SAUDI Arabia’s official forays into Africa have mostly been limited to religious and social welfare activities, like building mosques and schools. But in the past few months, a hard edge is being amplified – the Kingdom is looking to build a military base in Djibouti.
The deal was initially discussed in March earlier this year, and this week Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf said the plan to build the base was “on track”, according to local reports.
“The security, military and strategic draft of the accord is ready and the coastal areas that could host the base, be it military or naval, have been identified after Saudi military officers and officials explored some of the Djibouti sites,” the minister said in an interview with London-based Saudi owned Al Sharq Al Awsat daily on Sunday.
China’s relations with Africa, too, have mostly emphasised trade deals and infrastructure investment, as well as soft power initiatives such as Confucius Institutes. At last count, there were at least 60 Institutes and classrooms around the continent.
But in recent months, China has also sought to harden its posture, again, centred on little Djibouti. In January, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry announced an agreement with Djibouti to host its first-ever base beyond the South China Sea. Construction is already underway.
Djibouti’s strategic importance is a result of its geography, overlooking Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow sea channel that separates Djibouti from Yemen.
It is one of the world’s major shipping chokepoints, as maritime traffic between Asia and Europe passes through the Suez Canal in Egypt also has to pass through Bab-el-Mandeb.
An estimated 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through the straits every day, 4% of the world’s oil trade, from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, and onwards to the Mediterranean, Sea Europe, and beyond, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration.
Also significant is the fact that Djibouti hosts the only American military base in Africa at Camp Lemmonier.
With at least 4,000 American troops and civilian personnel, it provides a vital base for US Special Forces, fighter planes, helicopters and intelligence services, as well as serving as a launchpad for drone operations against Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, even as far flung as Boko Haram in Nigeria.
France and Japan too have bases in Djibouti.
The aggressive expansion of Saudi Arabia’s military footprint in Djibouti must be seen in the light of its regional power struggle with Iran, and particularly as it has been playing out in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.
In 2014, Houthi rebels overthrew the government in Sana’a; they are based in the rugged mountains of Yemen overlooking the Red Sea, and have now taken over most of the territory formerly known as North Yemen.
The Houthi rebels are Shi’a Muslims, supported by Iran – the global stronghold of Shi’a Islam. Saudi Arabia – itself the centre of Sunni Islam – is at the head of a nine-nation coalition of Middle Eastern countries backed by Washington that is supporting the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in their fight against the rebels.
The military base in Djibouti, therefore, is an attempt to open up a new front against the Houthis, and thus counter Iran’s influence in the region.
Meanwhile, China’s growing interests are influenced by shifting power plays in the greater Indian Ocean, as it attempts to back its economic interests in the region with military might.
STRING OF PEARLS
Djibouti, thanks to its unique geographical position, is key to China’s “String of Pearls”, a network of military and commercial facilities that China is believed to be building along its sea lines of communication, extending from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan.
With China (and India’s) rise, the US can no longer take its global naval domination for granted, and is seeing its traditional hegemony of the world’s seas challenged, starting in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
However modest that power projection by the new kids on the block may be, the US is watching it closely.
The election of Donald Trump as US president represents a moment of uncertainty that the Chinese would want to exploit to their advantage, perhaps by ramping up small strategic successes that may pay out big in the future – such as by building the base in Djibouti.
It is probably not a coincidence that China’s planned base is to be located near the small port city of Obock on the northern coast of Djibouti, which lies 32km closer to the conflict in Yemen than Camp Lemonnier, to which Washington has committed resources in support of Saudi Arabia’s war with the Houthis.
And it doesn’t help that even though the US is officially backing the Saudi coalition, US-Saudi relations have come under unprecedented strains in recent years. US President Barack Obama has openly questioned Riyadh’s value as an ally, accusing it of provoking sectarian conflict in the region.
But there’s more. On Djibouti’s land side is Ethiopia.
The country has ramped up infrastructure spend in the past few years. There’s been intensive investment in rail infrastructure, with a line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa opened this year, and another project linking Addis Ababa with the cities of Jimma, Bedele and Ambo launched in May.
Another railway from a port in the Djiboutian town of Tadjourah port to Bahir Dar city and from the capital south to the cities of Hawassa and Arba Minch is expected to be completed by July 2020.
More ambitious is the planned transcontinental line that will link Djibouti and Ethiopia all the way across the continent to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.
Plans also being made to build a $4 billion second international airport in the Addis Ababa area, one that could serve as many as 120 million passengers per year when it opens in about a decade’s time. That’s passenger traffic larger than Heathrow’s in London.
That puts Djibouti at the confluence of three major geopolitical interests. First, is a rising Ethiopia (which will uplift the whole Horn of Africa); second, shifting power plays in the Indian Ocean rim, featuring Saudi Arabia, China and Iran, and third, the traditional hegemonic powers – led by the US – who see their unquestioned dominance of the world’s seas threatened.
What remains to be seen is how this will play out in the next few months, particularly as incoherence has been at the heart of many foreign policies articulated by US president-elect Donald Trump so far.