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The Gulf Arabs’ military expansion in the Horn of Africa

December 31, 2016 at 11:30 am

The Strait of Hormuz, Between Iran, Oman and the UAE [Flickr: eutrophication&hypoxia]

At the start of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention in March 2015, the UAE and Djibouti fell out after an Emirati aircraft landed at Ambouli International Airport. Officials in Djibouti claimed that the aircraft landed without authorisation, which then led to them evicting Saudi and Emirati troops, allies in the Yemeni conflict, from a facility in Haramous.

The UAE subsequently closed its consulate in Djibouti and the two countries severed ties by the end of April. Subsequently, the UAE moved its plans to cement a military base in East Africa to Eritrea. While the states of the Arabian Gulf have always recognised their interests in the Red Sea, there has been a significant increase in their activities in the region over the past two years.

Why the Horn of Africa?

Having a military presence in the Horn of Africa is proving to show an increasing amount of importance for the economic and military security of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. Since the Saudi-led operation began in Yemen, securing the Red Sea has become a priority to cut the possibility of Houthis engaging in arms smuggling with neighbouring countries.

The Houthis engaging in illegal trafficking has been a wide-spread concern that has spanned many years. In 2013, UN monitors reported that Al-Shabab in Somalia received weapons from Iran via proxies in Yemen. They found that the majority of the weapons deliveries to the terrorist group were received from the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, which were then smuggled further south of the country into Al-Shabab strongholds.

While Iran almost immediately denied these claims and branded them as “absurd”, arms smugglers in Yemen have been caught arming Al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. One smuggler, in particular, is famous for this. Fares Mohammed Mana’a, a Yemeni arms smuggler who is from Sa’ada and affiliated with the Houthis, was mentioned in a UN Security Council list of people who have conducted arms trafficking with Al-Shabab.

These bases will not only help deter terrorism and Iranian arms smuggling in the region, but would also give the GCC countries easier access to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, along with giving them an alternative route to the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf (at risk of Iranian closure) via the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman.


There are currently three main countries that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their eyes on; Djibouti, Somaliland and Eritrea. After the diplomatic strife with Djibouti at the start of the Yemen war, Eritrea was quick to welcome Abu Dhabi to establish a military base in the port of Assab. Since its establishment, the port has been used by the UAE as a naval base, airbase, logistics hub and as a training hub.

The UAE is also looking to establish a base in the Port of Berbera in Somaliland. In September, the UAE announced that state-owned company Dubai Ports won a 30-year concession, with an automatic 10-year extension, for the management and development of the multi-purpose deep seaport. There are also plans to expand Berbera to include an Emirati naval and airbase.

Earlier this month, Djibouti’s foreign minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf announced that a Saudi base in Djibouti is set to open “very soon.” He took Saudi military leaders to areas to show them potential locations to establish the base. Despite the fact that Djibouti has had diplomatic fall outs with some GCC states, both Djibouti and Riyadh have mutual security interests in the matter. It would also open a door to Saudi investment in the country.

What next?

Further cooperation between East Africa and the GCC states should be expected. Saudi Arabia commonly uses soft-power tactics to lobby their interests with state and non-state actors in foreign countries. It is highly likely that Riyadh would want to ensure its security in the Red Sea through the expansion of military bases, and also find political alliances with the countries in the Horn of Africa.

In Djibouti, Saudi Arabia is known for being a large foreign sponsor and has helped construct houses, schools and mosques in various parts of the country. One of the means it uses is by utilising state-backed organisation World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The organisation says it has provided relief to over 370,000 people across the country. WAMY is also known for assisting Yemeni refugees in Djibouti, who began to migrate to the republic from the start of the 2015 war.

Judging by the trend of the UAE’s military ambitions since the start of the millennium, Abu Dhabi would most likely be the most ambitious GCC state in terms of military investments in the region. The Gulf countries would also have to compete with other nations such as China, Iran and even possibly Turkey who also seeks a greater presence in Africa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.