The United Arab Emirates plans to establish a military base in Somaliland, underlining the growing military and economic influence of the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in north-eastern Africa and the Gulf of Aden, writes Ed Blanche.
The Gulf countries’ military build-up in the area is a key element in their campaign to block Iran’s strategic expansion in the region. The Gulf states are part of a military coalition fighting Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia’s northern coast. Somaliland, a former British protectorate, is internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia.
In mid-February, Somaliland’s parliament overwhelmingly approved a UAE plan to build a major air and naval base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden under a 25-year renewable agreement signed in 2015 by Abu Dhabi and the government of the resource-poor northern Somalia republic.
The base would be the UAE’s second military outpost in the region, which is becoming a strategic interface between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it was between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In 2015, the Emiratis signed a 30-year lease with long-isolated Eritrea under which their military forces would operate from a base north-west of the port of Assab. That facility, only 60km across the Red Sea from Yemen, is planned to be an operational base for combat aircraft, attack helicopters, drones and naval ships. The UAE has been building up its military infrastructure in Eritrea for more than a year and has reportedly conducted operations in Yemen from Assab.
The Emirates and Saudi Arabia lead the Arab coalition that supports forces loyal to Yemen’s government-in-exile headed by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia is finalising an agreement to establish a military base in Djibouti, a strategic Muslim state midway between Assab and Berbera. The facility would help the Gulf countries escalate their war in Yemen.
The Gulf states’ military build-up in the region comes amid a sharp rise in tensions, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels firing missiles at US, UAE and Saudi vessels. An Emirati vessel was hit by a missile on October 1st and a Saudi frigate was hit by either a missile or a suicide attack on January 30th, killing two crewmen.
These attacks threaten shipping lanes that are strategic global trade arteries.
“The UAE has been building influence in the Horn since the mid- 2000s,” Alex Mello, senior analyst with the New York-based security consultancy Horizon Client Access, was quoted by Radio France Internationale as saying.He went on to suggest that the UAE might seek to expand its naval power in the region. “We’ll probably see the UAE develop more of a blue-water power projection capability,” Mello noted.
This article by Ed Blanche was first published in The Arab Weekly