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Reports 04 December, 2011

Arabs and the Horn of Africa: the dialectic of proximity and identity


The Horn of Africa region is of vital strategic importance to the Arab homeland due to its geostrategic location connecting Asia to Europe, the fact that it controls the sources of the Nile, and its status as the Arabs' gate to East and Central Africa. The region, however, has remained outside the circle of Arab influence and interaction for the last 30 years, in part because the official Arab system has experienced a prolonged stasis.

With the waves of change and revolution known as the "Arab spring", rethinking the map of Arab strategic interests took on greater significance and urgency, as did shedding light on a region that has been neglected, even cast aside, in recent decades. For that purpose, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies organized a three-day scholarly conference 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 conference discussed most of the issues concerning the relationship between the Arab homeland and the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin along five major axes: history; political economy; security/strategy; intellectual, cultural, and social; and the media. The aim of the proceedings was to foster greater understanding and sketch future horizons for the relationship between the two sides, in part at least by benefiting from the errors of the past that have allowed Israeli infiltration of the Horn, and made it a perennial magnet for intervention by Western powers.

The historical panel

This panel, which was treated in a single session, examined the history of human interaction between the Arabs and the peoples of the Horn of Africa on various levels: social, cultural, and economic. This included human migrations, trade relations, and linguistic and religious effects, especially with the spread of Islam and Muslim-Christian competition in the Horn, and the effects of colonial expansion and modern capitalist trade relations on communication between the two regions. This panel also discussed the massacre of the Arabs in Zanzibar, which was committed during a fanatical Africanist revolution on January, 10, 1964. The debate aimed at rectifying the course of Arab-African relations and debating the crisis of the "denial" of African civilizational interaction with the Arabs, who are often equated with the Western colonists. Focus was also placed on Ottoman-Egyptian expansion in Sudan and the fallout from this negative legacy, which persists today between Egypt and Sudan. The discussants also addressed the possibility that the January 25, 2011 revolution will help build Egyptian-Sudanese relations based on partnership and parity. The speakers stressed the necessity of the Sudanese themselves acknowledging the cultural diversity of their country, which has often been ignored by their elites, who have viewed Sudan as an exclusively Arab and Islamic country. It was this perspective which led eventually to the secession of the South, and the persistence of other tensions heralds further divisions in the North. The participants adopted a proposal calling for the establishment of a forum consisting of the Egyptian and Sudanese academics present at the conference in order to deconstruct this historical legacy and put an end to its contemporary repercussions.

The political economy panel

This panel occupied three sessions, concentrating on a number of issues relating to the nature of international competition over the Horn of Africa and the position of the Arabs in this struggle. Here a large role has been played by the increasing intensity of internal conflicts within the Horn countries, as well as the bilateral conflicts between these states. Based on the fact that the great powers are well aware of the importance of the Nile Valley and the Red Sea in terms of global political and economic dominance, some of the proposals put forward called for a focus on cooperation rather than competition in order to preserve the stability of the region, and to encourage democracy, even if within the colonialist limits that were reproduced after the end of the Cold War. However, other opinions expressed in panel, these sessions argued that the international and regional systems did not seek to resolve the problems of the Horn of Africa, but rather to deepen them, for instance by fomenting proxy wars and encouraging the secession of South Sudan. At the same time, Arabs were effectively barred from affecting the course of events there during the last two decades, and even from helping to preserve the safety of the vital waterways bordering the region such as the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandeb. The speakers stressed the role of the Arab absence in mounting Israeli and Iranian penetration of the region, particularly in light of Israel's history of building links in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen under the Imamate, leading to the current Israeli influence in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. These sessions produced calls for the Arabs to play a greater role in furthering policies of security and economic cooperation as a gateway to stability in the Horn of Africa, and in order to raise the level of Arab influence in the region in a manner that serves the common interests of both sides.

The security/strategic panel

During the session devoted to this topic, speakers discussed the crisis of the management of the state and its stability in the Horn of Africa. There was a debunking of the notion that cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity is the cause for internal and regional conflicts; instead, the argument was made that in essence, the crisis is one of democracy, citizenship rights, and state-building. Somalia, for instance, is one of the most homogenous countries in the Horn, demographically, culturally, and religiously; nonetheless, it is the most unstable and fragmented of these countries. The state of instability in the region has negatively impacted Arab national security, with such factors as the spread of extremism and the phenomenon of piracy having opened the way for a seemingly permanent international military presence that limits the influence and freedom of maneuver of neighboring Arab states. It also was reiterated that the region was the object of competition among great powers due to its strategic importance stemming from political, economic, security, and military considerations. This is especially true on the part of the United States, which has formed its Africa Command (AFRICOM) in order to control the continent with both military and humanitarian tools. This could eventually lead to isolating the Afro-Arab states from the region and denying them any influence or initiative in resolving conflicts that erupt in the Horn; such is the case in Somalia today, as it was recently in Sudan. Calls were made to coordinate Arab policies with major regional powers such as Sudan and Ethiopia in order to create a common Arab/African formula for preserving joint national security against foreign intervention, either by regional actors (Iran, Israel, Turkey), or by the international community. The discussions in this panel concluded that the emergence of the state of South Sudan will negatively affect the strategic balance in the region if tense relations continue to reign between the two parts of Sudan instead of cooperation.

The intellectual, cultural, and social panel

In this panel, which occupied two sessions, the participants discussed several controversial matters, addressing various questions that are often repressed in Arab and African mentalities, as well as misconceptions that have affected each side's perception of the other. The debate touched on the intellectual discourse that has dominated the region in recent decades, contributing to the creation of identities that are in crisis and incapable of coexistence with diversity and difference, especially in Sudan. The participants also discussed the shared cultural heritage, without discounting the repercussions of the culture of Arab superiority toward Africans and the history of slavery. It also was emphasized that each side needs to stop reading the other through Western eyes and to enter directly into authentic local readings of their history, independent of the effects of Orientalist Western thought. Misconceptions from Arab heritage regarding the Horn region also were highlighted, producing calls for a new reading of the history of both regions with a focus on the present and the future. The participants saw the cultural and linguistic diversity in the Horn of Africa as a source of wealth that can help deepen relations with Arabs, provided sufficient effort is made to found a formula for Muslim-Christian coexistence in the region, based on the fact that such coexistence existed in the past, and that religious competition and rivalry have led to the infiltration of the region by foreign powers that have sought to fabricate the religious history of the region for Christians before Muslims.

Arab media coverage of the Horn of Africa

The fifth and final panel discussed the negative repercussions of the Arab media's treatment of issues relating to the Horn of Africa. These deficiencies are partly caused by the official Arab system's having long ignored the Horn region, and by the Arab media's existing in an environment dominated by a myth of superiority. The Arab media is also dependent on Western media coverage, which presents the region exclusively as either a warzone or a site of famines that knew prosperity only under colonialism. The participants stressed the importance of correcting this image by focusing on the issues of local development, and by addressing its peoples in their own languages, especially since the states of the Horn of Africa have created Arabic-speaking media outlets, while the Arabs have not reciprocated. Arab media interest in the region remains focused on the security and strategic aspects, without attempting to either influence Arab culture or increase Arab awareness and knowledge of this region from the political, economic, developmental or humanist perspectives.

Closing session and recommendations

The three-day conference concluded with calls for strategic work-plan on the scholarly/academic level, paralleled by a similar strategy on the political/popular level, to change the negative state of relations between the Arabs and the peoples of the Horn of Africa. This could be achieved by formulating an agenda to treat controversial matters according to priorities and importance, and by a rethinking of Arab national security and its vital role as a starting point to building cooperative relations with this region on the strategic, political, economic, security, and water levels - in a manner that serves the interests of future Arab generations. The conference came out with several recommendations to develop relations between Arabs and the Horn of Africa in the future, which were:

  1. The need to hold more detailed and specialized conferences in the future in order to sketch the lines of strategic cooperation between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa, based on the dialectical relationship between the two sides and the inevitability of their cooperation, in addition to the geostrategic importance of the Horn region to the Arabs.
  2. Treating the repercussions of the last 30 years, while benefiting from the ongoing Arab revolutions, which must have an impact on Arab foreign policy, with the objective being to end the policy of Arab marginalization from the region's affairs - a policy that was undertaken by both regional and international parties.
  3. Working to foster better awareness on the Arab side and changing the manner of communication with the Horn peoples, whether in the media or in educational curricula. This would be abetted by banishing images of slavery, superiority, and/or "negroism", and by formulating a vision for the future instead of sinking into the trials of the past.
  4. Sketching a concept of joint security, given the internal and external threats which are common to the Arabs and the Horn region, and acknowledging that the fragility of states in the Horn of Africa is matched by a similar Arab fragility.
  5. Focusing on a security system for the Red Sea, as the main corridor of interaction between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa. This mandates that Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen develop a regional mechanism to improve the security environment in the Red Sea and foster neighborly relations with the states of the Horn.
  6. Creating an observatory affiliated with the Arab League and tasked with managing diversity on the levels of religion, sect, and ethnicity in the Arab world. Among the tasks of this observatory would be to provide advice and recommendations to Arab states when the rights of minority groups are violated culturally or politically. In this regard, the participants stressed the importance of establishing a channel of communication between the Arab League and the African Union in order to foster good neighborly relations between Arabs and Africans in the Horn region.
  7. In addition to charity and relief efforts, Arab investments in the Horn of Africa must have a beneficial social function in order to support the advancement of the local population, provide job opportunities, and create an Arab-friendly investment environment in the Horn.
  8. Establishing Arab cultural centers in the Horn region to achieve cultural interaction that is devoid of supremacist perspectives and accusations of dependency.
  9. Discussing the Arab mentality and the problematic of intolerance of the "other", who is often viewed as an inferior in Arab culture.
  10. Working to improve the formula of coexistence between the two parts of Sudan, and putting practical policies in place to prevent the division of North Sudan.
  11. Achieving water security in the Nile Valley by broadening the base of cooperation in all fields, and not limiting cooperation to the political level.
  12. Calling for a specialized conference with the participation of representatives from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, and other Great Lakes states to put in place a common Arab-African vision of security in the Horn of Africa and adjacent regions.
  13. Creating a secondary research unit at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies to focus on Afro-Arab studies in order - through cumulative work - to devise and propose practical mechanisms to strengthen relations between the two sides. This unit also should examine the question of language and the need for the Arabs to have media outlets that broadcast in the tongues of the peoples of the Horn region. In addition, scholarships should be offered to African youth to study the Arabic language in a manner that goes beyond the work of Arab Islamic organizations, which exclusively target the Muslims of the Horn region.
  14. The possibility of including European researchers in the debate on the future of the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa, while stressing the commonalities and shared identities among the Arabs and the peoples of the Horn.
  15. Working with the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), in partnership with Arab governments and Arab research centers, and with the aid of fellowship programs, to form a small working group that cooperates with Arab satellite networks to establish channels specialized in the affairs of the Horn of Africa region.

Researchers who participated in the conference

Professor Yusuf Fadl, Professor Abdullah Ali Ibrahim, Dr. al-Nour Hamad, Professor Peter Woodward, Professor Ijlal Ra'fat, Dr. Irma Taddia, Dr. Mahmoud Muhareb, Dr. Amani al-Tawil, Dr. Azhar al-Gharbawi, Professor al-Tayyib Zein al-Abdin, Dr. Mohammad Ahmad al-Sheikh, Dr. Abdullah Hamduk, Dr. Kidane Mengisteab, Dr. Adlan al-Hardallo, Dr. Mehari Maru, Dr. Mudawi al-Turabi, Dr. al-Baqir al-Afif, Dr. Steve Howard, Abdullah al-Bashir, Dr. Abd al-Salam Baghdadi, Dr. Abd al-Wahhab al-Tayyib al-Bashir, Dr. Tekesti Negash, Dr. Tariq al-Sheikh, Faisal Mohammad Saleh, Afrah Thabit, Mohammad Taha Tawakul.