HARGEISA, SOMALIA // Millions of Muslims across the Middle East slaughtered sheep to celebrate the Eid feast at the end of Ramadan. Many of those animals were probably raised here, on the dusty plains of Somaliland, growing fat on the many green pastures hidden in the rugged landscape. Livestock rearing is a way of life in the Horn of Africa and nomadic Somalis have practised it for centuries. Here in Somaliland, the northern breakaway region of Somalia, the economy thrives on the sale of sheep, goats and cattle.
"Livestock is the backbone of our economy," said Oumer Yusef Booh, the dean of economics at the University of Hargeisa in the Somaliland capital. "During Ramadan we sell over a million sheep to the Middle East in one month." The Middle East, including the UAE, accounts for 90 per cent of Somaliland livestock sales. The rest is exported to the neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Djibouti. Saudi Arabia, once a large trading partner with Somaliland, has had an embargo on Somaliland livestock for the past 10 years, which crippled the economy of this fledgling nation.
Saudi officials have said the reason for the ban, which began in 1998, is that animals from Somaliland could be infected with Rift Valley fever, a mosquito-borne virus that kills livestock and humans. But analysts in Somaliland suspect the motive purely political. A strong, united Somalia is seen by Arab states as a counterweight to regional rival Ethiopia, which has poor relations with the Arab world. Moreover, Arab countries worry that recognising a breakaway state could set a precedent for other areas in the region with aspirations for independence.
In 1991, as Somalia plunged into a civil war that is still ongoing, Somaliland seceded from its union with greater Somalia. In the last two decades, Somalilanders have managed to build government institutions and security forces with little help from the international community, which does not recognise Somaliland's independence. The ironic result is that a beacon of stability in the troubled Horn of Africa is an unrecognised state. The Arab league along with most of the international community wants a strong, united Somalia and continues to back the beleaguered government in Mogadishu.
"When Saudi Arabia banned our livestock, it was politically motivated," Mr Booh said. "The Arab states don't want Somaliland to be independent. The Rift Valley fever was just an excuse. It was in Kenya but not in Somaliland." Because of its unrecognised status, Somaliland receives no direct aid from the international community. Aside from its livestock, the country has little else to export. It is too dry for agriculture and there is but a small, underdeveloped commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of Aden. A handful of Somalilanders are involved in the growing trade of frankincense, a fragrant resin obtained from the Boswellia trees of Somaliland. But livestock remains king.
Somaliland exports two million sheep per year, mostly to the UAE, Yemen and neighbouring countries, according to the government. Another 250,000 head of cattle and camels are sold from Somaliland. The exports are estimated to be worth around US$250 million (Dh920m). Recently there have been signs of a thaw in Somaliland's relationship with Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, the Somaliland government and Saudi investors completed a livestock quarantine station in the port city of Berbera that will allow officials to screen animals for disease before being exported.
"The problem was a lack of quarantine," Dahir Riyale Kahin, the president of Somaliland, said in an interview. "We have made a good quarantine in Berbera. We have high hopes that before the Haj, we will be shipping to Saudi Arabia." In 2007, Said Suleiman al Jabiry, a Saudi investor who built the US$5 million (Dh18.3m) quarantine in Somaliland, signed a deal with the government giving him exclusive rights to all the country's livestock at a fixed price.
Somaliland traders, outraged at what they called a monopoly, began smuggling their animals out of discreet ports to find better prices on the open market. The government, losing customs and excise revenue, eventually opened up the market for competition last year. In a dusty, windswept field on the outskirts of Hargeisa, traders meet each morning to buy and sell livestock. Nomadic herders with ochre-coloured hair and red robes travel to the city with long lines of camels and sheep.
Baraud Kahin, 59, has been a camel trader for seven years. On a recent morning, he had seven camels for sale and he had already sold one for around $400. "This is the greatest business in Somaliland," he said. "It is how we survive." Mohamed Muhamed, a sheep dealer, said the time between Ramadan and the Haj is always good for business. During these months, he said he can move up to 50 sheep a day at $50 per head. The opening up of the Saudi market will be great for business, he said.
"It was a political thing with the Arabs, but now it is OK," he said. "Business will be good this season." @Email:mbrown@thenational.