The United Arab Emirates is proving to be a powerful actor in the northeast Africa peninsula which is home to several nations and self-declared states. It has secured two military bases, one in Eritrea and the other one in the Republic of Somaliland (but its independence is not recognised internationally), a strategic area for the fight the UAE is waging in in Yemen against Houthi rebels. Economies with limited resources like Somalia, the self-declared autonomous state of Puntland, and Somaliland enjoy the UAE's largesse in providing military equipment as well as extensive funding and training for its security and intelligence units.
The United Arab Emirates is developing a strong military foothold in the Horn of Africa.
Recently, it secured a renewable 25-year contract to establish an air and naval base in Somaliland's coastal city of Berbera.
Last year - in 2015 - the UAE signed a 30-year lease agreement for military use of the port of Assab in Eritrea.
When it comes to security cooperation, the UAE train and equip counterterrorism and security units in Somalia. And in Puntland, it paid to establish a maritime police force by providing training and equipment.
Alex Mello is the lead security analyst at Horizon Client Access, a security consultancy group based in New York. He says that the war in Yemen is the main reason why the UAE is fast expanding its military presence and influence in the Horn of Africa. The United Arab Emirates is fighting, since early 2015, alongside other Middle East nations against Houthi militias backed by Iran.
“The UAE has been building influence in the Horn since the mid-2000s," Mello said. "The military bases are just the latest phase. For years, the UAE has invested in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the Indian Ocean islands supporting tourism, port infrastructure, natural gas, food security and development aid.”
The port and air base in Eritrea’s port city of Assab is their main logistics hub for all their operations in Yemen. “This year, they’ve also begun developing it into what’s going to be a long-term, permanent base that will allow them to monitor naval traffic”, adds Mello.
The UAE’s military investment in the Horn of Africa seems to pay off. Alex Mello says it graduated from a local power into a regional force that has the capacity to do power projection far from the UAE homeland.
More mutual benefits to come
To what extent are Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, or Puntland benefitting from an Emirati military presence and influence?
According to Alex Mello Somalia could seek Emirati assistance to be more effective in fighting the Shabaab militia, a thorn in its side that just will not go away.
“The UAE has gained a lot of experience from operations in Afghanistan and Yemen in local level counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism work. In a sense, they have an advantage, over the United States for example, because they are more familiar with the terrain.”
Furthermore, Mello said, the military and security aid ties in with the economic aspect: “The air and naval base in Somaliland is being built now after the UAE won a very big contract in May to manage and expand the port of Berbera.”
The 30-year contract won by Dubai Ports World will help break up Djibouti’s monopoly on land-locked Ethiopia’s freight and, if it works out, will prove to be economically very lucrative for Somaliland.
Mello believes that the United Arab Emirates is beginning to emerge as a powerful actor in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
“It’s been really interesting to see how their presence there has evolved from the 2000s to where we are now. And I think it will definitely expand in the coming years. We’ll probably see the UAE develop more of a blue-water power projection capability. They are going to expand their navy in the next couple of years and that will allow them to really project power all along the East African seaboard, the Indian Ocean. That comes with increased economic influence in the area.”
You may follow Alex Mello on Twitter @AlexMello02
You may follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt