Why is the United States interested in Somalia?

06.06.2022: Mogadishu, Somalia

On the 16th of May 2022, President Biden signed an order authorising the United States military to once again deploy hundreds of troops to Somalia. The decision reversed a previous decision made by former President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops who had been previously stationed there.

Additionally, the U.S. President approved a Pentagon request for standing authority to target dozens of suspected leaders of Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaeda terrorist group that is based in Somalia. According to the U.S. government, airstrikes have largely been limited to those meant to support Somali and ATMIS forces facing an immediate threat.

This came a day after the election of former Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The newly elected President Mahmoud previously served between 2012 and 2017, building a working relationship with the Obama administration; an administration Biden served in as Vice President. Consequently, it is unsurprising to see the immediate announcement only a day after his re-election.

Strategic Significance of Somalia

To understand why the U.S. is expressing keen interest in Somalia today, one has to understand both geographical and military significance of the location Somalia is situated. Especially as the U.S. seeks to increase its influential grip in the region due to growing concerns in Washington of Chinese and Turkish diplomatic expansion that has somewhat countered U.S. dominance.

To the North of Somalia is the Bab-El-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. The Bab-El-Mandeb acts a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, essentially acting as a doorway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The Gulf of Aden is also of significant importance to this trade. The ancient Greeks regarded the Gulf as one of the most important parts of the ancient Erythraean Sea. From the late 1960s onwards, the region was dominated by the Soviet Union, with an increased presence of Soviet naval forces in the Gulf.

In the modern era, the waterway is an important Suez Canal shipping route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean. The route is often used for the delivery of Persian Gulf oil through the Red Sea, making the Gulf an integral waterway in the world economy. Just to highlight the significance of Persian Gulf to the world economy, a staggering 18.2 million barrels of oil are produced per day with approximately 17 million barrels per day transit through the Strait of Hormuz in tankers.

In essence, Somalia is positioned at the entrance of the Red Sea, acting as a gatekeeper for the world economy as millions of barrels of oil travel through this body of water to reach Europe and beyond.

For the United States, Chinese diplomatic expansion is part of the wider U.S-Chinese geopolitical cold war which has been on-going in the South-Pacific and East Asia region for decades. Upon assessing the on-going tensions playing out in the South China Sea, it could provide us with a better grasp of US-Chinese competing interests in the Horn of Africa region.

Much like the important sea lanes surrounding Somalia, the South China Sea is an important trade route to global trade. In 2016, one-third of global shipping with an estimated value of $3.4 trillion went through these lanes.  That included nearly 40 percent of China’s total trade and 90 percent of petroleum imports by China, Japan, and South Korea – and nearly 6 percent of total U.S. trade.  These same sea-lanes are a vital military artery for the Americans as the U.S. Seventh Fleet transits regularly between the Pacific and Indian Oceans (including the Bay of Bengal).

To China, the U.S. has its military force at its doorstep, ready to pounce. It views American presence in the region as direct evidence of U.S. sabotage antics to hinder the inevitable growth of China to Superpower status. Conversely for the Americans, they perceive the Chinese as attempting to gain a strangling chokehold on one of the most important sea lanes in the world for globe trade. This could also directly affect supply routes needed for U.S. outposts in the region.

Irrespective of which side you might agree with, there is a clear conflict of interest between the world powers regarding world trade routes and exerting unilateral influence. The sea lanes conveniently surrounding Somalia are no different, muddled in this ever-expanding diplomatic and economic war between Beijing and Washington.

Coastline Exploration Ltd & Oil Trade Deal?

In February 2022,  Somali Minister of Petroleum & Mineral Resources Abdirashid Ahmed announced an oil trade agreement between his Ministry and Coastline Exploration Ltd, the successor company to Soma Oil & Gas. This deal consisted of seven production sharing agreements (PSAs) covering deep water offshore blocks. This was categorically rejected by the then President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble as illegal.

The Farmaajo administration’s position was that the agreement was in contravention of a Presidential decree signed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo dated August 7, 2021 and a Council of Ministers directive on December 6, 2018 during the premiership of Hassan Ali Kheyre. Additionally, in a letter sent to Coastline Exploration Ltd dated February 21, 2022 the Somali Foreign Ministry stated that the correct procedures had not been followed.

While the U.S. oil company told VOA Somali that the Ministry of Petroleum & Mineral Resources and the Somali Petroleum Authority (SPA) assured them that both the Prime Minister and the President were made aware of the agreement, Coastline Exploration Ltd admitted that it did not directly communicate with either Office.

Coastline Exploration, founded in 2018, has contractual possession of Soma Oil & Gas, a company that collected seismic data off Somalia’s shore.

Soma Oil & Gas was previously investigated by the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) but the investigation was ultimately dropped due to “insufficient evidence.” Some of the former board members of Soma Oil & Gas, including Alexander Djaparidze, a Russian billionaire, are board members of Coastline Exploration. In fact, former Soma Oil & Gas board member Richard Anderson serves as the current CEO of Coastline Exploration Ltd.

Does this mean that U.S. has increased its interest in Somalia solely due to this trade deal? I presume not.

Did it play a part as billions of barrels of oil have been discovered in Somalia? Under the current circumstances including oil prices as well as geopolitics in the Middle East, I presume yes.

So what now for US-Somali Relations?

The newly elected Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud has welcomed the decision by Biden to deploy US troops in Somalia. As aforementioned above, President Mahmoud has previously worked with the Obama Administration while Joe Biden served as Vice President. Therefore, relations between the two administrations are friendly to say the least as history remains between them including to establishment of Danab Special Forces among other security partnerships.

The US ambassador to Somalia, Larry Andre accompanied by the General Townsend of US AFRICOM visited Hargeisa recently in which the US delegation visited Berbera Port via air. While the US expressed keen interest in working with Somaliland and possibly establishing relations, it seems as though the US maintains that it recognises Somaliland as part of the Federal Republic of Somalia under its ‘Single Somalia policy‘.

The same delegation also met with Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud in Mogadishu shortly after his election.

Now, some might perceive this as the US playing both sides in an attempt to pressure Mogadishu and deter the Federal Government from working more closely with China and the possibility of a Chinese base in Somalia, much like Turkey.

However, the close relations between Hassan Sheikh and the Biden administration indicate that there will most definitely be a change in Somali Foreign Policy in the coming years.

What remains important for Somalia is to remain neutral.

Both China and the US place have strategic geo-political and economic interest at the core of their foreign policy in the region. Somalia must do the same. Much like we have seen under the previous administration, the Mahmoud administration must play both sides to maximise and reap the benefits for Somalia, whether it is at the UNSC or in regional politics.

For more interesting analysis on Somalia, follow Suldan Mohamed and Horumar.

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