A United Arab Emirates military base in the self-declared republic of Somaliland will begin operating by June and include a coastal-surveillance system, according to a diplomat involved in talks for the facility.
The U.A.E. is growing its military presence in the Horn of Africa to help protect trade flows through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a key shipping lane used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels en route to the Suez Canal. Emirati footholds in Somaliland and Eritrea provide strategic locations as the U.A.E. supports the Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The surveillance system will be used to protect the base in the Somaliland port town of Berbera and monitor the territory’s 800-kilometer (500-mile) coastline, former ambassador to the U.A.E. Bashe Awil Omar said. Pirates have hijacked vessels off Somaliland’s coast, including the seizure of a vesselin March 2017.
“The U.A.E. military base will help the whole region — piracy, illegal fishing, toxic dumping: we don’t have resources to watch our coast,” Bashe said in an interview in Somaliland’s main city of Hargeisa. “The U.A.E. has become the hub of the whole region in terms of trade. For the U.A.E. to secure that strategic position, it cannot do that if it does not secure the lifeline of trade.”
The 42 square-kilometer (16 square-mile) facility will consist of a naval base and two parallel runways, he said. Situated adjacent to a port operated by state-owned DP World Ltd., its first runway of 4.9-kilometers is almost 60 percent complete, according to Bashe, who moved to the post of ambassador to Kenya in August.
The U.A.E. is separately expected to train the Somaliland coastguard, Bashe said.
“With the DP World development activity, we now hope to get a big piece of the cake,” Captain Abdullah Omar, an adviser to the Somaliland coastguard, said in an interview. “We are the only entity that has the legal right to police and implement the law of the sea on the Somaliland coast.”
The U.A.E. Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. Abdulla Darwish, managing director of Sharjah-based Divers Marine Contracting LLC, who said in an interview last year that his company was awarded a $90 million construction contract for the naval base, didn’t respond to two requests for comment sent to his mobile phone.
The facility will include a 300-meter (984-foot) L-shaped jetty “to support the military airport” Darwish said last year. The jetty is 75 percent complete, according to Bashe, who’s visited the military base.
The Somaliland base has been under discussion since 2016, when former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn expressed Ethiopian unease about a U.A.E. base being established in the Eritrean port town of Assab and asked the Emirati government to consider switching the facility to Berbera, according to Bashe. Former sworn enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea this year agreed a rapprochement.
Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Meles Alem didn’t respond to two calls and two text messages seeking comment.
The U.A.E. was given the lease for the military airport in May 2016 “in exchange for funding in various projects” provided by the U.A.E. government represented by the Abu Dhabi Fund for International Development, Bashe said.
Hailemariam’s request for the U.A.E. to go to Berbera instead of Assab reached “the highest levels” in Abu Dhabi, Bashe said. The emirate is led by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Talks followed with “key” Abu Dhabi ministers, he said.
United Nations investigators of sanctions on Eritrea and Somalia said in a draft report to the UN Security Council that satellite imagery of Assab indicated the continued presence of multiple naval vessels. It noted the continued expansion of the base.
“Berbera and Assab could be entry points for the U.A.E.,” Bashe said. “Ethiopia is very important to them in terms of trade.’’
— With assistance by Zainab Fattah
(Updates with comment by diplomat from first paragraph after Military Training subheadline.)