The Turmoil in Yemen and its Long-term Implications on Iran’s Horn of Africa policy

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The civil war in Yemen, started in 2015, has brought various chaos’s and instabilities in the region. The unrest has been spilling over its humanitarian and political consequences towards the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Although the turmoil was quite small, it has attracted the attention of many regional powers when the rebels captured the capital Sanaa and President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi requested external support to survive his internationally recognized government. This led to the intervention of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states to restore Mr. Hadi’s government.

Riyadh has been accusing Tehran for arming and financing the Houthi, aiming to maintain Shia dominance in the Arabian Peninsula. As it is noted by some political analysts, the age-old ideological rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the main driving force for their active involvements in the Yemen crisis. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Iran are mutually engaged in a cut-throat struggle for ideological and geopolitical domination of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa as well reflecting the region’s bitter Sunni-Shiite sectarian division.  A strong presence in the Houthi territory, for instance, would enable Iran to establish an intelligence outpost and covert weapons distribution network for supporting its interests in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. This and other geo-political interests inspired Iran to provide multiple supports for the Houthi militias, although both Iran and the rebels in Yemen denied this allegation.

On her part Riyadh is also very critical about Houthi’s growing stronger in terms of its the long-term impact  on its local and regional politics. Hence, she has decided to overthrow the pro-Iranian Houthi groups by using both military and diplomatic means. Hand in hand with its military intervention, Saudi Arabia has actively engaged in continuous negotiations with regional powers. Saudi officials strive to convince the consequences of Iran’s intervention against the economic and political interests of both the Arab and Islamic world. Riyadh called regional powers, including countries of the Horn of Africa for the formation of a united front aimed at blocking the proliferation of Shiism and Iran’s dominance. The persisting diplomatic efforts finally led to the formation of the Saudi-led coalition force in 2015. The coalition was consisted of countries from the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia.

Countries of the Horn of Africa have long been the victims of the humanitarian and political crises in Yemen. Any unrest in the Red Sea coastline seriously affect the security and economic interest of  regional powers of the Horn of Africa. Intensification of sea piracy along the Red Sea coast and Indian Ocean route in the first quarter of the 21th century and the uncalculated challenge on international trade presumably occurring forthcoming years could be a good example.

Hence most of governments in the Horn of Africa are so cautious about the dynamics in Yemen and its implications on the region’s political economy. The precautious stand of regional governments in the one hand and Iran’s meddling position on the other led to a conflict of interest between the two groups. This finally led to a huge blow against the age-old socio-economic and diplomatic relation between Iran and countries of the Horn of Africa.

The several decades ago, Iran’s relations with countries of the Horn of Africa were on the basis of its long-term socio-economic and political expectations. This assertion has clearly manifested when we consider about Iran’s engagements with particular countries of the Horn of Africa.

Iran has maintained a long and high-level political contact with Sudan. For the past several decades Iran systematically used Sudan to balance Israel as well as pro-Western Arab countries especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Together with its geo-strategic significance, Sudan also serves as a good destination for several investment projects owned by the Iranian government as well as private owners.

Similarly, Iran has showed strong interest to establish strategic partnership with Eritrea. High- level visits, which paved the way for the signing of bilateral agreements in agriculture, energy, industry and other sectors, have been taking place.  Iran also promised to support Eritrea in maintaining regional peace and stability. Iran specially approached Eritrea as a country suffered from severe diplomatic pressure of the US. And presented herself as a strategic partner to balance this pressure and keep the national interest of Eritrea.  Iran is even accused of using Eritrea as a corridor to provide arms and valuable intelligence information to Houthi rebels in Yemen as noted by some unverified reports.

The other important country in the chain of Iran’s influence in the Horn of Africa was Somalia. As the former Iranian Foreign Minister highlights Somalia’s strategic position and its many natural resources were still coveted by the ‘arrogant great powers’ and that their intervention was responsible for Somalia’s crisis and instability. Iran presented herself as a partner to address the age old chaos in Somalia.

The cases mentioned above stands for the main foreign policy objectives of Iran towards Africa in general and that of the Horn in particular.  Due to the following humanitarian and political crises in Yemen, many countries in the Horn of Africa began to question and started to take measures against their engagement with Iran.

Reports about Sudan’s relation with Iran after the turmoil in Yemen, for instance, noted that the former lowered its cooperation with the latter by strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and other members of the Saudi-led coalition. Some political commentators also pointed that Khartoum has started to consider Tehran’s support to the Houthi as a serious threat for the economic and political stability of the Horn of Africa. Sudan officials is drawing attention to the potential threat of the Houthi rebels, who have armed with missiles, in threatening international maritime security along the strategically important route of the Bab al Mandab.

In addition to Sudan, Somalia also took measures against Iran and halted its diplomatic ties with the latter. This measure is also further triggered by Iran’s intervention in Yemen. As it is noted by Somali’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali that Iranian diplomats have been directly involved in Somalian internal affairs and have carried out measures that are a threat to our national security. And this led to Somalia to recall its diplomatic envoys and cut diplomatic ties.

A similar blow against Iran’s geo-political interest in the Horn of Africa occurred with the decision of Djibouti by cutting its diplomatic relation in 2016.  In this point, it is essential to remind the great strategic importance of Djibouti which serves as a military base for countries such as US, France, Japan and China.. Djibouti’s decision in this regard has its own special message for Iran, as political analysts argue.

In general, Iran’s position on the ongoing political turmoil in Yemen potentially leads to the decline of Iran’s political influence, intelligence monitoring and naval presence in such a strategic area of the Horn of Africa.


Dr. Muzeyen Hawas SEBSEBE
Dr. Muzeyen Hawas SEBSEBE
Muzeyen Hawas Sebsebe was born in 1977, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He attended his primary, junior and highschool education at Addis Ababa. In 1999 he has joined Bahir Dar University, History Department. In July 2002 he has defended his thesis entitled the Biography of Aklilu Habtewold and grduated İn BED degree. In 2008 he has obtained his MA degree in Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University. He wrote His MA thesis on the Provision of Household Food Security and Womens Pivotal Role. From 2009-2011 he has worked as lecturer at Dilla University, School of Social Science and Humanities, Department of Anthropology. During his stay at Dilla University, he has provided various Anthropological courses. Currently, he is writing his PhD dissertation entitled Diversification of Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy: Post-Cold War era Ethio-Turkish Relation as a case Analysis. His research interest areas includes foreign policy, regional integration, regional and international organizations. Together with his academic activities, he is also active on various Ethiopian students activities in Turkey. He actively engages in founding organizations such as Habeshistan Development and Cooperation Association and Horn of Africa Strategic Study Center