As the self-declared state of Somaliland welcomes its new president – the fifth in a line since breaking away from Somalia in 1991 – it is looking to the UAE for a new chapter of cooperation.
Professor Ahmed Ismail Samatar, head of Public Policy for the ruling Kulmiye Party, told The National that its victorious candidate, Muse Bihi Abdi, views the UAE's achievements with "admiration" and is keen to develop the existing ties between the two regions.
“The new partnership that’s developing between Somaliland and the UAE is a high priority for the government,” he said. “We want to deepen and strengthen and thicken the relationship with the UAE.”
The region of 4 million people has not been internationally recognised but it has recently drawn in sizeable investments from the Gulf.
Earlier this year, the government agreed to let the UAE establish a naval base in its port of Berbera.
That came after Dubai's DP World last year signed a multimillion dollar, 30-year contract to develop the same port, which is on the south coast of the Gulf of Aden.
This month, DP World said it would also develop an economic zone in the region, modelled on Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.
The new economic zone is aimed at positioning Berbera as a gateway port for East Africa, by encouraging investments and trade in the warehousing, logistics, manufacturing and related businesses.
“DP World building out the port of Berbera is an excellent way of injecting energy into the economy,” said Professor Samatar, who is himself formerly a Somali presidential candidate and Member of Parliament.
“There is a great deal of anticipation around the project. The people of Somaliland are hoping it becomes a major hub for goods to come and go, and of course there are other positive side-effects, such as increasing employment and developing infrastructure.
“For the military base, too, there are benefits such as greater security for the people of Somaliland. However, these benefits need to be fleshed out in more detail to the people.”
The Kulmiye party has six core public policy priorities, as laid out in their manifesto. These are: economic growth; national security and unity; foreign policy; healthcare; justice; and education.
In each of these, Professor Samatar believes there is room to develop the relationship with the UAE.
“There is so much that Somaliland can pick up from the UAE, whether it’s in education, health, business, technology, security, international relations, you name it,” he said.
“The UAE is a very cosmopolitan place; its government is run properly, its businesses are run properly, and there are international standards that the Somaliland people and their new president view with a great deal of admiration,” he said. “They want to adopt the same practices, so they can lift their own country up.”
“Even just the culture of competence, and having institutions that work well. And having an ambition to improve them even further. In that way, the UAE is a model for us, and we would be wise to observe it and learn the tricks of the trade.
“But it is important that the relationship is built carefully, it is deep, and it is intelligent.”
Asked about future projects with the UAE, “there is lots we would like to propose,” Professor Samatar said.
“Take a look at our long coast line, for instance. We need to think about how to use and really maximise that coast – from building fishing ports to developing tourism. These are areas where we can certainly learn from the UAE.
“Exploration for energy is another thing this government is focused on – not just using solar, but also natural gas, petroleum and so on. This is something else the UAE is very good at.
“And then there’s infrastructure building – this country badly needs roads, and telecommunications systems.
“So I see lots of areas where we can partner with the UAE. Indeed, the possibilities of collaboration are much more promising than just the port and the military base.”
Dr Michael Walls, chief observer for the International Election Observation Mission in Somaliland, agreed that the relationship between the UAE and Somaliland has the potential to grow further under the new president.
“A win for the ruling Kulmiye party’s candidate was always going to result in the easiest transition in terms of a relationship with the UAE,” he said. “It means there’s no need to go back and renegotiate deals struck by the previous government. So, from the UAE’s perspective, it’s really business as usual.”
He added: “Now the election is out of the way, I think things will move much faster on the port as well as developing the military base. And I have no doubt the new president will be hoping to benefit from closer cooperation with the Gulf, from improving the roads, to health, to education.
“From here on, I believe we will see more investment and what’s more, we’ll see evidence of that investment, as the projects start to come to life.”