The modern scramble for Africa is intensifying.A sharp uptick in the expansion of foreign militaries in the Horn of Africa accompanied the growth of economic competition in the region in 2017. China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have opened military bases throughout the area in the past two years. The region is strategically important to these states for various reasons: securing shipping routes in the Bab al Mandab Strait, proximity to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and the desire to array forces in the region alongside rivals including the United States.
China has concentrated its military presence in Djibouti near American and other Western forces.
The competition between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in the Horn of Africa has yielded mixed results in Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has received significant counterterrorism training support from both nations, as well as humanitarian aid from Turkey. The competition has strained relations between the SFG and Somalia's semi-autonomous regions, however. Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo rejected the legitimacy of a 30-year Emirati contract on the port of Berbera in Somaliland, for example.
The 2017 crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE exacerbated tensions between Somaliland and President Farmajo after the semi-autonomous government of Somaliland supported the boycott of Qatar, while the SFG remained neutral in the conflict.
Emirati operations in Yemen relied originally on basing in Djibouti. The UAE invested heavily in Eritrea beginning in mid-2015. The Emirati military now operates from the Assab base in Eritrea and smaller outposts on the Yemeni islands of Socotra and Perim. The UAE is also expanding its presence into Somaliland at the port of Berbera.
In 2008, Djibouti agreed to lease the Doraleh Container Port to Dubai-based company DP World.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia leased a base in the Haramous district of Djibouti City in April 2015 to support operations during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
On April 28, 2015, the UAE and Djibouti broke diplomatic relations due to a conflict between Emirati officials and the chief of Djibouti’s Air Force over the lease and after an Emirati plane landed at Djibouti’s Ambouli International Airport without authorization.
Longstanding strained relations exacerbated tensions between the two countries after Djibouti prematurely rescinded a 20-year agreement with Dubai’s DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal in 2014.
Djibouti ordered the eviction of UAE and Saudi troops from the country the following day.
On April 29, 2015, as Djibouti evicted Emirati troops, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz met with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to finalize a 30-year agreement to base Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) operations in Yemen out of Eritrea. The UAE conducted a heavy military buildup at the Assab base in Eritrea in May-July 2015. The UAE also undertook significant infrastructure developments at Assab, including the addition of new deep-water port facilities next to the airfield, the construction of a pier, the expansion of the airfield’s tarmac space and air traffic control system, and the rerouting of major highways and security perimeters around the base.
The UAE launched operations from Assab to retake Aden, Yemen in August 2015.
Emirati forces have also used the Assab base to train and equip thousands of Yemeni counterterrorism forces.
The UAE opened a military training center in Mogadishu in May 2015.
UAE Special Forces fund and operate the base with the goal of training a brigade of Somali National Army soldiers to combat al Shabaab. The facility and training program remain operational.
The UAE signed a 30-year lease on the Port of Berbera in Somaliland in February 2017. The base remains under construction, but Emirati ships have docked at the port. Emirati forces are using it to support operations in Yemen. The Yemeni al Houthi movement threatened to strike the Berbera port with ballistic missiles in December 2017.
Somali President Farmajo called for the cancellation of the Berbera contract in February 2017.
The UAE has funded police and intelligence operations in Puntland and Somaliland.
The UAE also took over the management and development of the Boosaaso port in the semi-autonomous Puntland state in October 2017.
The UAE confirmed the presence of its military forces on the Yemeni island of Socotra in May 2017.
President Hadi reportedly leased the islands of Socotra and nearby Perim and Abd al Kuri (part of the Socotra archipelago) to the UAE for 99 years before abdicating his position in 2014.
The UAE does not appear to be using Socotra to support operations in Yemen. It has only trained soldiers on the island thus far.
The UAE also is reportedly building an airstrip and related support facilities on Perim Island to support its operations in southern Yemen. The UAE has not yet established a presence Abd al Kuri.
China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti’s Gulf of Tadjoura on August 1, 2017.
China had used the port in Djibouti since February 2015 but negotiated permission for construction of a permanent military base with President Ismail Omar Guelleh in early 2015. The Chinese began construction on the base in early 2016 and completed construction in July 2017. Djibouti is attractive for numerous reasons, including its proximity to key shipping lanes through the Bab al Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal. Additionally, China’s new presence in Djibouti alongside major Western powers such as the United States, France, Spain, and Italy indicates its intent of maintaining military capabilities with global reach.
The current agreement ensures China’s right to maintain up to 10,000 soldiers in Djibouti through 2025. Approximately 1,000 personnel currently staff the base.
China has previously invested heavily in Djiboutian infrastructure, funding upgrades to ports and airports and financing 70% of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway.
China claims that the base will be used to support blue-helmeted peacekeepers and humanitarian operations in Africa, as well as anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. China will also likely use the base to protect its economic interests in the region and ensure safe shipping between East Africa and China.
China has approximately 2,200 personnel deployed in Africa and 500 others in the Middle East.
China claims to have escorted more than 6,000 ships through the Gulf of Aden.
Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu on September 30, 2017.
The Turkish military began construction on the base in 2015.
Turkey has announced its intention to use the base to train 10,000 Somali soldiers. The base reportedly has the capacity to train 1,500 personnel at a time.
Turkey claims that it intends to maintain only 200 troops at the base, but a Turkish official clarified that the opening of the base aligns with Turkey’s prioritization of weapons sales to new markets.
Turkey has previously cultivated a strong relationship with Somalia through a combination of direct investment and humanitarian aid.
Turkey’s only other operational foreign military base is in Qatar, which houses approximately 5,000 Turkish troops.
Sudan signed an agreement on December 26, 2017 to transfer responsibility for Suakin Island in the Red Sea to Turkey.
Turkey has stated its intent to build a naval dock on the island to support both military and commercial vessels, stating that the agreement “could result in any kind of military cooperation.”
The agreement prompted Egypt to deploy hundreds of troops, additional weapons, and military transport vehicles to the Sawa military base in Eritrea. Sudan responded by deploying thousands of troops to the border region of Kassala. Ethiopia similarly sent additional troops to the Eritrean border. The Suakin Island agreement followed decades of disagreement between Sudan and Egypt over the Halaib Triangle border region.
Watch how the new scramble for Africa has developed since 2010:
Jacqulyn Meyer Kantack,
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