Among the last African countries to gain independence (from France in 1977), Djibouti lies in a strategic region for whoever strives to control the sea-lanes between Europe, the Middle East and Far East Asia. Even more so, if one considers that 40% of the world maritime trade passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait each year.
Until 2002 only the French maintained a strong military presence in that country. After 9/11 the Americans have come in force with the official goal of fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen, and with the broader geopolitical aim of controlling such a strategic choke point.
Throughout the years the rise of Somali piracy have prompted several countries and entities to send their navies to the region. In 2009 the European Union and NATO have started their own surveillance missions, respectively christened Atalanta and Operation Ocean Shield. The latter being NATO’s contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom under American command, with the remarkable presence of both Japan and India.
Back then Djibouti has become the operational base for Atalanta Operation, also known as EUNAVFOR, with EU naval forces making port calls in both French and U.S. bases in that country. In particular, French facilities have been hosting Spain’s and Germany’s contingents, as well as the Operation Atalanta support force, whose headquarters are based in the United Kingdom.
Other countries, not being part of the Western coalition battling pirates at sea, have started sending their military ships to the region; mainly China, Iran and Russia. Maybe all of them are now seeking a permanent military base in the Horn of Africa, especially in Djibouti, while China’s New Silk Roads seem bound to further fuel competition among major powers for a coveted spot in the area.
Since 2011 a new wave of the so-called “Scramble for Djibouti’s bases” has been triggered by the Yemeni civil war. Despite officially being allies in the fight against Yemeni Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been long vying for control of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Riyadh has secured the right to establish a military presence in Djibouti; while the UAE has now a naval facility in Eritrea - according to unconfirmed reports the UAE took on lease the Assab base for 30 years - and in February 2017 also struck a deal with the breakaway region of Somaliland to lease the former Soviet base of Berbera. The plan follows a 30-year multimillion dollar contract for UAE's international ports operator, DP World, to manage the civilian harbor of Berbera.
Notably Eritrea is rumored to also host Iranian and Israeli bases, in a show of realpolitik guided by financial interests and political considerations in order to assure the survival of President Isaias Afewerki’s regime
The very same financial and political considerations which have prompted Djibouti’s President Omar Guelleh to transform its country into a military hub for the world’s major powers.
On its part, France boasts a defense agreement (Accord de défense) with its former colony, signed right after the independence, thanks to which Djibouti has long been a pillar of France’s military projection in Africa and beyond. A new accord was then signed in 2011, which brought to 1450 the number of French soldiers stationed in the country.
Since 2002 the former French Foreign Legion’s Camp Lemonnier has become the only U.S. military base in Africa. It is the headquarters of Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa, home to 2,700 enlisted military men and women from four branches of the U.S. military, supported by 1,000 contractors and 1,000 local employees.
In Djibouti Washington deploys relevant assets such as F15E fighter bombers, AC-130 gunships and drones for surveillance and attack equipped with Hellfire missiles and other ordnance. Drones are being kept very busy during operations in Somalia and Yemen. Alongside the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintains in Djibouti some assets from its paramilitary arm, SAD (Special Activity Division), to conduct raids in Somalia, Yemen and beyond.
In July 2012 a five-year agreement was signed by France and the United States to enhance aerial logistical cooperation between their forces in Djibouti. Both forces regularly report publicly on joint missions in and out of the country.
In 2014 Washington signed with Djibouti’s government an agreement to renew the original lease for another 10 years. The Pentagon is planning to build a new runway for its jets (as of now Camp Lemmonier shares the only runway with the adjacent Ambouli international airport) and to spend one billion dollars over the next 25 years in order to expand the main facility.
Following in the Americans' footsteps, then came the Germans. Since 2002 Berlin has maintained a very discreet presence in Djibouti assured by a small detachment of 30 to 80 men, tasked with coordinating German ships operating in the area along with others navies and local authorities. But in the future Berlin may decide to expand its footprint and build a new military facility.
While also Spanish troops can be found in Djibouti taking part to NATO and EU operations against piracy, here in 2011 Japan established its first permanent military base abroad.
At a cost of 40 million dollars Japan built a runway for Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C surveillance planes and barracks accommodating up to 180 soldiers. The Japanese Base in situated next to the Ambouli international airport and the aforementioned American base of Camp Lemmonier. Tokyo is now negotiating a new accord to expand such a facility in order to accommodate some C130 transport planes and armored vehicles as to help the evacuation of Japanese citizens in case of troubles somewhere across Africa. Overall, however, Japan’s presence in Djibouti aims at confronting China’s moves in the area.
As in the case of Japan, China has built in Djibouti its first official military facility abroad through a security and defense strategic partnership agreement signed in 2014. The naval base was planned to protect one of the nodes of the maritime Silk Road.
Djibouti and China have also reached numerous economic agreements in order to build a 48 km2 free economic zone, make the African country a transshipment hub for Chinese goods en route to Europe and set up a legal framework to allow Chinese banks into the country.
Following King Salman’s visit to Beijing, now Israeli sources report that Saudi Arabia and China have reached an agreement aimed at protecting the Middle East’s arm of the New Silk Road passing through the Bab El Mandeb strait. Such a development implies for the Chinese base located in Djibouti to military coordinate with the Saudi facility.
China and Saudi Arabia might also share the goal of promoting Ethiopia’s economy by improving the infrastructures linking that landlocked country to Djibouti’s main harbor. In doing so Riyadh can expand its leverage over Egypt by supporting Addis Ababa and its project to build a new dam on the Nile. Dubai, UAE’s main city, maintains a strong partnership with Djibouti via the Dubai Ports World (DPW), the very same entity which is active in Somaliland.
Major Arab powers have long pursued divergent interests in the area, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE. It is quite easy to fathom those competing powers now possibly using local proxies (such as Eritrea and Somalis Shaababs; perhaps also opposition groups from Djibouti) to disrupt their rivals’ moves.
In the meantime, China has transferred some textile production to Ethiopia and has a strong interest in maintaining a solid presence in a country in which the African Union is headquartered. China has upgraded the railway connecting Ethiopia to Djibouti, but in 2012 a Turkish consortium won the tender to construct a new line as to allow Ethiopia to export potash via Djibouti.
That is why Turkey should also be considered another relevant player in the Scramble for Djibouti. Ankara boasts a strong presence in Somalia, where it has built a military base and transformed its embassy into a hub for pursuing its regional foreign policy. Those facilities, coupled with the base Turkey maintains in Qatar, are mostly aimed at exerting considerable pressure over Riyadh.
According to several unconfirmed reports, Russia has been negotiating the opening of a base in the country as well, this way leaving the UK as the only major power not being based in Djibouti, although London is planning to expand its facilities in Oman.
Finally yet importantly, in 2013 Italy opened its own military base in Djibouti which can accommodate up to 300 soldiers, while during normal times it is managed by 80 men and women. The Italian Navy is among the few institutions to have a coherent understanding of Italy’s national interest. In this regard, Italy’s own base in Djibouti should be viewed as an attempt at protecting the sea-lane stretching from the Mediterranean to Gulf and beyond, passing through the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb.
Thus, one could fairly state that in the last few years Djibouti has achieved a strategic importance for many world and regional powers. Even the more relevant if one considers that the country’s widespread poverty, ethnic tensions and undemocratic institutions are destined to significantly stoke tensions among those actors scrambling for Djibouti.