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The Arabs and the Horn of Africa States: The Dialectic of Proximity and Identity

By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
May 30th, 2023

I borrowed the title from a Report of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (“ACRPS”) dated December 4th, 2011. The word “States” to the Horn of Africa in the title here is my addition. I found the report interesting and appropriate for review. The two peoples of the Arab World and the Horn of Africa States are neighbors and enjoy long historical and cultural relationships, dating back to millennia, to the extent that two members of the Horn of Africa States are also members of the Arab League. They are the Federal Republic of Somalia and the Republic of Djibouti.  The Horn of Africa States, generally, known as the origin of humankind, is also where humankind probably first crossed into West Asia, original homeland of the Arabs, and further on into other continents. The Report, like many others, does not define the Horn of Africa States region and erroneously includes regions like Zanzibar of Tanzania in East Africa and Sudan in northeast Africa as part of the Horn of Africa. The Report presented the result and outcome of a three-day conference held in Doha between November 27 and November 29, 2011, under the title: “The Arabs and the Horn of Africa: the dialectic of proximity and identity.”

The Report was, in the main, not much different in approach from how a Western party would present its relationship with an ex-colonized country and/or region, patronizing in nature and out of context on many issues. The intention of the report, as hinted in the title and presented more broadly in the earlier paragraphs, centered on the relationship between the Arabs and the ill-defined Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin. The Conference discussed the relationship along five major areas including history and political economy, security and strategy, intellectual and socio-cultural relations and the media coverage of the relationship between the two peoples and regions. The irony of the matter is that it only saw the relationship in the eye of the relations of the Horn of Africa States region with Israel, the archenemy of the Arab world and Western interferences in the Horn of Africa region. The report was lamenting the errors and missed opportunities of the Arab world with respect to the Horn of Africa.

The Historical Review

The historical review, although discussing generally the Muslim/Christian cultural relationships of the two regions devoted most issues to those concerning Zanzibar and Sudan, which both fall beyond the confines of the Horn of Africa States region and hence erred in its discussions, assigning faults, in the eyes of the ACRPS, of non-regional parties to the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the main recommendation of the participants of the Panel on the historical relations was to set up a forum consisting of Egyptians and Sudanese academics to deconstruct the legacies of history and repercussions thereof. This obviously has nothing to do with the Horn of Africa States and explains the main disconnect between the Horn of Africa States region and the Arab World.

The Political Review

The report again worried mostly of western interferences in Sudan at the time, which led to the secession of South Sudan from Sudan. The report, in this regard, lamented the disregard of Arab opinion with respect to supposedly Arab regions and did not highlight that Arabs were perhaps in treating Non-Arabs far worse than their Western counterparts. The ACRPS conference again discussed mostly non-Horn of Africa States issues, although the highlight was, in the main, how proxy wars are being played in the Horn of Africa States region. The ACRPS Report highlighted Arab absence in matters concerning Sudan, Kenya, and Yemen all non-Horn African. However, it noted that there should be cooperation with the “undefined Horn of Africa” in the report and the Arab World instead of competition. The Report recommended that the Arab World should play a greater role in matters relating to the Horn of Africa due to its strategic location. Perhaps this explains the involvement of many Arab countries these days and post-conference period from the GCC to other Arab regions in the affairs of the Horn of Africa States region.

We note that Qatar, the venue of the conference and the ACRPS, the UAE and, of course, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were very active in the Horn of Africa States region in the past decade. There would be nothing wrong with such a cooperation if only, it was not designed as replacing a Westerner by an Arab. As things stand, Arabs play far worse games with the region than the Western and/or Eastern countries. Perhaps, it is time the Horn of Africa States stood up collectively with one voice to face off with either party or any party for that matter. The region would stand stronger if it was together and united.

The recent Arab League Summit discussions on the GERD is a perfect example of how the Arab World ignores the needs and requirements and especially when it comes to using its own resources such as the Blue Nile river basin or for that matter the roles of Qatar and the UAE in the Somali sea dispute with Kenya, which favored Kenya in the international Court of Justice handling of the matter, or in Somalia’s parliamentarian and presidential elections in 2021/2022.

The Security/Strategy Review

The Report highlights the great importance attached to the Horn of Africa States region by major powers of the world due to its geostrategic significance, which gives rise to matters relating to security, military and even economic considerations of these powers in the region, where Arab absence once again was at the time of the Report a glaring fact. This perhaps explains, again, why the GCC countries and Egypt are currently more involved in the region, more like another colonizing/civilizing mission, only replacing the   westerner colonizer whose decline is obviously not hidden to the Arab, who in the recent past jealously but fearfully watched the rise of western civilization in the past several centuries. The relationship between the Arab World and the Horn of Africa States need not be antagonistic and should obviously be mutual if the Arab World and the Horn of Africa States regions have to evolve together for the better. The Arab World should not be looking into Horn of Africa States region with the eye of denying Horn of Africa States’ relations with other parts of the world including the western world, the Turkic world, the Chinese and Indian, and others.

The Intellectual and Socio-cultural Review

In this regard, the Horn of Africa States region was completely missed out and the panels of the conference discussed issues of South Sudan vis a vis North Sudan or the Sudan with respect to Islam and Christianity. Such a clash does not exist in the Horn of Africa States region and the two religions have co-existed for over a thousand years, though there were flare ups in the past, which the region has overcome on its own. Indeed, it is the Arab factor, which many a time, employed the Muslim/Christian religions to divide the region and in the main to serve Arab interests such as Egypt’s Nile issues with the region or UAE’s preventive activities of any future port competition of its Dubai Port World with those of the Horn of Africa States region which pose the most competitive advantages. The Arab World should not be playing such a game in this twenty first century. A healthy competition is always encouraged. In fact, being recipients of significant wealth out of the fossil fuels, they should be investing in the region for the mutual benefit of both parties, and perhaps, in the oil and gas industries, where the Horn of Africa States region is said to own perhaps the sixth largest reserves in the world.

Media Coverage

The two regions despite their proximity to each other hardly know each other. The Arabs knew of the region when that region before the arrival of oil wealth was poor and depended much on their sustenance on food from the Horn of Africa region. The Horn of Africa States, unlike the Arab region, does not depend on their media sourcing on western media coverage but produce their own from their own perspectives. It is where the two regions depart on media coverage issues. The Arab region only covers the Horn of Africa States region on the basis of western coverage, which is bare and minimalistic, and often negative. Perhaps, the Arab World should start thinking independently of the western world and try to learn about the Horn of Africa States region better on their own. They would find that it is different from what the western world portrays of the region. It is how the Arab World would improve its current dismal performance in the eyes of the Horn of Africa States region.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The Arab World should first understand the real Horn of Africa States region before jumping and throwing a large net to include countries and regions that have nothing to do with the Horn of Africa States region. These include South Sudan and Sudan for that matter, and countries like Kenya and Tanzania and Uganda. These latter belong to the East Africa Community as South Sudan now also belongs to, after its secession from Sudan proper. It would be good if they learned that the Horn of Africa States is the easternmost region of Africa and consists of only four countries that together is shaped like a rhinoceros horn. They are the SEED countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea ad Djibouti.

The two regions of the Horn of Africa States and the Arab World are neighbors and, indeed, need each other. On the one hand, the Horn of Africa States is the sources of the Blue Nile which provides most freshwater to the Arab World’s most populous country, Egypt. It also overlooks the Bab El Mandab, which is a narrow body of water, barely 28 km wide which is a choke point for all shipping traffic in and out of the Suez Canal and destined to most of West Asia, South Asia and East Asia.

The Arab World would seem to have been regurgitating only western strategies and western interests instead of their own interests and strategies to keep the Horn of Africa states region agitated, unstable and volatile for most of the past four decades in the wishful thinking that the west was protecting them. They must have at least learned from what the West did to Iraq, Libya, Syria and even Yemen, using other Arabs.

The high pedestal the Arab World have climbed would not hold much when the Horn of Africa States region finally decides to stand on its own feet. There would, no doubt, be a need for collaboration and cooperation then. It would be good for the Arab World to start such cooperation and invest in it now than later.

Playing on the religiosity of the populations of the Horn of Africa States region would not be a winner for the Arab World. The Horn of Africa States has gone beyond religious clashes for a long time and the people of the region which has been divided by European colonialism for regions of influence and colonialization, are finding themselves now and would not be separated again. It is a natural region where people of the same Cushitic stock but with differing religions and differing languages have learned to live with each other for long periods.

Indeed, a cooperation panel of the two regions would be possible, however, it is doubtful the Arab World would fulfill their part of any bargain. The failing and dysfunctional Arab League, which groups many Arab and Non-Arab countries, has proven that such an Arab cooperation is off the horizon for the time being.

Perhaps the Arabs and particularly the GCC countries, with their enormous wealth could invest in the region where there are boundless opportunities for profitable investments, in terms of the enormous maritime exclusive economic zone of the region and large agricultural tracts and minerals. The Horn of Africa States region also offers a large marketplace with a population of some 157 million people and growing.

A question always arises when discussing the relationship of the two regions. Would Arabs seriously support the Horn of Africa States region economically and financially, in its hour of need or would they continue to belittle the region and treat it as the poor region next door, playing on baseless and negative stereotyping? The future is an unknown element and one can only hope that the two regions would find a balance and equilibrium in their relations better than, at least, the known past.



2 thoughts on “The Arabs and the Horn of Africa States: The Dialectic of Proximity and Identity”

  1. Dear Brother Dr. Suleiman,

    I profusely thank you for posting this intuitive article. It is another masterpiece from your reservoir of knowledge be it in theory or empirical. One of the shortcomings/follies our elites is they either dwell mainly in preset theories or too much on experience. Yours are the combination of both. That is I have been reading over and over again. Keep plugging away brother!!!

  2. QUOTE: “The Arabs and the Horn of Africa States: The Dialectic of Proximity and Identity ANALYSIS, OPINION & MORE / May 30, 2023, By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
    May 30th, 2023” UNQUOTE

    Humble Feeling
    I have deep suspicion about the relationship between “The Arabs and the Horn of Africa States” As a Black African, it has ALWAYS been my life time deep suspicion of the Arabs toward us, who call us “ABIDS”. I am truly sad that it drove me to deep “HATRED” . THE END

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