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The East African Federation
and GCC Interests

by Tomáš Krampera

Support for regional integration has existed in Africa since the wave of independence in the 1960s. The theoretical justification is clear: a large number of small national economies and the need for development are natural drivers of economic integration. It is no surprise, then, that the continent has a number of economic communities, often with overlapping membership. Two monetary unions already exist in Africa, based on the Central African and West African franc. These, however, are colonial relics rather than homegrown projects and, despite professed support for economic integration, African states have yet to achieve the depth of integration seen in Europe.


East African Federation


Few communities are interested in political as well as economic integration, which is what sets the East African Community (EAC) apart. Composed of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, the EAC has the stated goal of merging into a confederation and later a federation.[1] Its population would be 190 million, making it the second most populous African state after Nigeria. With a combined total GDP of $232 billion USD, the federation would see significant GDP per capita disparities, with Kenya having nearly seven times as much as Burundi.[2] However, it should be noted that the disparity is lower than in the European Union (EU). The religion of a united EAC would be predominantly Christian, but with a sizeable Muslim minority spread unevenly across the region: Tanzania has a 35% Muslim population, while Burundi, for example, has only 2.5%.


While the idea of an East African federation stretches back to independence in the 1960s, it has seen much slower progress than the rhetorical support for it would suggest and has gained traction only over the past two decades. A Customs Union and Common Market are already in place, though this has not prevented non-tariff barriers from being erected in trade disputes.[3] More recently, different COVID-19 measures have prompted ire, such as a spat between Kenya and Tanzania that resulted in Tanzania temporarily banning Kenya Airways flights.[4] The plans for a monetary union in the EAC have been delayed: The East African Monetary Institute, a precursor to a central bank, was supposed to be set up by 2015 but only came into existence in July 2021.[5] A 2023 target for the promulgation of a constitution for the planned confederation is almost certain to be missed.


GCC Interests


As the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) import some 85% of their food demands, food security represents a key issue for the GCC countries and an area where the GCC and EAC intersect. EAC economies are predominantly agricultural—the sector employs 80% of their population and accounts for 55% of extra-EAC exports.[6] Strong trade ties already exist. For instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) accounted for 9.5% of the EAC’s total exports in 2017.[7] The states of the EAC have fairly good geographical conditions for agriculture, but struggle with a lack of investment, which hampers production efficiency.


The Gulf states have been investing in agricultural land abroad as part of their food security strategies to limit the impact of price shocks and food export restrictions in difficult times. For instance, the food price surge amid the 2008 global financial crisis, similar to the sudden increase shown by the FAO Food Price Index during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, led to the establishment of the King Abdullah's Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad.[8] The bulk of GCC agricultural ventures in East Africa are in Ethiopia and Sudan,[9] countries which border the EAC but are not part of it. Fewer ventures are located in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.


However, the GCC states are not the only investors in African agricultural land, competing with China, South Korea and others. A more united EAC could bargain as a larger bloc and secure better terms for these leases, such as a larger portion of the produce going to local markets or funding for local projects. This may well prove beneficial to all parties over the long term: food insecurity is already a problem in East Africa, and the effects of climate change and population growth will only exacerbate it. Agricultural land using precious water resources to export food abroad will be a source of unrest and resentment in times of crisis, and establishing these ventures as win-win situations for both investors and locals early on will be important.


Beyond the crucial issue of food security, a friendly East African Federation would be a useful tool for furthering the Gulf’s geopolitical ambitions. South Sudan is directly involved in the controversies surrounding the Nile River, especially the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Another important aspect is Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s desire to counter Iranian influence in East Africa. Apart from spreading its revolutionary ideology and seeking trading partners to ease the impact of economic sanctions, Tehran has used East Africa as a hub for its weapon and drug trafficking operations, including to militants in Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and Mozambique, and securing illegal supplies of uranium for its nuclear programme (possibly from Somalia and Congo, smuggled through neighbouring East African states).[10] Iranian agents have also been involved in surveilling UAE, US and Israeli targets in East African countries in preparation for terrorist attacks.[11]


Additionally, Gulf states have security interests in the Horn of Africa, which borders the EAC to the South, and the Gulf of Aden to the North. The Gulf of Aden leads to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a key maritime trade route for both the GCC and EAC, which is home to two of Africa’s largest ports at Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, gateways to the landlocked East African markets. The Horn is also important to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of its proximity to Yemen — it can provide a base for their operations and a way to deny Iran a safe haven for weapons supplies to Ansar Allah (re: the Houthi Militia), Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, among other militant groups.


Here, the intersection is mainly in Somalia. While not currently a member, Somalia applied to join the EAC in 2012. After its application was rejected in 2016, it reapplied and this bid is still under consideration.[12] It is unlikely to be accepted in the near future as Somalia recently had a diplomatic clash with Kenya over maritime boundaries and accused Nairobi of interfering in Somalian affairs, which saw the countries break off diplomatic ties in November 2020. The May 2021 restoration of ties, following Qatari mediation, has calmed tensions. Somalia, as other East African states, was also affected by the spillover of the 2017-2021 intra-GCC crisis. While the Doha-Ankara camp has cemented relations with the Mogadishu-based federal government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, Abu Dhabi — disgruntled by Mogadishu’s refusal to take its side against Qatar — cancelled a training mission of the Somali Army and strengthened ties with Somalia’s regional governments, notably the breakaway territory of Somaliland, where it helps to turn Berbera into a regional trading hub, which could also benefit the landlocked Ethiopia.


A united East African Federation would be a boon to its constituent states. Economically, it would ease connections of landlocked economies to ports on the Indian Ocean and enable the bloc to bargain and negotiate trade and land deals as a weightier actor. Geopolitically, it would be a factor in East Africa’s key issues: Settling and managing water rights on the Nile and security in the Horn of Africa and the shipping lanes. In the latter especially, East Africa borders an area of vital interest for the GCC. A mutually beneficial relationship between the two groupings could involve Gulf investment into East Africa’s economy and agriculture on the one hand, and East African partnership to help protect Gulf interests and stymie Iranian ambitions in the region.



[1] East African Community, ‘Political Federation,’

[2] International Monetary Fund Data,

[3] EPA Monitoring, ‘East African Dairy Sector Trade War Continues to Simmer,’ 20 May 2020,

[4] Al Jazeera, ‘Tanzania bans Kenya Airways from flying into country,’ 1 August 2020,

[5] Daily Monitor, ‘Plan to have the East African currency collapses, council of ministers reviews timelines,’ 14 October 2019,; East African Community, ‘EAC pronounces 1st July, 2021 as date for coming into effect of East African Monetary Institute,’ 26 February 2021,,-2021-as-date-for-coming-into-effect-of-east-african-monetary-institute.

[6] EAC Agriculture and Food Security Team, ‘Agriculture and Food Security Brief,’ September 2020.

[7] WTO Secretariat, ‘Trade Policy Review, East African Community,’ 13 February 2019, 

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization, June 2021,

[9]  Land Matrix Initiative Database,

[10] Jon Swain, David Leppard and Bian Johnson-Thomas, ‘Iran's plot to mine uranium in Africa,’ The Times, 6 August 2006,; David Blair, ‘Iran “tried to get uranium by arming Somalia,”’ The Telegraph, 16 November 2006,; Harun Maruf, ‘Somalia Seeks US Help, Says Militants Plot to Supply Uranium to Iran,’ 1 September 2017,

[11] Times of Israel, ‘Iranian agents scouted Israeli, US, UAE embassies in East Africa for attack — TV,’ 1 February 2021,; Attia Essawi, ‘Iran awakens African sleeper cells,’ Ahram Online, 26 February 2021,

[12] While Somalia does not meet many of the requirements for membership as laid out in Article Three of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community, neither do the members themselves. Despite language about ‘adherence to universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice,’ none of the member states rate higher than “Hybrid Regime” on the Economist’s Global Democracy Index — therefore, membership is not decided by formal rules.    

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