Troubled waters: Ports and power in the Horn of Africa

Troubled waters: Ports and power in the Horn of Africa
Analysis: Ports in the Horn of Africa risk becoming new flashpoints in Middle East rivalries.
6 min read
If railroads shaped the last century, ports are shaping the current one. [Getty]
If railroads shaped the last century, ports are shaping the current one. In a world where over 90 percent of international trade relies on maritime transport, ports are essential instruments in terms of accessing the global economy and its benefits. 

This fact is most relevant to regions located along key maritime commercial routes such as the Red Sea. Over ten percent of international trade moves through this waterway, making it one of the world's most strategically prized bodies of water. 

The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are the new hub of harbour investments. Djibouti City used to be the only large port facility around the Bab El-Mandab Strait (Gate of Tears), especially after the Yemeni civil war reduced Aden and Hodeidah's scope. But throughout the past five years, Djibouti's neighbours have launched several new projects with the support of external actors.

Foreign investment in East African ports came to reflect investors' commercial and strategic interests. Consequently, East African ports risk becoming new flashpoints in Middle Eastern rivalries.

The scramble for East African ports

First and foremost, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) initiated the race to control East Africa's ports. For its port development plans, the UAE could count not only on its enormous financial resources, but also on the expertise of Dubai Ports World (DP World), a global giant of port management linked to the Emirati ruling families. 

Over 90 percent of international trade relies on maritime transport

Since 2015, a mix of military and economic concerns have driven Abu Dhabi into the Horn of Africa's ports. Militarily, the UAE had the necessity for installations where the Emiratis could station their air and naval forces fighting in Yemen.

Abu Dhabi's move sought to eliminate Iran's presence in the Bab El-Mandab area, especially in Eritrea, and counter arms smuggling in support of the Houthis. Economically, Horn states were in strong demand for new port infrastructure to shore up their fast growth, especially landlocked Ethiopia. Lastly, the diplomatic quarrel with Djibouti, which eventually ended Emirati investments and military deployment in the country, was another reason for Abu Dhabi to diversify. 

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In 2018, DP World allegedly obtained a 30-year concession to develop the Eritrean port of Assab, where the Emirati navy and air force had already deployed some units. DP World also took over Berbera in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, Somalia's breakaway region. Stipulated in 2016, this concession envisaged a $442 million investment to develop Berbera port infrastructure.

The Emiratis also built a parallel military airport, which could soon be turned into a civilian facility. In 2017, DP World signed a similar contract with the Puntland state government, northeastern Somalia, to expand and manage the port of Bosaso, located in northeastern Somalia.

Again, a parallel security agreement, which provided for the training of Puntland's maritime police, spearheaded this concession. Within this context, investing in port infrastructure has become a key component of Abu Dhabi's Horn of Africa foreign policy.

Similar to the UAE's port grab, Qatar followed suit. In the Spring of 2018, Sudan signed a $4 billion contract with Mwani Qatar to modernise the port of Suakin. The state-owned Qatari firm expected Suakin to develop into the Red Sea's largest port. Yet the project remains far from completion.

At a time of simmering rivalries in the Middle East, the scramble for ports can jeopardise regional security by raising the risk of dangerous incidents

Doha took a similar step to fend off the UAE's advance in Somalia. In late 2018, Mogadishu announced a joint Somali-Qatari investment to build a port and a free zone in Hobyo, some 500 kilometres northeast of Mogadishu. This investment was coupled with the donation of 68 Qatari armoured vehicles to the Somalia government.

Turkey's investments in Horn of Africa ports followed Qatar's, but with a more militarised approach. Like Qatar, Ankara pinned down a leasing contract providing for the development of Suakin's port infrastructures in 2017.

Besides the $650 million investment, Turkey obtained the right to station military forces in the port, although according to some sources the clause was apparently set aside after former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's ouster. Furthermore, a Turkish company has been operating the port of Mogadishu since 2014. In the meantime, Ankara opened a military training facility in the Somali capital as well. 

Read more: Divide and survive: Ethiopia's relations with the Gulf and Turkey

Given that Suakin Island was under Ottoman control from 1555 to 1865, the "return" of the Turks to this Red Sea port contributed to Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian perceptions of Ankara threatening Arab nations with so-called Turkish expansionism. Whereas Turkey regularly presents its role in the Horn of Africa as "enterprising and humanitarian", Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo see Ankara waging a "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa.  

Civilian-military nexus and maritime (in)security

Countries in the Horn of Africa certainly require additional port infrastructure to underpin their economic growth. The Port of Berbera already signed contracts with major shipping firms, including Maersk and PIL. Nonetheless, the proliferation of ports around the Bab El-Mandab Strait does not seem to follow any pure economic rationale. Given their staggering value, investments consolidate alliances between investors and beneficiary governments. 

All contracts are indeed awarded in aligned states, like Eritrea, Somaliland, and Puntland for the UAE; and Somalia and Sudan for Qatar and Turkey. As an official in the UAE's Foreign Ministry stated, the strategy is to "fill space, before others do." A trilateral meeting between Turkey, Qatar, and Somalia's heads of state in Doha at the start of this month was further confirmation of the deep links between investments and strategic partnerships. 

Africa's east coast now sees a spate of port development projects supported by rival powerhouses

The frequent presence of military facilities alongside harbour investments is another telling factor. Although oft-cited piracy and terrorism concerns cannot be dismissed, numerous Western naval units have for years been patrolling the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Consequently, the Emirati, Qatari, and Turkish footholds around East African ports seem aimed at controlling strategic hotspots and the ouster of regional rivals.

This civilian-military presence lays the foundation to assert potential spheres of influence as much on African coastal states as on adjacent maritime routes. At a time of simmering rivalries in the Middle East - specifically in the Gulf sub-region - the scramble for ports can jeopardise regional security by raising the risk of dangerous incidents.

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The UAE's unprecedented activity in Africa

Suakin and Bosaso could become the next flashpoints. Experts believe that the concessions to Qatar and Turkey for Suakin might be reviewed after the Sudanese transitional government was sworn in.

This would be one of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's requests in exchange for $3 billion, which these two Gulf capitals pledged to Khartoum last year. Moreover, DP World is reportedly seeking a concession to operate the South Terminal in Port Sudan, the country's main port, situated less than 50 kilometres away from Suakin.  

On the other hand, a car bomb and a shooting targeted DP World personnel in Bosaso last year. Islamist militant group al-Shabab and a local pro-IS faction claimed responsibility, but some allege regional rivalries were at play. If confirmed, the news would be a daunting signal for regional stability in the Horn of Africa. 

The UAE has paved the way to a new field of competition in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden basin. Africa's east coast now sees a spate of port development projects supported by rival powerhouses and often coupled with military infrastructure. Evidentially, the geopolitics of ports can negatively impact regional peace and maritime security.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Corrado Cok is an intern at Gulf State Analytics. He previously worked in Djibouti, where he researched the Red Sea's geopolitics and Arabian-East African relations.