In mid-October 2023, Yemen’s foreign minister, Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak, traveled to Kenya to attend the Munich Leaders Meeting in Nairobi and met with Kenyan officials on the sidelines, including the prime minister, speaker of the National Assembly, governor of Mombasa, and the deputy head of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), among others. Discussions covered bilateral relations, regional developments, trade and investment, and the potential to expand economic, political, and security cooperation.
This is not the first trip by a high-level Yemeni political figure to Kenya in recent years. In May 2019, Yemen’s prime minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, visited Nairobi for the U.N. Habitat Assembly and met with Kenya’s then-president, Uhuru Kenyatta. In their meeting at the presidential palace the two leaders discussed the historical ties between Yemen and Kenya as well as areas of cooperation, ranging from trade and investment to regional and maritime security, people-to-people relations, and immigration and visa procedures.
Although bilateral ties between the two countries date back centuries due to their coastal locations, socio-cultural links, and trade routes, Yemeni-Kenyan relations have yet to reach their full potential. Lack of adequate resources, the fluid conflict landscape in Yemen, turmoil in Ethiopia and Sudan, and limited political will have slowed the deepening and broadening of the bilateral relationship. In 2013, Khalid Ashur Mahmud argued that Kenyan-Yemeni relations could be enhanced through the “signing of agreements on terrorism and other threats that affect the two countries” as well as by facilitating access through welcoming visa regimes. While these protocols are certainly important, the conclusion of a political consultation agreement would pave the way for the resumption of ministerial-level bilateral committees between the Yemeni and Kenyan governments.
Yemen’s political, economic, security, and strategic relations with East Africa dwindled after the Arab Spring, as Sanaa became caught in a downward spiral of political upheaval, armed rebellion, regional military intervention, and multifaceted sub-state conflicts. This decline in relations occurred despite shared interests in maritime and regional security, anti-piracy and anti-trafficking, counterterrorism, and trade and investment. Currently, Yemen’s representation in Kenya is at the chargé d’affaires level. Reforms under consideration at the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates open a window of opportunity not only to upgrade Yemeni-Kenyan relations through nominating an ambassador, building on the foreign minister’s recent visit, but also to recalibrate Yemen’s broader East Africa strategy.
The importance of Kenya
In July, I had the chance to visit Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania. While in Kenya, I met with the Yemeni chargé d’affaires, His Excellency Abdul Salam al-Awadhi, and some Kenyan-Yemeni businessmen. He walked me through the position of Kenya in Yemen’s history, diplomatic map, and more. At the time, the simultaneous visits to Nairobi of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and the Saudi minister of investment, Khalid al-Falih, spoke volumes about Kenya’s regional weight. In addition to its trade position and economic potential, the country’s strategic political significance stems from being the fourth-largest U.N. hub after New York, Geneva, and Vienna. Nairobi hosts the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) and the U.N. Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), as well as high-level conferences on security, counterterrorism, urbanization, and development.
Security-focused conferences in the Kenyan capital touch upon issues of mutual interest for countries across the Gulf of Aden and the Red and Arabian seas, from counter-radicalization programs and the fight against extremist groups to anti-piracy and anti-trafficking policy and maritime cooperation and intelligence sharing. All of these issues are of importance for Yemen, given its strategic location overlooking the Red and Arabian seas, the Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Just as East Africa, through the Gulf of Aden, is a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen — in times of crisis — is a transit point to the Gulf and East Africa. Currently under-leveraged, such platforms can offer both Yemen and Kenya, as well as the Arab Gulf states, a strategic opportunity to develop Arab-East Africa relations collectively and bilaterally, with a particular focus on security and trade and investment. Over the past decade, both the U.S. and the U.K. have deployed troops — within their broader East Africa security cooperation frameworks — to train Kenyan security forces, fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and its sleeper cells in Kenya, and extend support for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The transnational nature of threats makes expanded security cooperation between Western countries, East African nations, and Arab states by the Red and Arabian seas worth exploring in areas including cyberspace, the maritime domain, and through regional security initiatives. All of these factors should push the Yemeni government to upgrade its ties with Kenya.
Historically, Yemeni-Kenyan relations were driven by people-to-people relations, sociocultural ties, and trade between the ports of Aden and Mombasa during the British colonial period, but also dating back much further, before the birth of Islam. Yemenis spread along the coast from Mombasa to Malindi and Lamu, particularly in the 1800s. As in Southeast Asia, Hadhramis also contributed, through trade, to the spread of Islam in East Africa and of the Shafi’i sect in Kenya, and developed a Swahili-Yemeni culture on the country’s coast. It is, therefore, no surprise that there are Yemeni-Kenyan families and communities that have been based in Kenya for more than 200 years and play a major role in trade, and they continue to look for the right time to reconnect with their families in Yemen.
Kenyans of Yemeni origin have reached high-level positions, contributing to the country’s growth and development. Among the most prominent were Najib Balala, who served as the minister of tourism and wildlife among other portfolios, and al-Tayyib Ali al-Tayyib, who was the mayor of Mombasa and made major contributions in the areas of infrastructure and security. Foreign Minister Bin Mubarak met with several Kenyans of Yemeni descent currently in office during his October 2023 visit, including the governor of Mombasa, Abdulswamad Sherrif Nassir, and the deputy chief of the KNCCI, Mustafa Ramadan. Notable Kenyan businessmen of Yemeni descent also include the Bajaber and Bawazeer families. In short, Kenyan-Yemeni people-to-people relations are deep and will continue to sustain this long-standing friendly relationship in times of both peace and war.
Boosting trade and investment
Yemen’s trade relations with Kenya also stretch back a long way, with the ports of Mombasa and Aden having played key roles. Exports from Kenya to Yemen have been rising over the past two decades, including during the war in Yemen. In 2021, total Kenyan exports to Yemen were valued at $46 million, with coffee, tea, and spices the top cargoes; this rose to more than $60 million in 2022, according to unpublished Yemeni government data. There was a shift in the balance, with trade largely one way due to the war in Yemen, while the volume of Yemeni exports to Kenya in recent years has been quite modest. During my informal encounters with Kenyan-Yemeni and Yemeni businessmen who continue to explore areas for investment, the untapped potential in real estate, coffee, tea, livestock, agri-business, and more was clear, however.
Total Yemeni investment in Kenya is estimated at $80 million and is likely to rise significantly, especially if stability continues under President William Ruto. Currently, one of the largest Yemeni investors is Fathi Hayel Saeed, who started Golden African Kenya Limited in Nairobi in 2012 and whose latest factory the president and deputy chief of the KNCCI and a number of foreign ambassadors visited in June 2023 in a message of support for trade and investment. Golden African Kenya Limited is the only foreign investor in edible oil manufacturing in Kenya, according to the KNCCI. To further boost trade and investment, the Yemeni and Kenyan governments can develop a bilateral trade council including businessmen on both sides, an endeavor which I learned is already under way. However, in order to deepen trade agreements and support job creation in Kenya, it is imperative to upgrade political relations first.
Enhancing bilateral ties
Kenya provided strong political support for Yemen through its U.N. Security Council non-permanent seat in 2021-22, from backing the government of Yemen’s position to pursuing maritime security initiatives and supporting the aspiration of achieving a just, durable peace in Yemen. Hence, given the strategic importance of Nairobi as the fourth-largest U.N. hub, Kenya represents a diplomatic opportunity for Yemen to advance its interests through the UNEP and UN-Habitat, as well as a range of security-and-development-focused platforms. In recent years, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Palestine, and Jordan have opened embassies in Nairobi in recognition of Kenya’s political significance. In the political sphere, the Yemeni government could, without increasing expenditure, appoint an ambassador to upgrade diplomatic relations, a move that Kenyan counterparts would strongly appreciate and that would benefit other avenues for bilateral cooperation. The easiest and quickest way could be to name the current chargé d’affaires, Abdulsalam Alawi Ahmed al-Awadhi, as ambassador, given both his experience and proven commitment to upgrading Kenya-Yemeni relations, as well as the complexity of decision-making in Yemen.
The areas of cooperation between Yemen and Kenya that could be deepened would include the environment, health and sustainable development, public infrastructure, immigration protocols and flexible visa regimes, counterterrorism, border security, public health, anti-trafficking, anti-money-laundering, and strengthened coordination in the international and regional arenas, given the high-level talks that Nairobi hosts. Kenya could nominate a non-resident ambassador to Yemen temporarily until the security situation there improves. These moves would all help to enhance bilateral ties. The two governments could also agree on smoother visa regimes, especially in support of cultural and educational exchanges in the long term, as well as in terms of tourism, trade, and investment in the short term.
Shared security interests and concerns
The two republics have a range of shared security interests and concerns regarding active transnational threats, maritime security, and regional stability. They could look into enhanced cooperation in areas like coastguard training and capacity-building. Tapping a range of multilateral platforms and bilateral commitment, they could also explore cooperation in cybersecurity and counterterrorism through intelligence-sharing, especially given the history of the illicit arms trade and financial transactions between al-Shabaab in Somalia and East Africa and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.
In maritime security, given Kenya’s strategic partnership with the U.S. and the U.K., the latter two countries could strengthen bilateral cooperation and expand multilateral efforts with Yemen in anti-trafficking and anti-piracy, efforts to combat illegal fishing, and identification of active threats. Horn of Africa-focused initiatives could be expanded to include countries from across the Gulf of Aden to broaden their scope, reach, and influence in the policy domain. The signing of bilateral agreements, establishment of border surveillance controls, exchange of security intelligence, and implementation of signed security agreements can occur after the two countries sign a political consultative protocol and launch bilateral working groups at the ministerial level.
Political: The Yemeni government should consider upgrading Yemeni-Kenyan relations by nominating an ambassador. This would not stretch its resources as it considers a drawdown in diplomatic representation worldwide due to budget constraints and a weak economy. The Yemeni foreign minister could also consider visiting Nairobi again to sign a political consultation agreement, given the latest Kenyan cabinet reshuffle in early October and Musalia Mudavadi’s assumption of the Foreign Ministry and Diaspora portfolio on Oct. 17, to pave the way for joint working committees, diplomatic facilities, smoother visa regimes, and higher levels of cooperation and coordination across domains. The Yemeni Foreign Ministry could expand the non-resident assignment of the to-be-appointed ambassador of Yemen to Kenya to several neighboring countries, including Uganda and Rwanda, where the Yemeni diaspora reach out to the embassy in Nairobi for support. This would help increase the scope of the embassy and its strategic diplomatic role in East Africa. For its part, Kenya could nominate a non-resident ambassador to Yemen to support the deepening of bilateral relations and strategic coordination. Its ambassador to Saudi Arabia is also accredited to Iraq.
Boosting professional diplomatic cadres: Yemen’s Foreign Ministry, acknowledging the importance of Kenya and the role its diplomats can play in multilateral organizations such as UNEP and UN-Habitat, as well as in bilateral matters, should consider sending a handful of skilled diplomatic career professionals to aid the ambassador and work on strategic issues of interest and concern. This move should be explored as the Yemeni Foreign Ministry withdraws unnecessary cadres and reduces its diplomatic presence overseas while improving the overall capacity of its most important missions. Currently, due to the poor performance of government institutions and staffing limitations, there appears to be a disconnect between theory and practice in terms of what can be achieved by Yemen’s overseas missions.
Trade and investment: There is a dire need to improve the investment climate for Yemeni investors in Kenya and volume of bilateral trade, including through the formation of a joint business committee and regular alignment with the Ministry of Investment and Trade. At the moment, the Joint Kenya-Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry, headed by a Kenyan and an Arab, facilitates trade relations between the Arab world and Kenya, and would benefit from such a move. Kenya would also benefit from exporting its goods to and through the strategic ports of Yemen along the Red Sea to improve access to European and Arab markets. Yemen can “serve as transshipment junctures to other markets … even when these commodities are not utilized in Yemen,” said Kenyan National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetangula during his recent meeting with Yemen’s foreign minister. This can open a window of opportunity to revive historical cooperation between Mombasa and Aden ports, as well as Hodeida, in post-war Yemen.
Immigration: The Yemeni government should consider establishing a Passport Issuance Center in Nairobi for East Africa, given its proximity to Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Somalia, all of which lack a passport center. Currently, the Yemeni diplomatic mission and its honorary consulate in Mombasa, along with the noted missions, rely on Djibouti, which causes financial burdens for Yemenis and longer waits. The average cost to issue and receive a passport is estimated at $200, and it takes two weeks at best. This would also reduce the pressure on Djibouti and increase the importance of Yemen’s mission in Kenya within East Africa, given the geographical proximity to several countries that also do not have diplomatic representation in Yemen, such as Uganda and Rwanda.
Visa regimes and people mobility: The Yemeni embassy, once the Yemeni government upgrades diplomatic relations with Kenya by concluding a political consultation agreement, can work on smoother visa regimes for tourists, investors, and diplomatic passport holders in a more robust manner. The Kenyan government is highly likely to support such endeavors, assuming the protocol factors in the historical, social, and long-term trajectory of relations.
Maritime security: The Yemeni and Kenyan defense ministries should collaborate on expanding security protocols, from capacity building to intelligence sharing and training and strategic coordination. Currently, security cooperation is below its potential.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher; a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI; and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank.
Photo from Yemen's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates
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