Recently, the Red Sea has witnessed everything but an exodus of interest from regional and global actors. With a significant volume of oil flowing through the Bab-el-Mandeb (Mandeb Strait) (including half of China’s total oil imports) and internal military conflicts in nearby South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, the Red Sea is vital to the foreign policy interests of the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran, among others. As a result, numerous nations have established naval bases along the African coast of the Red Sea to support anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations, as well as direct military intervention in intrastate conflicts. Djibouti, for example, has foreign military bases (or an agreement to establish one) with eight nations. These nations include the United States, whose only permanent base in Africa is in Djibouti, China (its first overseas military base), and Saudi Arabia. The UAE, meanwhile, has already established a naval base in nearby Eritrea, and is set to follow suit in Somaliland.
At first glance, it appears the Horn of Africa will benefit enormously from the economic and defense developments that come with foreign military bases. As economically underdeveloped and politically unstable nations, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland have understandably embraced this foreign interest as a potential solution to pressing needs. In the long-term, however, the influx of foreign bases in the Horn of Africa could potentially destabilize the region by aggravating political tensions and increasing the capacity of African states to wage war.
For better or for worse, it seems unlikely that African Red Sea nations will close their shores to foreign militaries. As a tiny nation with an absence of natural resources, Djibouti has few avenues for economic growth outside of exploiting its geostrategic location near the Bab-el-Mandeb. In addition to the direct monetary gain from leasing land, foreign bases bring employment opportunities for Djibouti’s citizens and increased trade with the bases’ home nations. This is especially significant given that port activity makes up 70% of Djibouti’s GDP. Eritrea similarly finds these economic incentives enticing, especially since its abusive government has made the nation a target for international sanctions. UAE’s military base provides a rare chance for Eritrea to receive outside economic investment and to potentially open up the nation to further integration with the global market. As an unrecognized state, Somaliland likewise finds itself starved of international investment. Again, the UAE naval base satisfies this economic need while simultaneously legitimizing Somaliland’s independence. In fact, the deal was negotiated directly between the two polities, rather than going through Somalia proper.
With foreign economic investment and political legitimacy as primary developmental goals, African Red Sea nations are unlikely to abstain from the foreign military build-up. Typically, economic development is associated with stability; but with militarization at the center of Red Sea development, the possibility of violence inherently heightens. Bringing adversarial nations into close proximity is the most obvious danger. China’s claim to islands in the South China Sea has resulted in numerous maritime disputes, including a recent incident with a US warship. If Iran were to establish a base, possibly in Sudan or a pro-Iranian Yemen, it could come into confrontation with Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The narrowness of the Red Sea will only compound the congestion caused by the high number of naval forces present.
More importantly, the establishment of naval bases and the related economic development will mold the diplomatic situation in the Horn. While foreign investments in ports or airports might seem like a way to connect African Red Sea nations and develop region-wide interdependence, these projects will only intensify competition between nations in the Horn and exacerbate political rivalries. The UAE is perhaps the most involved force here; in addition to its naval bases in Somaliland and Eritrea and related infrastructure buildup, it provides some military aid to Puntland (an autonomous region of Somalia supporting a unified Somalia) and the Somali federal government. The UAE’s base in Somaliland, for instance, antagonizes Somalia and the United States, a key supporter of a unified Somalia. While Puntland and Somalia receive UAE aid as well, a legitimized Somaliland could draw their ire and outweigh the perceived benefits of UAE’s help. Djibouti does not benefit from a strengthened Somaliland either. The country currently serves as Ethiopia’s main port, a position that could be undermined by a developed Somaliland port. The UAE base in Eritrea is a similar case: its economic empowerment directly threatens Djibouti and Ethiopia, further worsening already flimsy relations.
China’s investment projects in Djibouti additionally furthers this political divide. China has heavily invested in Djibouti, providing substantial loans and resources for projects like the Ethiopia-Djibouti water pipeline, the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway, and the Ethiopia-Djibouti oil pipeline. These projects, of course, solidify the economic interdependency of Ethiopia and Djibouti and exclude neighboring Eritrea and Somaliland. A strengthened Djibouti-Ethiopia partnership, coupled with UAE aid to Eritrea, means neither side has any imperative to mend relations for economic gain. Instead, the divide will only become more pronounced as a result of foreign investment. UAE investment in Somaliland’s Berbera port does have the potential to connect Somaliland to Ethiopia, yet this venture upsets other nations. Ethiopia likely views UAE involvement in Somaliland as infringing on its sphere of influence. Djibouti will also react negatively to UAE investment, which degrades Djibouti’s status as Ethiopia’s main port.
By blocking economic ties, the worsening relations between nations in the Horn is itself a problem for regional development. But when viewed in conjunction with the militarization of these nations, the risk of direct military confrontation becomes a more realistic danger. Nations in the Horn can be characterized as lacking strong militaries, reducing their capacity to engage in military conflicts. Somaliland and Puntland, for example, only engaged in military conflicts as their armies developed. This is due, in part, to the inability of either entity to muster enough military power to vie for control over disputed territory. The military buildup along the Red Sea changes this dynamic throughout the region. As part of its deal with the UAE, for example, Somaliland received military training and equipment. More importantly, it also formed a defensive pact whereby the UAE would provide direct military support if Somaliland were threatened. With Puntland and Somalia also receiving military aid, both sides of a potential conflict are more effectively armed. The same can be said of the Eritrea and Djibouti/Ethiopia rivalry, where the latter receives military aid as part of its various naval base drills.
It appears a vicious cycle is developing, with the military build-up of one actor prompting the further militarization of another. African nations themselves have been driving each other towards an arms race, each seeking advantages over regional rivals. The powers establishing bases are not immune to this either. For example, Russian interest in establishing a military base in Djibouti led the US to expand its military base and increase payment to Djibouti to sabotage a Russian-Djibouti deal. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also build bases in part to block Iran from setting up in the Horn of Africa. In response to China’s military base, Japan is also planning to expand its base in Djibouti.
This web of foreign interests and alliances means any direct military conflict in Africa will expand beyond the continent. The alliances and close relations that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have developed with Eritrea/Somaliland and Djibouti, respectively, could internationalize any wars that occur. Across the Red Sea in Yemen, the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran has intensified the Yemeni Civil War, turning it into an extremely bloody war with a devastating impact on civilian populations. The UAE intervention in a Somaliland conflict might be similarly brutal.
Conflicts in the Horn could strain relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well. The UAE’s association with Eritrea and poor relations with Djibouti are at odds with Saudi Arabia’s warm partnership with Djibouti. While Saudi Arabia does have dealings with Eritrea, an Eritrea-Djibouti conflict could leave Saudi Arabia and UAE supporting opposite sides. A proxy war across the Red Sea could very well establish a rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Just as various Gulf states turned on Qatar recently, Gulf states might also be forced to pick sides in an escalated UAE-Saudi rivalry, potentially fracturing the Gulf Cooperation Council. Alternatively, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could themselves instigate proxy wars in the Horn. With increasing military influence in Africa, either nation could attempt to outmaneuver the other in the Horn should relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia deteriorate.
The Horn of Africa is undergoing rapid growth, with foreign investment as its major driving force. But Red Sea African nations, as well as nations establishing bases, should be wary of the potentially devastating political consequences that could arise. Unfortunately, the Horn is not in a particularly powerful position to selectively choose military partners, and Arab and global players are focused on gaining advantages over rivals. For the Red Sea, the water is murky. On one hand, lucrative trade and wealth. On the other, increased political tensions and war.