities will help deter Ethiopia and safeguard Somalia’s territorial integrity.

The deal highlights the geopolitical competition unfolding in the Horn of Africa and over the Red Sea. In addition to Turkiye and Ethiopia, several states including Gulf countries are vying for influence in Somalia and control of trade routes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

While the deal with Turkiye offers Somalia crucial support, significant challenges remain. Al-Shabaab militants continue to carry out deadly attacks, posing a threat to security. Political tensions between Somalia’s federal government and regional states also persist. Turkiye’s engagement may help advance political reconciliation and state-building but will not solve all of Somalia’s problems. Sustained international support and cooperation will still be needed.

Ethiopia, as the second-most populous country in Africa and the fastest growing economy on the continent, aims to assert itself as a regional power. However, its landlocked position limits its geopolitical ambitions. Ethiopia currently relies on Djibouti’s ports for 95% of its imports and exports.

Ethiopia has explored deals with Eritrea, Sudan and Somaliland to obtain access to additional ports. However, these moves have heightened tensions with Somalia, which claims Somaliland as its territory.

Somalia and Somaliland have disputed control over territory along their border for decades. While Somaliland operates independently, Somalia aims to maintain its claim over Somaliland. Any deal granting Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s ports would undermine Somalia’s authority and territorial integrity.

As Ethiopia navigates this complex regional dynamic, it must balance its ambition for economic growth and sea access with maintaining positive relationships with neighboring countries. While a deal with Somaliland could provide Ethiopia a strategic port, it risks damaging ties with Somalia and other regional allies that back Somalia’s claim to the territory. Ethiopia’s position as a rising East African power depends on regional stability, requiring it to proceed cautiously in pursuing sea access and balance its national interests with regional partnerships.

As a critical shipping route linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea has garnered significant interest from regional and global powers seeking to protect their strategic and economic interests. Countries bordering the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, have a vested interest in stability and security in the region. However, political instability, conflict, and terrorism threaten peace in the region.

Turkiye aims to expand its influence in Africa, including in Somalia and along the Red Sea. The recent deal to train and equip the Somali navy allows Turkiye to strengthen its strategic partnership with Somalia, gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa, and advance its interests in the Red Sea. Turkiye also maintains a military base in Somalia and sees itself as a champion of the Muslim world. Its engagement in Somalia is a way to project power in the region.

As the second most populous country in Africa and the fastest growing economy in the region, Ethiopia aims to gain access to the sea to facilitate trade and economic growth. Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea and Somaliland, and its plans to build new infrastructure linking it to ports in the region, show its determination to overcome its geographic disadvantage. However, its ambitions have raised concerns from Somalia which opposes Somaliland’s independence. The geopolitical rivalry in the Horn of Africa threatens regional stability.

All the countries bordering the Red Sea and Horn of Africa are keen to advance their strategic and economic interests in the region. However, their competing ambitions could undermine peace and security, necessitating diplomatic and political solutions to resolve points of contention and foster cooperation. The region’s stability and prosperity depend on collective security arrangements and mutually beneficial alliances between the littoral states of the Red Sea.

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