Scramble for Djibouti: Saudi Arabia’s first foreign military base5 min read

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(Last Updated On: 14/08/2018)

In recent years, there has been a race to secure a foothold in the Horn of Africa. I went into greater depth about the merits of China’s expansion into the continent of Africa in a syndicated article published by Arab Millennial; however, Middle-Eastern states are also part of this intensified strategic realignment.

The merits of this drive are potentially fraught with danger, as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have joined the race, with Egypt considering joining the race to secure a foothold. Due to its location at the crossroads of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti has been at the epicentre of this scramble (see my article in The Best of Africa last year).

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Since my last article, Saudi Arabia has been given the nod to establish its own base in the comparatively small state. A beaming Defence Minister welcomed the Saudi base, declaring that ties between the two states extend beyond merely a military cooperation, but to “historical, ideological and cultural ties”. Since gaining independence in 1977, Djibouti has been a member of the Arab League, yet no more than 6,000 identify as ethnic Arabs in the country of almost 1,000,000 people. Perhaps these people identify as culturally or linguistically Arab instead.

Despite this, 94 per cent of its people identify as being followers of Islam (primarily Sunnis). For Djibouti, Saudi Arabia holds both a moral and ideological authority, given that it is home to Islam’s two holiest sites.

Saudi Arabia has therefore been a major “donor” to Djibouti, providing diplomatic and military support, as well as significant trade. These close ties are compounded by their close proximity to each other, with the Port of Jizan less than 370 nautical miles up the Red Sea from the Port of Djibouti. Saudi Arabia’s investment in Djibouti has not been lost on the Djiboutian government, who have provided logistical support in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Saudi also benefits from having a presence in the strategic Bab el Mandeb (باب المندب) chokepoint where US military bases also reside. The chokepoint is a major passageway for global maritime trade.

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Qatar – who oppose Saudi’s intervention – pulled its troops out of the disputed border between Djibouti and Eritrea in June 2017. On 3rd January 2016, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran after violent protesters attacked Saudi’s embassy in Tehran. Three days later, Djibouti followed suit in severing ties with Iran. Earlier this year, Djibouti declared its support of Morocco, as it, too, severed ties with Iran due to Iran’s support of the Western Saharan separatist movement, the POLISARIO Front.

The new Saudi base does little to appease Qatar and risks inflaming already tense relations, yet it is a significant achievement for the Kingdom. It allows it to bolster its hard power, whilst continuing to build upon its soft power credentials. The announcement marks Saudi Arabia’s first foreign military base, and enables it flex its muscles against Yemen, whilst also sending a strong message to countries such as Qatar and Iran – who it alleges has supported Yemen in the three year conflict.

In addition to having the ability to deploy additional troops to Yemen from their own border – or via the Red Sea – the new Djibouti base enables Saudi to attack or contain via sea or air across the Gulf of Aden. The base further allows the Saudi military to combat terrorism, reduce the scourge of piracy, and increase its presence in the region. As the world’s largest oil producer, eradicating piracy from the Red Sea would increase business confidence in the region, which in turn would increase profitability through a greater yield of foreign investment.

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The strategic importance of Djibouti cannot be over-stated, this is reflected in China’s heavy investment in the country via their ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Djibouti will soon be home to Africa’s largest free trade zone, which in its pilot stage alone intends to increase GDP by 11 per cent. My syndicated article for Arab Millennial discussed China’s almost unconditional investment in Africa, and that this alternative to perceived Western paternalism has been a welcomed option for many African states to pursue. This option, however, can be fraught with risks – as Sri Lanka recently discovered when its regime couldn’t repay its debt to China.

As reported in the Atlantic Council, the recent détente between Ethiopia and Eritrea may be a possible threat to this investment, which could potentially harm Djibouti’s ability to repay its debts to China.

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If successful, China’s investment in the country has the potential to reduce Djibouti’s reliance on Saudi Arabia – in addition to the other Middle-Eastern friends and foes already staking their claim in the region. The strength of the ‘historical, ideological, and cultural ties’ between the two states will determine whether Djibouti’s head turns to China, whether it can effectively balance competing interests, or whether it is happy to merely accept China’s investment and friendship, but nothing more.

Djibouti’s turn to China would require an investment in more than merely economic capital, but a significant and prolonged investment in social capital. The ability to which Djibouti can manage these competing demands is yet to be determined. As mentioned in my Arab Millennial article on China, the current stance of China is to offer no-strings-attached investment (other than to support the ‘One China’ policy), but any shift in this stance has the potential to force Djibouti to pick a side.

Given the strategic location of Djibouti, any default on repayment to China is likely to not merely have disastrous results for the country itself, but also for the interests of Saudi Arabia, and regional Arab stability.