By Awad Mustafa
Two overseas Arab military garrisons are being established to secure a hold over one of the world’s most crucial chokepoints, right across the waters from Arabia.
The military expansion is a clear reflection of a need felt across the Gulf Arab capitals to regain control of their own security, due to the deteriorating security situation in a region that has been dramatically divided, even before the 2011 Arab Spring, that it is susceptible to the fast-changing global paradigm.
On February 12 this year, the United Arab Emirates secured a foreign military base 278 kilometers south of the Bab El Mandeb strait in the autonomous northern Somali region of Somaliland.
This comes less than two years after they negotiated to establish their first foreign military base in 2015 at Assab port in Eritrea, 106 kilometers north of Bab El Mandeb.
This effectively makes the UAE the eleventh member of an exclusive group of nations with military capabilities permanently stationed beyond their borders as well as giving it a choke hold over one of the world’s most strategic maritime routes.
The strait is one of the world’s most precarious oil chokepoints right now.
Only 28.9 kilometers wide at its narrowest point from Ras Siyyan in Djibouti to Yemen’s Ras Menheli, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and ultimately to the Indian Ocean. The geostrategic importance of this particular strait lies in the fact that it is one of the world’s eight oil chokepoints with nearly 4.7 million barrels of oil and hydrocarbon products passing through it on daily basis. Any instability could force tankers to travel around the southern tip of Africa.
Moreover, it not only is the maritime backdoor for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also Egypt’s source of billions in dollars of revenue through the Suez Canal which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Should the navigation across the strait be jeopardized, then it is most certainly going to impact the aforementioned states; not to forget that the current Saudi-Iranian conflict, which has seen its height in the proxy war fought in Yemen, is but another reason as to why Riyadh would not want Tehran to control Bab El Mandeb via Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
A GCC CRISIS SPILLOVER
Two weeks ago, onJune 17, Eretria, whose shorelines overlook the Strait of Bab El Mandeb, said it was baffled as to why Qatar would withdraw its peacekeeping forces stationed in the country along the contested borders with Djibouti in East Africa.
Doha had in fact worked as a mediator between both African countries that were engaged in a military conflict over a territorial dispute. Qatar agreed to dispatch 450 soldiers in 2011 to work as a peacekeeping force there, but had withdrawn its soldiers last month.
Qatar’s decision to withdraw its troops came after Asmara denied Qatari media reports that Eritrea supports Qatar in the current GCC crisis, against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The four aforementioned countries accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and radical groups and individuals in addition to working on destabilizing the region.
The GCC rift has also seen the three GCC nations, in addition to Egypt, banning Qatar from using their air, land and maritime spaces, which has put the latter in a form of isolation, leaving one exit for it: Iran, across the gulf waters.
Eritrea’s own Minister of Foreign Affairs said that Qatar had withdrawn its troops around 12 and 13 June
According to a statement issued by the Eritrean Information Ministry, the government described Doha’s decision as being “rash.”
Diplomatic sources tell Newsweek Middle East that Saudi Arabia and even the UAE may replace the Qatari peacekeeping troops in Eritrea, but the information remain unconfirmed.
Meanwhile, Eritrea says it now has full control over Mount Demeira and the Island of Demira, the two contested territories with Djibouti, which has added fuel to the fire that is already simmering in that region.
According to Stephan Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN Secretary General, the GCC conflict has now started to impact the “African side of the Strait of Bab El Mandeb.”
Speaking at a press conference held at the UN headquarters in New York, Dujarric added: “We have received two letters from both Djibouti and Eritrea [with regard to their territorial dispute]… and this is an example to the spillover of the conflict in the GCC region, and it is worrying.”
The Somaliland Parliament vote in February to grant the UAE the right to build an air and naval base in the port town of Berbera will see the development of a 40-square kilometers military development, according to the plan presented by the UAE military to the Somaliland government during negotiations.
Discussions have been ongoing between the UAE and Somaliland for over two years according to Senator Ahmed Dirre Ali, a member of the Guurti, the Somaliland Upper House of Parliament.
“The discussions on the base were ongoing for two or three years, the UAE has approached the government and Somaliland has responded positively,” Ali told Newsweek Middle East.
Somaliland government officials culminated the discussions in a September 2016 with a memorandum of understanding during a high-level secret visit to Abu Dhabi.
The base will be located in the current premise of Berbera Airport, which has one of the longest runways in Africa at 4.14 km and extends all the way to the coast.
It is worth noting that the runway at Berbera airport was developed in the 70’s by the Soviet Union to counter American expansion in the region. In the 1980’s, however, NASA rented it as an emergency-landing runway for its Space Shuttle program.
The current facilities at the location will require dredging to set up docking bays for military vessels. But that shouldn’t be a problem since the base is located right next to Berbera Port which, in May last year, signed a $442 million development and operation plan with UAE’s Dubai Ports World.
The military base discussions go hand in hand with the DP World agreements, according to Ambassador Bashe Omar, director of the Somaliland Trade Office in Dubai.
“The discussions focused on the commercial and security side of things, the government weighed the security and commercial aspects from every angle,” Omar told Newsweek MiddleEast.
He added that the UAE was looking to secure the Gulf of Aden, and Somaliland in turn wanted to secure their own coast.
“Strategically, the Gulf of Aden is unstable at this time; therefore, the UAE has chosen to set up base, and for Somaliland we have agreed to the security presence to stop illegal dumping on our waters as well as illegal fishing,” Omar said.
“We have an 850 kilometer coastline without the necessary naval or coast guard presence,” he added.
Monopolizing the Military Bases
According to Omar, Somaliland is also happy to present its land to other friendly countries looking to set up military bases to break the Djibouti monopoly in the region.
The base developments have been facing a fierce resistance from Djibouti and Somalia.
On March 4, the ambassador to Somalia was recalled in protest to demands made by the Mogadishu government to stop the development of a military base in the semi-autonomous northern region of Somaliland.
One source has confirmed the arrival of Ambassador Mohammed Al Hammadi to Abu Dhabi on March 4 based on orders by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The move comes after newly elected Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo requested last week the intervention of Saudi Arabia to persuade the UAE not to complete the establishment of a military base in Somaliland.
Ambassador Omar said that the Somali move came at the request of the Djibouti government.
“Djibouti seeks to have a monopoly over foreign military bases in the Horn of Africa,” he said.
And despite the protest, the UAE is continuing to grow its military and commercial expansion.
On March 10, the Puntland government announced that the UAE is close to winning a concession for the development and operation of Bosaso port, giving them another strategic gate way to East Africa overlooking the Gulf of Aden.
The concession comes after the UAE has funded the establishment of the Puntland Maritime Protection Force in 2010 and donated three second-hand Ayres S2R Thrush aircraft to conduct maritime surveillance and security patrols.
Operations from the Berbera base may well start this year, according to Alex Mello, a security analyst at New York based Horizon Client Access, who has recently been to Eritrea following the Assab base development.
“Fixed wing operations can start this year because it can be set up faster in Berbera due to the large existing runway, we can see it happen by the third or fourth quarter of the year,” Mello said.
Rotary winged aircrafts were already conducting operations two months after the deal was approved in Assab, therefore they may be quick to start in Berbera, according to him.
“Assab base development is 75 percent complete, the UAE started work in the spring of 2015,” he added.
Mello’s assessment for the completion of the naval port facilities is 18 months in Assab to dock corvette class ships and frigates, currently only landing ships are docked there.
A new control tower has been completed and more hangars for fixed wing aircrafts have started operating.
The UAE military’s projection and logistics capabilities allows it to operate very quickly.
After the Eritrea deal was approved in April 2015, the UAE was able to shift a whole brigade in to Assab, and by August 2015, deploy it to Aden in Yemen for combat operations.
The UAE’s commitment to Somaliland over the next 25 years will include military training for their police and security forces.
“There is an agreement that [the UAE military] will train our local security forces as well as the military to a level that protects the whole country,” said Ali.
“They have to train our forces because they will not be able to do everything alone, they need extra security from our side,” he added.
Furthermore, the UAE will be protecting the Somaliland coast and providing naval training and equipment to the local forces.
The agreement also dictates that investments in education, health, energy and water will be made by the UAE in addition to infrastructure development projects that include a modern highway between Berbera and the town of Wajaale on the Ethiopian border.
The UAE’s investments in the country complement their foreign policy in the region.
“The UAE’s strategy in East Africa is fourfold; building security alliances, investment diversification, strategic resource insurance, and soft power promotion,” said Matthew Hedges, an analyst with Washington based geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf States Analytics.
The UAE is becoming more and more dependent on the African market, trade has increased three fold from $5.5 billion to $17.5 bln between 2005 and 2014, according to Dr. Carlos Lopes of the Economic Commission for Africa.
“That represents more than a threefold increase within a decade and shows a clear trend towards deepening economic relations between Africa and UAE. In addition, the share of UAE in Africa’s total trade with the world increased from 1.0 per cent in 2005 to 1.5 per cent in 2014,” he had told Newsweek Middle East in 2016.
According to a UAE government source, the establishment of the two bases is being viewed as a matter of national security.
“A large segment of the UAE’s natural resources come from Africa and we need to ensure they reach our ports,” the source said speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The major resources from Africa are aluminum and steel which will represent more than 60 percent of our imports from Africa leading up to 2021,” he added
From a security perspective, Hedges said, the uptake in piracy off Somalia’s coast in the 2000’s critically impacted the UAE’s economy and trade.
Any piracy or military activity in the area has to be viewed as a national security threat.
ACTS OF PIRACY
Recently a combination of piracy attacks and anti-ship rockets have been reported in 2016 and even early March 2017, are expected to escalate.
“The situation in the strait is likely to escalate, leaving both naval and civilian vessels at risk. The seriousness of this is compounded by the trouble naval forces will have in effectively responding to the asymmetric threat,” James Pothecary, Political Risk Analyst with Allan & Associates, said in a report published in November last year.
The attacks on the strait have been compounded by a recent revelation of Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
The attack on Saudi frigate Al Madinah on January 30 was conducted by an explosive laden unmanned remote controlled boat.
He told Defense News last month that this appears to be the first confirmed use of the weapon which represents a wider threat than that posed by suicide boats.
The threats in the area are not limited to piracy or Houthi attacks, but according to Alex Mello, Iranian boats have been smuggling contraband and weapons through the narrow strait.
“Berbera base would be used to support operations in that area to secure the waters,” he said.
As it stands today, the two bases in Assab and Berbera would provide the UAE with a large deployment capability, which includes air, sea and land assets around the strait.