x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Aid petition urges use of trade ties to pressure Somali militants

Trade from UAE through Al Shabab ports generates $15 million for the militant group.

DUBAI // Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the Government to use its trade ties with Somalia to pressure militants to allow the movement of famine aid.

More than 400 UAE residents so far have supported the online appeal to persuade the Al Shabab group to stop barring international NGOs from distributing donations in areas they control.

"The UAE is in a position to do a lot of good," said Baquer Namazi, an Iranian-American resident who added his name to the list. "They can reach out to all sides."

Traders in the UAE and Gulf buy the majority of Somali charcoal sold through ports controlled by Al Shabab, a UN report said last month. The group earns US$15million - or up to 20 per cent of annual revenues - from taxes on the trade.

That influence, the petition says, could be used to prompt the militants to allow the flow of aid in a country experiencing its worst famine in 60 years. Millions are suffering across the Horn of Africa, with tens of thousands of people arriving in makeshift camps in Mogadishu and neighbouring nations.

The petition, one of many organised by the activist group Avaaz.org, has generated more than 440,000 signatures across the world in a week.

The UAE has given Dh120m in humanitarian relief since 1993 and will ship 400 tonnes of aid in the coming days among other emergency donations.

But Stephanie Brancaforte, a campaign director for Avaaz.org, said the potential of the Emirates to convince the militants to allow safe passage for aid could prove even more valuable.

"If they wanted to take on a leadership role and broker something, that message is going to be much stronger coming from the GCC than coming from the UN," she said.

Al Shabab, which controls much of southern Somalia, claims ties to Al Qaeda and responsibility for bombings last year in Uganda that killed more than 70 people.

The UN already prohibits certain dealings with the group. The UN Security Council said in a July 29 resolution that any non-local commerce through Al Shabab ports would be deemed financial support for a "designated entity". Individuals involved could face a travel ban or asset freeze.

Eighty per cent of charcoal in Somalia is exported, mainly to the GCC. The largest individual exporter manages a trading company in Dubai. Somali traders in the UAE also dominate the sale of sugar to Somalia, which generates $400,000 to $800,000 a year in taxes for Al Shabab.

"This trade cycle is dominated by networks of prominent Somali businessmen operating mainly between Somalia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, notably Dubai in the United Arab Emirates," the UN report said.

Many traders enjoy lower taxes at Al Shabab ports and find them less corrupt than the Somali government.

The UN report, submitted by the Monitoring Group on Somali and Eritrea, urged the UAE and other Gulf states to end charcoal trade with Somali altogether.

The report also encouraged the Somali government to seek help from the UAE and others to ban large merchant vessels from Al Shabab ports.

It urged the UAE to monitor its trade to Somalia.

"The Government of the United Arab Emirates, and especially the authorities in Dubai and Sharjah, should consider enforcing more stringent measures on dhows conducting trade with Somalia," the report said.

The Ministries of Economy and Foreign Affairs (MoFA) did not respond to requests for comment. The Ministry of Foreign Trade referred questions to MoFA.

chuang@thenational.ae