Several recent developments but mostly the increasing military presence of some powerful international actors are attracting the analysts’ attention towards the Horn of Africa, one of the most complex and conflicted regions of the world.

For the last 150 years, the Horn has been a theater for strategic power struggles: the British Empire’s demand to control the Red Sea, Egypt’s attempt to control the Nile Waters, the Cold War confrontation in which each of the principal countries of the Horn switched sides, and most recently the U.S. Administration’s “Global War on Terror.” The civil war in Yemen added Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the interested actors. Also, China became interested to add a military presence to its economic expansion in the region.

Each of the countries of the Horn Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan suffers from protracted political strife, arising from local and national grievance, identity politics and regional inter-state rivalries.

The most recent example is the civil war in the newly-created state of South Sudan, which became independent in July 2011 and where civil war erupted in 2013. Although a fragile peace agreement was signed in 2015, violence started up again in July 2016, between forces of the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir (who are mostly Dinka), and rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar (who are mainly Nuer). Also, a famine was declared in the country (as well as several others in the region) on February 20th. In the first week of March as many as 3,000 people were crossing the border to Uganda each day to escape fighting. In 2016, Uganda accepted more people from South Sudan (489,000) than crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe (362,000).

In this context, observers noted the March 2017 East African tour (including Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya) of British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, in preparation of a ‘London Conference on Somalia’, which Britain will host next May following a similar summit held in 2013.

The London summit is taking place in the context of the recent announcement of the EU that it plans to roll back its support to AMISOM (the UN and EU-funded force in Somalia that battles against the Somali militant group al-Shabaab) and cut the soldiers’ pay by 20 percent.

However, for Europe, alongside maritime security, the Horn of Africa is important for its main problems. One is the violent extremism represented by al-Shabaab, against which the EU funding of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is the single biggest European security expenditure on the continent. The second issue is migration, since Eritreans fleeing their despotic government are the third largest group of refugees arriving in Europe, behind Syrians and Afghans.

A region that spells trouble

The easternmost projection of the African continent, the Horn of Africa goes some hundreds of kilometers into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, lying along the southern side of the Gulf of Aden. The area contains the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Its surface is of approx. 2,000,000 km2 (770,000 sq mi) and its population is of approx. 115 million people (Ethiopia: 96.6 million, Somalia: 12.3 million, Eritrea: 6.4 million, and Djibouti: 0.81 million). Geopolitics enlarges the definition of Horn to “the Greater Horn” by attaching Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan.

The Horn of Africa has close ties with the oil-rich states in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as with Egypt. The Horn controls the Bab-el-Mandeb (Gate of Tears) Strait which is one of the important global transportation routes, dominates part of the Gulf of Aden, the gateway between the Mediterranean with Suez and the Indian Ocean. It is estimated that 12.5-20% of the world’s trade travels through the Gulf of Aden.

An estimated 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through the straits every day, 4% of the world’s oil trade, from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, and onwards to the Mediterranean Sea, Europe and beyond.

A large portion of trade passes through Djibouti waters and its prime port location allows it to control a major proportion of the exportation traffic sailing from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The port of Djibouti is also important for East Africa’s, especially Ethiopia’s exports to any Arabic, European, and Asian countries. According to recent estimations, 70% of trade activity at Djibouti’s port is comprised of Ethiopian exports. Furthermore, 95% of Ethiopian trade runs through Djibouti’s port, making it key to the growth of Ethiopia’s economy and vital as a link between Ethiopia and its main trading partners Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The coastal Horn states have both a maritime and a mainland importance, since their territories can be simultaneously used to exert influence along the waterway and the regional interior. Furthermore, as it relates to the Red Sea, this body of water occupies a crucial role in China’s grand strategy because it serves as the most geographically convenient route for facilitating the transit of goods between the East Asian state and the EU.

A history of tense relationships

The Horn of Africa has never historically defined itself as a region. It is diverse in physical and human geography, with extraordinary linguistic diversity, and with equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. Its peoples are linked to Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean and more recently to Europe and America. But they rarely convene as the people of the Horn. Rather, the Horn of Africa has been defined by outsiders as a fragmented region that spells trouble.

One of the most striking things about the Horn is that there is no regional organization that can grapple with its security challenges. The African Union does not cross the Red Sea. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) includes the countries of the Horn, but not Egypt an historic powerbroker, with strategic interests in the Nile and the Red Sea and also is confined to the African shore. The Arab League is not effective, which is one reason why the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is using financial muscle to win African countries to support its operations. Ethiopia, the pivotal state of the Horn, is landlocked and fears being surrounded by hostile states backed by historic rivals such as Egypt.

1. The Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship is still marked by Eritrea’s three-decade-long secessionist war against Ethiopia, which ended in 1993. This war was rooted during the imperial period when the Kingdom of Italy annexed Eritrea from the larger civilization-state of Abyssinia in 1890, thenceforth giving it a sense of identity separateness from Ethiopia. Addis Ababa’s unilateral 1962 abolishment of the ten-year-old Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea sparked the separatist war and the two countries remained at odds with one another. Hostilities broke again from 1998-2000, and ended in what has been described as a lingering stalemate.

In the years since, Ethiopia and Eritrea remained each other’s primary enemy, and analysts estimate that the two countries might go into war at a moment’s notice. It is considered the most destabilizing factor in the Horn of Africa, since the situation might be exploited by external powers as a means of acquiring leverage over Ethiopia by pushing Eritrea into instigating a renewed round of debilitating violence.

2. While considered positive and pragmatic at the government-to-government level,Ethiopia’s relations with Somalia are still marked by the idea of “Greater Somalia” that has captivated some Somalis on both sides of the border and led to the Ogaden War (1977-1978) over the status of Somalis in Ethiopia’s sparsely populated eastern region which has now been revealed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits. This conflict is notable for being the last conventional attempt to create the “Greater Somalia” and also as being the only time when the Soviets and Americans switched sides during a proxy war.

Ethiopia’s 2006 anti-terrorist intervention and its three-year occupation of Somalia led to a surge in Somali nationalism, which favored the development of al-Shabaab, a group which blended anti-Ethiopian sentiment, Somali nationalism and Islamic extremism in creating one of the terrorist groups most feared in Africa. The appeal of Somali nationalism is dangerous for Ethiopia and can easily be used by external actors to engineer destabilization inside this country.

3. A positive relationship in the region is between Ethiopia and Djibouti, two countries “tied” to one another due to regional circumstances. Ethiopia lost all of its coastal territory with Eritrea’s independence and became a landlocked state, which cannot use its main enemy’s territory and is also unable to use Somalia because of the instability and terrorist threat (it has made some steps to use the port of Berbera in the autonomous self-proclaimed state of Somaliland).

China’s project of building the Ethiopia-Djibouti railroad turned Djibouti into a literal “bottleneck” state, opening up the economic possibilities of its southern neighbor. Djiboutian stability is important for Ethiopia’s strategic security, and for this reason bilateral relations will remain close for the future. Djibouti benefits from this relationship by profiting from its transit state status. However, by functioning as Ethiopia’s critical link to the outside world, Djibouti could also end up being targeted by Eritrea or by Somali-based terrorist groups.

3. Eritrea and Djibouti do not have positive relations and even fought a border war in 2008. Following the UN agreement, Qatar has deployed troops to both countries in order to mediate the conflict and has remained in the region since 2010. Eritrea’s relations with Djibouti may also be seen in the context of its regional proxy war with Ethiopia.

4. Djibouti’s relations with Somalia are friendly, despite Mogadishu having no de facto control over the border region with the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland. The fact that Djibouti is mostly populated by the Issa clan, which itself is regarded as a sub-group of the Somalis, might be used by al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups violently targeting the country’s nationals and infrastructure projects for a supposed cause of “Greater Somalia.” Still, the relatively better policed and more closely administrated Somaliland region inhibits al-Shabaab’s direct movement to Djibouti.

5. Eritrea’s relations with Somalia are also marked by the so-called “proxy battleground mentality” with Asmara using whatever means to destabilize Addis Ababa. It can be argued that Eritrea benefits more from Somalia’s instability and the prevalence of militant non-state actors there (including Islamic-affiliated terrorists and “Greater Somalia” nationalists) than it does if normalcy were to return to the country. The arrival of stability would preclude Somali territory from being used by Eritrea as an asymmetrical springboard against Ethiopia.

The spread of foreign bases

The troubles in the region, as well as the major economic and strategic interests for the Horn of Africa led to the spread of foreign bases on African soil, reflecting the current-day complex, multi-polar world, with the “war on terror”, the arrival of China, and the emergence of regional powers, jostling for influence.

The power actors with a military presence in the Horn of Africa are currently:

China: In Djibouti, it is building its first overseas military base, at the port of Obock, across the Gulf of Tadjoura, close to the U.S. Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier. It’s the latest in China’s $12 billion investments in Djibouti, including a new port, airports and the Ethiopia-Djibouti rail line. The base will have the capacity to house several thousand troops, and is expected to help provide security for China’s interests in the rest of the Horn of Africa.

France: The second-largest foreign military presence in Djibouti is that of its former colonial power with about 2,400 personnel, costing France $33m a year.

India: The Seychelles allocated land on Assumption Island for India to build its first naval base in the Indian Ocean region. The ostensible interest is counter-piracy, but India also seems to be keeping an eye on China.

Japan: Since 2011, a contingent of 180 troops has occupied a 12-hectare site in Djibouti, next to Camp Lemonnier. This year, the outpost will be expanded. The move is seen as a counter to Chinese influence, linked to a new strategic engagement with Africa, underlined by the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Nairobi in 2016.

Saudi Arabia: Riyadh recently finalized an agreement to build a new base in Djibouti, in connection with its leading a coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

Turkey: Ankara’s first military foreign base in Africa is in Somalia, a training facility for Somali troops. Turkey has steadily increased its influence in Somalia, with major development and commercial projects. In 2011, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first foreign leader to visit Mogadishu since the start of the civil war.

United Arab Emirates: In Eritrea, in 2015, the UAE began developing the deepwater port of Assab and its 3,500-metre runway, capable of landing large transport planes. Assab is now the UAE’s main logistics hub for all operations in Yemen, including the naval blockade of the Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hodeida. In return, the isolated Eritrean government has received a financial and infrastructural aid package.

In Somalia, the UAE trains and equips Somalia’s counterterrorism unit and National Intelligence and Security Agency. It also supports the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which is believed to have played a role in blocking Iranian weapons’ smuggling to the Houthis.

In the breakaway province of Somaliland, the UAE has a 30-year lease on a naval and airbase at the port of Berbera. Last year, Dubai Ports World (DP World) won a contract to manage and double the size of the port, ending Djibouti’s monopoly on Ethiopia’s freight traffic. The UAE is reportedly providing military training and a security guarantee to the self-declared independent territory.

United States: in Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, a 200-hectare expeditionary base is housing some 4000 U.S. soldiers and civilians next to the international airport. Home to the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa of the US Africa Command, it is the only permanent US military base in Africa.

In Ethiopia, a small drone facility at Arba Minch was operational since 2011 but is now believed to have closed.

In Somalia, U.S. commandos are operating from compounds in Kismayo and Baledogle, and in the Seychelles drone operations are launched from a base on the island of Victoria.

In South Sudan the Nzara airfield is another base for US troops searching for Kony, and related surveillance operations. US special forces have also provided training to South Sudanese troops.

Germany and Spain don’t have bases in Djibouti, but they have several dozen soldiers at Djibouti City’s Kempinski Hotel.

Also, Russia is informally exploring the possibilities of establishing a military presence in Djibouti.

Islamism and Sunni-Shia confrontation

While the risk of Islamist extremism frequently focuses on Somalia and the violent actions of al-Shabaab, extremist versions of Islam can now be found throughout East Africa, mainly generated by the diffusion of Salafist ideology from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Funding for mosques, madrassas and Muslim youth and cultural centers began flowing into the region in the 1980s and 1990s. The expanding reach of Arab satellite television stations had Wahhabism reaching a wider audience.

The effect has been the emergence of an increasingly confrontational strain of Islam in East Africa. Over time, these tensions have turned violent. Attacks by militant Islamists against civilians in East Africa (outside of Somalia) rose from just a few in 2010 to roughly 20 per year since then.

In Somalia, while most Somalis practiced a moderate form of Sufi Islam, the Islamic fundamentalists of al-Shabaab, after taking control of parts of central and southern Somalia in 2009, began imposing a much more severe form of the faith. Mosques were destroyed and the shrines of revered Sufi leaders were desecrated.

Connections between the region and the global jihad movement also appear to be growing, with an increasing numbers of citizens joining Daesh and al-Shabaab. At some point, these East African recruits may return home, presenting a new security threat.

To the spreading of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa must be added the problems generated by the civil war in Yemen, which transformed itself into a battle for influence that pits the Saudi Sunnis against the Iranian Shias. This battle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran has played out over the past few years in Eritrea, but also in neighboring Somaliland and the Somali region of Puntland.

International power actors with diverging interests

According to most analysts, the Horn of Africa is currently at the confluence of some major geopolitical interests, in the context of the shifting power plays in the Indian Ocean rim, featuring China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and, on the other hand, the traditional hegemonic powers the U.S. and Russia who are reassessing, each one, their interests for the dominance of this part of the world.

1. China: adding the military to the “soft power”

China’s growing interests are influenced by shifting power plays in the greater Indian Ocean, as it attempts to back its economic interests in the region with military might.

The railroad diplomacy

Since 2015, China has poured more than $14 billion in infrastructure development into Djibouti, $3 billion in infrastructure aid to Ethiopia, and has over $5 billion in trade annually with the two nations. China has also drawn on its culture to bolster its soft power, constructing a new Confucius Institute in Djibouti City, which aims to promote Chinese culture and language as well as cultivating ties with the local society.

One of the most important of China’s soft power initiatives, a $3.4 billion project, came in the form of the so-called “railway diplomacy”, financing a rail link from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to the port of Djibouti. Chinese banks and companies financed the $3.4 billion project. The railway will allow for easier transport of goods to and from ports, and will make the region more attractive for investment. Ethiopia hopes that the railway is the first step of a project extending to Kenya and Sudan, most likely also funded by the Chinese.

China is also involved in several major investment projects in Ethiopia, especially in rail infrastructure. Apart from the line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, opened in 2016, another project linking Addis Ababa with the cities of Jimma, Bedele and Ambo was launched in May 2016. Other railway lines, from a port in the Djiboutian town of Tadjoura to Bahir Dar city and from the capital south to the cities of Hawassa and Arba Minch are expected to be completed by July 2020. An even more ambitious project is the planned transcontinental line that will link Djibouti and Ethiopia all the way across the continent to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

Djibouti in the “string of pearls”

The “railway diplomacy” is soon to be supported by a Chinese military base in Djibouti, due for completion in 2017. It is expected to feature weapons stores, ship and helicopter maintenance facilities and possibly special forces. It offers the first sign of China’s ambition to extend its military reach across the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the joint staff department and likely the future naval chief, mentioned China’s intentions in April 2016. Writing in a Communist Party magazine, he said steadily advancing overseas base construction’ was one of President Xi Jinping’s foreign-policy priorities.

However, American officials said they were blindsided by Djibouti’s 2015 decision to give China a 10-year lease for the land situated close to Camp Lemonnier. Just two years earlier, Susan Rice, the national security adviser under President Barack Obama, had flown to Djibouti to head off a similar arrangement with Russia.

While China says the Djibouti base is just a ‘support facility’, military analysts point out that having the Chinese-financed railroad infrastructure in place will make possible for the military forces from the base in Djibouti to be rapidly relocated to any African country to protect China’s economic interests. In fact, the completion of the transnational railways and the Djibouti-based military facility will catapult China into being one of the most influential countries in the Horn of Africa.

Although China denies, for the moment, that it has any plans to build large-scale U.S-style military hubs, experts predict that Beijing might establish several more overseas outposts in the next decade. One of the likely spots is Oman’s port of Salalah, where Chinese navy ships often stop for rest and resupply, with other possibilities including the Seychelles and Pakistan’s port of Karachi.

According to a March 2017 report quoted by South China Morning Post, China has plans to expand the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLAMC) from 20,000 to 100,000 soldiers, with two special warfare brigades already having been incorporated into the PLAMC, raising the forces’ complement of soldiers to 20,000. Part of the new personnel is supposed to staff the new Chinese naval base in Djibouti.
Djibouti’s location on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worries in India that it would become another of China’s “String of Pearls” of military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The ”String of Pearls” geopolitical theory on potential Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region refers to a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communications, which extend from China’s mainland to Port Sudan. The sea lines run through several major maritime strategic points, such as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Lombok. As a geopolitical concept, the term was first used in a 2005 internal U.S. Department of Defense report, “Energy Futures in Asia.” It was never used by official Chinese government sources, but it is often used in Indian media.
The emergence of the “String of Pearls” is indicative of China’s growing geopolitical influence through concerted efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, expand and modernize military forces, and foster stronger diplomatic relationships with its trading partners.

The changes in the U.S. Administration represent a moment of uncertainty that the Chinese would want to exploit to their advantage, and observers note that it is probably not a coincidence that China’s base is to be located 32 km closer to the conflict in Yemen than Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. base to which Washington has committed resources in support of Saudi Arabia’s war with the Houthis.

2. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States: using the Horn against Iran

Saudi Arabia is also looking to build a military base in Djibouti. The deal was discussed in March 2016, and Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf mentioned in an interview with the London-based Saudi-owned Al Sharq Al Awsat, that “the security, military and strategic draft of the accord is ready and the coastal areas that could host the base, be it military or naval, have been identified after Saudi military officers and officials explored some of the Djibouti sites.”

The expansion of Saudi Arabia’s military footprint in Djibouti must be seen in the light of its regional power struggle with Iran, and particularly in the context of its role in the civil war in Yemen.

In 2014, Houthi rebels (named from their leader, the dissident cleric Hussein Badredin al-Houthi, a leader of the Shiite Zaidi sect) based in the mountains of Yemen overlooking the Red Sea, overthrew the government in Sana’a and took over most of the territory formerly known as North Yemen. As Shiites, the Houthi rebels are supported by Iran. Saudi Arabia itself the centre of Sunni Islam  is at the head of a nine-nation coalition of Middle Eastern countries backed by Washington that is supporting the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in their fight against the rebels.
A Saudi military base in Djibouti might support the opening up of a new front against the Houthis, and thus it might counter Iran’s influence in the region.

However, the most important military presence in the region is that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which recently obtained a deal approved in February by the parliament of Somaliland to develop an air and naval base in the port town of Berbera. In return the UAE has agreed to implement in Somaliland various development projects, including modernizing highways.

Abu Dhabi is reaching out to countries in and around the Horn of Africa, as it looks to increase its non-oil revenue through other avenues including real estate, trade and financial services.

The United Arab Emirates has announced in 2015 its intention to increase its military presence in the Horn. In January 2016 it signed a $442-million agreement to manage the Somaliland port of Berbera for 30 years. The deal will transform the Berbera port into a major Red Sea shipping stop.

UAE is also active in the neighboring Somali autonomous region of Puntland. They have been paying for and training anti-piracy forces for years, while also financing and training its intelligence services.

The Emirates became a powerful force in the region, projecting an Arab influence as far as Madagascar and the Seychelles. It’s not surprising that the United Arab Emirates was labeled ”Little Sparta” by General James Mattis, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The Somaliland and Puntland deals give the UAE a strong military foothold in the Horn of Africa, after it secured a military base in the port of Assab in Eritrea.

Eritrea has switched sides in the Yemen war when Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2015. Not long afterwards, Eritrea signed a 30-year lease on the port of Assab with the Saudis and their allies in the Emirates. The port has become a base used in the war in Yemen.

The United Arab Emirates built a major base in Assab complete with tanks, helicopters and barracks. In November 2016 it was reported that a squadron of nine UAE Mirage fighter planes were deployed to Eritrea from where they could attack Houthi targets on the other side of the Red Sea. In return the Gulf states agreed to modernize the Asmara International Airport, increase fuel supplies to Eritrea and provide President Isaias with further funding.

The new facility features aircraft shelters and housing for personnel, the work being done suggesting that the UAE military is in Eritrea for more than just a short-term logistical mission. The base is part of Abu Dhabi’s longer-term strategy, which would enable the United Arab Emirates to operate effectively on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa, but also play a role in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s effort to forge diplomatic alliances.

The United Arab Emirates will probably continue to strengthen its military ties to countries throughout the region and its own capacity to project power will grow along with them. The base near Assab marks a significant shift in the United Arab Emirates’ military policy as it becomes part of the small group of countries that maintain bases abroad.

In combination with the development of a closer military relationship with Egypt and Sudan, the construction of power projection bases in Eritrea and Somaliland will give the United Arab Emirates a leading role in the protection of the Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb sea-lanes. 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 local security and intelligence units.

The United Arab Emirates could thus begin to emerge as a powerful actor in the Horn of Africa, East Africa, and western Indian Ocean. Like prior trading empires from the Portuguese to the Omanis, the United Arab Emirates is aiming to become an important player up and down Africa’s eastern seaboard, mixing military power with soft-power approaches.

3. Turkey: for its own interests in the Horn

Turkey has increased its interest in the Sub-Saharan countries over the past decade and has had a significant impact in the Horn of Africa region, in order to reach a strategic place as a global player.

The Horn of Africa is an important bridgehead for Turkish entry into Sub-Saharan Africa, and Somalia was the first country that enjoyed Turkish donations of more than $360 million in recent years. Turkey’s presence in Somalia became prominent, when then-prime minister Erdoğan paid a visit to the country in 2011 to attract the world’s attention to a famine crisis.

Also, Ethiopia is Turkey’s fourth largest trade partner among African countries and the biggest recipient of Turkish direct investment in Africa, having attracted $2.5 billion of the total $6 billion Turkish direct foreign investments in Africa. In the autumn of 2016, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci was in Addis Ababa and signed a deal to lease a 5 million sqm area for 99 years to build a trade center for Turkish companies.

Success in Somalia

Turkey’s projection of hard and soft power in Africa has been in general positively received. Turkey’s engagement with Somalia, viewed by many as the epitome of a failed state, is particularly noteworthy for its successes.

Despite the fact that there has been almost no international presence since mid-1990s, Turkey has been paying more consideration to Somalia and established its largest-ever embassy in Mogadishu a symbolic acknowledgement of the Turkish interest in one of the most strategic locations in Africa.

In recent years, Turkey’s humanitarian aid-centric form of engagement with Somalia became more power-seeking at regional level with an expanding military presence, including, in 2016, the equipping of its first military base in Africa, in Mogadishu. The base is to host Turkish military officers to train Somali soldiers in their fight against terrorism. Around 200 Turkish military personnel will be deployed to the base in the first stage to train 10,500 Somali soldiers.

Turkey’s success in Somalia is a direct result of its unilateral and coordinated actions as directed by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA). Given the climate of corruption, the competing goals of regional and international players, and the inability of the government to broadcast its power beyond portions of Mogadishu, Turkey managed to carve out its own sphere of influence in Somalia and the wider region. It has also achieved this by not tying its Somalia actions and policies to AMISOM or UN goals, U.S. security goals, EU goals or GCC goals.

While Turkey has been criticized for some of the ways it does business in Somalia, including allegations of corruption and bribery, Turkey’s positive actions in Somalia would be ineffective should it opt to keep its hands entirely clean. Somalia is a failed state and many regional and international actors working in Somalia for decades, filtered money through unreliable NGOs, international organizations or civil society groups, all the while fuelling corruption with few tangible results.

In the context of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s African tour in the spring of 2016, which included visits to Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Guinea, news reports mentioned the possibility of Turkey establishing a military presence in Somalia. According to the reports, a training mission requested by the Somali government would help the Somali army to take on al-Shabaab, the terror organization that attacked the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu in 2013. In this regard, Turkey will provide elite military training on counterterrorism, border security, force protection and small unit action.

Some of its critics perceive President Erdoğan’s line of liaising with Somalia as a religiously-motivated move, part of broader efforts to extend his personal influence as the leader of the Muslim-majority countries in the region by revisiting some of the archaic approaches of the Ottomans. According to these observers, the new strategy towards Somalia was necessary after the closing of Syria as a gate to the region, so that Turkish influence can reach to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strategy towards Somalia can be compared to the one that Ottoman Empire once conducted in Yemen. The Ottomans were able to extend their sphere of influence up to the Indian Ocean and ensure the security of Mecca and Madinah and secure the Ottomans leadership in the Muslim world through having a powerful presence in Yemen. Within the same logic, Turkeys current engagement in Somalia aims to spread Turkeys sphere of influence up to the Indian Ocean and also to make sure that Mecca and Madinah are fully secured, so as in time, Turkey will be again ready to announce its leadership in the Muslim world.

4. Russia: reassessing its presence

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have disrupted the ties of Russia with Africa continent. After the prolonged era of economic trouble and decline, at the beginning of the 2000’s, the nation re-emerged as an important global actor with interests across the world.

While Russia does not regard the Horn of Africa as a top geopolitical strategic region and has so far demonstrated minimal interest in Africa, the fact that Russia continues to reconstruct its role as a great power in global politics is seen as a factor that would change its point of view over the Horn of Africa.

On the other hand, Russia also appears to have increased its efforts to build political alliances and make economic trade deals with a number of African countries whose political establishments stand to gain from the promotion of the alternative global order that Putin is promoting. These include sanctioned states like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Eritrea; post-coup Egypt and former Soviet allies such as Angola.

Historic background

During the second half of the 19th century, Russia was interested in Ethiopia due to the British and Italian penetration into the Horn of Africa. Providing arms, military advisers and medical aids created a positive effect during the Italian-Ethiopian war. Russia also provided technical aid in gold mining operations and geological surveys as well as educational training for Ethiopian students. After WW I, the new Bolshevik regime was not interested in a relationship with Ethiopia, but on the other hand, Ethiopia received many professional Russians who had fled the Bolsheviks and served as advisers to the Ethiopian government.

In the early 1930s, economic discussions were held by Soviet trade representatives with the Ethiopian government, French Somaliland and the Italian colony of Eritrea. The USSR was one of the first states to condemn the Italian aggression and support Ethiopia in the League of Nations.

During the Cold War, the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Memorandum ‘Soviet Policy and Africa’ (1975) determined that the USSR’s interests in the region were: to reduce Western influence, power, and presence; to obtain political influence on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea shore; to support and protect its flanks in the Middle East; to secure access to support facilities for its naval forces in the Indian Ocean; to counter the Chinese influence.

The USSR used military aid as the most effective means of obtaining influence, with considerable funding and military assistance, notably to Somalia and Ethiopia. The withdrawal, in 1977, of the United States’ from the Horn resulted in an increased Soviet presence in the region.

The conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia was also used by Moscow in order to increase its influence. In the beginning, The USSR supported both states, but the Ogaden Battle changed the alliances in region and Somalia joined the Western camp. While the United States was arming Somalia, the USSR and Cuba were helping Ethiopia. The Ogaden Battle became one of the reasons of the demise of the SALT II agreement, making President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to declare that “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden”.

After the defeat of the military regime in Ethiopia in 1991, and due to the end of the superpower rivalry in the region, the United States no longer had any real need for Somalia and it suspended all financial aid, resulting in the Somali regime’s collapse. After the failure of the U.S.-backed UN military intervention in 1992-94, Somalia fell off Washington’s radar screen. Also, for the new Russian Federation, the relations with Africa were falling down among foreign policy priorities.

Looking to the sanctioned Horn countries

In the context of the sanctions imposed by the West for the annexation of Crimea, Russia appeared to be promoting a bloc of sanctioned countries in Africa, such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Sudan. In late 2014 for example, Sudanese President Hassan al-Bashir reportedly stressed to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, Sudan’s solidarity with Russia in the face of unilateral sanctions imposed by some western countries, which he noted that Sudan also suffers from. In turn, Foreign Minister Lavrov pledged Russian increased military technical cooperation with Sudan notwithstanding the UN military embargo imposed on the country.

In the case of Eritrea, the Russian Federation has supplied 80 Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles in 2005 and Igla shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (50 in 1995 and 200 in 1999, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database). In 2014, when the newly appointed Eritrean Ambassador to Russia presented his credentials, President Putin commented that both countries share similar views on regional and international issues. Additionally, Putin indicated Russia’s readiness to strengthen relations, not only in trade and economic development, but to build Eritrea’s military capability in spite of the UN arms embargo on Eritrea that was imposed largely because of Eritreas military support for al-Shabaab and create a Russian fleet in the Red Sea to protect its interests. Also, Eritrea and Russia have held joint naval exercises.

Given the presence of Russian military forces in Syria coupled with Egyptian, Sudanese and Eritrean military cooperation, Russia is on the road to forging a significant presence in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

In April 2016, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Prime Minister of Somalia, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sarmake, requested Russian assistance against al-Shabaab, to which Lavrov responded, “I know that during your visit to Russia, you would like to talk in particular about equipping the Somali security forces with all that is necessary to fight terrorists. Such an approach is fully consistent with the interests of the international community, in line with UN Security Council decisions, and Russia will be ready to consider a request on the matter.”

Similar offers from Russia were formulated in January 2017 by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a meeting with his Eritrean counterpart Osman Saleh. Lavrov said that “Russia is interested in rendering assistance in solving problems in Africa and settling conflicts on the continent.”

Dealing with oligarchs

Russia has been courting the power elites within various African countries, often through shady deals that enrich those in the political, security and military establishments. In turn, Russian enterprises will often reap lucrative business concessions. As part of these political and economic quid pro quo arrangements, Russia will, on occasion, show its loyalty on the international stage by vetoing UN resolutions that will upset their African friends, as has been the case for Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The process of building oligarch-type alliances appears to have accelerated since the imposition of sanctions on Russia. The Russian courtship of countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea, strategically located near the Red Sea and Suez Canal should be regarded as an effort to obtain greater political and military influence in a vital geopolitical region.

5. The USA: testing the “new normal” in East Africa

The main center of the U.S. strategic activities in East Africa is the Camp Lemonnier base in Djibouti. Sharing a runway with Djibouti’s Ambouli International Airport, the compound is the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa and is home to the East Africa Response Force, another regional quick-reaction unit. The camp, which also serves as the forward headquarters for a counterterrorism unit targeting militants in East Africa and Yemen, has seen personnel stationed there jump by more than 400% since 2002. In the same period, Camp Lemonnier has expanded from 88 acres to nearly 600 acres and is in the midst of a years-long building boom for which more than $600 million has already been awarded or allocated. 

Recently the White House announced a 20-year lease renewal that doubled its annual payments for Camp Lemonnier, to $63 million, and a plan to invest more than $1 billion to upgrade the installation.

Camp Lemonnier provides a vital base for US Special Forces, fighter planes, helicopters and intelligence services, as well as serving as a launch pad for drone operations against al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Yemen, even as far flung as Boko Haram in Nigeria. As a springboard for American-led anti-piracy operations, Camp Lemonnier also helps the U.S. maintain its role as the primary guarantor of mercantile security in the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean.

By August 2012, an average of 16 drones and four fighters were taking off or landing at the base each day, but the next year, in the wake of a number of drone crashes and turmoil involving Djiboutian air traffic controllers, drone operations were moved to a more remote site located about six miles away.  Djibouti’s Chabelley Airfield, which has a lower profile than Camp Lemonnier, serves as a key base for America’s regional drone campaign. American forces at Chabelley now handle all unmanned aircraft flying out of the country.

The operations run from the site were Joint Special Operations Command and CIA-led missions for the most part, likely focused on counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, as well as support for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.

At the beginning of March, following the Trump administration’s tough stance on combating terrorism, U.S. defense officials told ABC News that new deployments of Delta Force and Navy SEALs operators to Iraq, Syria, and the Horn of Africa are underway based on the Administration’s authority to expand counter-terrorism operations overseas received over the past months.

The “new normal”

While officially Camp Lemonier is the only American military base in Africa, the U.S. military has built an extensive archipelago of African outposts, transforming the continent, experts say, into a laboratory for a new kind of war.

In recent years the U.S. military has developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in at least 34 countries of Africa.  Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shut. The U.S. also operates “Offices of Security Cooperation and Defense Attaché Offices” in approximately 38 African nations, and has struck close to 30 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers.

Using this extensive network, the U.S. is able to carry out increasing numbers of overt and covert missions, from training exercises to drone assassinations. Military experts estimate that AFRICOM, as a new command, is basically a laboratory for a different kind of warfare. Apart from Djibouti, there are a lot of ‘lily pads’ or small forward operating bases, so one can spread out even a small number of forces over a very large area and concentrate those forces quite quickly when necessary.

U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations (CSLs), forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions have been built in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda. Officially, the “cooperative security locations” are not considered to be bases, but still are designed to accommodate about 200 personnel, with runways suitable for C-130 transport aircraft.

This combination of manpower, access, and technology has come to be known in the military by the term “New Normal” and was developed in the wake of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The New Normal effectively allows the U.S. military quick access 400 miles inland from any CSL.

The “New Normal” concept was tested in late 2013, as South Sudan plunged into civil war and 160 American Marines and sailors deployed to Djibouti.  Within hours, a contingent from that force was sent to Uganda and, in early 2014, in conjunction with another rapid reaction unit, dispatched to South Sudan to evacuate 20 people from the American embassy in Juba.

In Somalia, elite U.S. forces operate from small compounds in Kismayo and Baledogle. Neighboring Ethiopia has also been a prime locale for American outposts, including Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, contingency operating locations at both Hurso and Bilate, and facilities used by a 40-man team based in Bara.

To supply its troops in East Africa, AFRICOM has also built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the Surface Distribution Network, but referred to as the “new spice route.”  It connects Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.

Operations in Somalia

During 2016, the U.S. administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants, with hundreds of American troops rotating through makeshift bases in Somalia.

The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that the United States employs across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2016, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more.

American officials said the White House had quietly broadened the President’s authority for the use of force in Somalia by allowing airstrikes to protect American and African troops fighting al-Shabaab. About 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month. The operations are a combination of ground raids and drone strikes. The U.S. Navy’s classified SEAL Team 6 has been heavily involved in many of these operations.

American military officials also said that, once ground operations are complete, American troops working with Somali forces often interrogate prisoners at temporary screening facilities, including one in Puntland before the detainees are transferred to more permanent Somali-run prisons.

U.S. Marines and private contractors are also working to build up a Somali military unit designed to combat al-Shabaab. The training is done in Baledogle, about 70 miles from Mogadishu, at an old Russian fighter jet base.

Soldiers for the military unit, called Danab, which means lightning in Somali, are recruited by employees of Bancroft Global Development, a Washington-based company that for years has worked with the State Department to train African Union troops and embed with them on military operations inside Somalia.

Michael Stock, the company’s founder, said the Danab recruits received initial training at a facility in Mogadishu before they were sent to Baledogle, where they go through months of training by the Marines. Bancroft advisers then accompany the Somali fighters on missions.

American commanders and their partners are considering a significant expansion of the training effort to potentially include thousands of Somali troops who would protect the country when African Union forces eventually left the country.

Geopolitical trends

The current geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa is complex enough to be described sometimes even as chaotic, with international actors’ diverging interests interfering to increase the local and regional tensions.

More worries for Ethiopia

These are worrying times for Ethiopia, once the dominant force in the region, but whose influence over the Horn is now in question.

Ethiopia has also a long-standing fear of being surrounded by its Arab enemies, who, it believes, have used Ethiopia’s Eritrean enemies to gain a foothold on the African continent. These fears have been reinforced by Egypt’s fierce opposition to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile.

Addis Ababa is concerned that Eritrea became stronger in recent years. Its mining sector is looking increasingly attractive with Canadian based firms now joined by Australian and Chinese companies. Also, Asmara’s role in the ongoing war in Yemen has allowed Eritrea to escape diplomatic isolation and even benefit from funds and weapons, despite the UN-imposed ban.

West of Ethiopia, Sudan is also now involved in the war in Yemen, providing troops to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates backed government. These ties are said to have been cemented after the Saudis pumped a billion dollars into the Sudanese central bank, in exchange for the Sudanese abandoning their former Iranian allies.

At its east, Ethiopia’s traditional policy has been to keep Somalia as weak and fragmented as possible. Ethiopia has intervened repeatedly in Somalia to hold al-Shabaab at bay, as well as to maintain the security of its eastern region. Addis Ababa’s policy of encouraging the inherent fragmentary tendencies of the Somalis has paid dividends: the country is currently a group of entities, only some of which recognize the authority of the government in Mogadishu. Somaliland, in the north is close to being recognized as an independent nation. Others, like Jubaland along the Kenyan border, are under Nairobi’s influence.

The fact that Somalia is evolving towards a group of different, separating entities is already used by external actors. The UAE and possibly its fellow GCC partners are militarily involving themselves in Somaliland, Turkey is interested in setting up a military base in the Mogadishu Region, Ethiopia has a prolonged militarily presence in Galmudug, Mogadishu, and the South West State, and Kenya occasionally involves itself in Jubaland.

Strategic attractions and drawbacks of Djibouti

With several foreign military bases and forces that are about to outnumber the indigenous forces, Djibouti is becoming a significant regional geopolitical actor. What Djibouti lacks in size (it is just 23,200 km2 and has a population of less than 900,000) is more than compensated by its status as a “geographical goldmine.”

Djibouti’s geographical location attracts foreign powers most, since it is situated just beside the maritime chokepoint of Bab-el-Mandeb, a key node in the Gulf of Aden-Suez Canal trade route. Another point of attraction is Djibouti’s proximity to potential crisis areas, Djibouti’s nearest neighbors including Yemen and Somalia. Due to its position along the Bab-el-Mandeb and its Chinese-financed railroad connectivity to the expanding Ethiopian economy, Djibouti has grown into one of the most geostrategic and competitively sought-after states in Africa. Its port facilities allow a handful of its closest military partners to assert their share of influence in behaving as the maritime ‘gatekeepers’ to Europe alongside Egypt and its control over the two Suez Canals.

Djibouti is also quickly turning into a spy haven and a forward operating base for drone, special forces and other types of non-conventional involvement in the region’s affairs, as well as for conventional naval forces.

Though generally presented as a haven in a conflict zone, Djibouti is also a weak point in the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In Djibouti, Ethiopian forces are squaring up to Eritrean ones, which have been there since the border clash of June 2008 between Eritrea and Djibouti over Cape Doumeira. The armies are separated by a thin line of Qatari troops, deployed in June 2010 at the request of both parties. Ethiopian forces are also present in the Afar region, close to the Eritrean port of Assab, just where the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are trying to turn it into a deep-water naval port opposite Yemen.

Also, Djibouti is heavily dependent on its port, which generates 76% of its GDP; 80% of this business comes from Ethiopia, which has been denied access to Assab since the 1998-2000 war. Against this background, the recent Berbera trade agreement signed by the non-recognized state of Somaliland with DP World, which is owned by the government of the UAE, put Somaliland’s port of Berbera in direct competition with Djibouti.

Another drawback of Djibouti is the fact that, like Eritrea and Ethiopia, it is run by an authoritarian regime and is on human rights organizations’ watch-lists. According to a US embassy cable from 2004 released by WikiLeaks “Djibouti is less a country than a commercial city state controlled by one man, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh.” Guelleh, who took 87% of the vote in the April 2016 presidential elections, remains in absolute control of this hereditary principality, which since 1977 has been controlled by the Guelleh family and the Mamassan sub-clan of the Issa clan.

The question of Somaliland

Another aspect shaping regional geopolitics is the question of Somaliland, a surprising democracy, successor to the former protectorate of British Somaliland, which claimed independence after the civil war of 1981-91 that ravaged Somalia following the fall of Siad Barre. This country has existed de facto for 25 years, but remains officially unrecognized. Consequently it receives almost no foreign aid and is not a member of any international organization. It has a government, an (unarmed) police force, a (reasonably well equipped) army and a respected judicial system. It has also been at peace for 20 years. Unlike its African neighbors, it functions on incontestably democratic lines and holds regular, peaceful elections.

Somaliland is threatened by diplomatic attrition and underdevelopment; it also suffers from the quarantine imposed by the international community. But it has succeeded politically. In contrast, Somalia has sunk into internal conflicts: In 2006 the Ethiopian army, supported by the African Union, had to intervene to enable the Somali transitional federal government to retake the capital, Mogadishu, from warlords and the Union of Islamic Courts. Somalia also suffers from terrorism by the Islamist al-Shabaab militias.

Somaliland, already vulnerable, now finds itself surrounded by a regional conflict. The agreement concerning the Berbera port represents an economic and political threat to Djibouti. It places this fragile state in the orbit of the UAE and risks upsetting its internal stability. While the port of Berbera is the only significant economic anchor in a very poor country, Somaliland, which survived 20 years of war, poverty and international marginalization, may not survive a diplomatic and military exposure on parameters it cannot control.

Implications of the Saudi-Iran Yemeni clash

The civil war in Yemen conflict is a main risk factor for the Horn of Africa, separated from the war zone by only the 30 km of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Until the outbreak of civil war, Yemen had been the main transfer point for refugees, political and economic, from the Horn of Africa, heading for Europe. During the war, Yemen’s African neighbors were drawn into the hostilities.

a) One of the main risks is considered to be the alliance of Eritrea and the Saudi-led coalition being used by Asmara against its traditional enemy Ethiopia. In April 2015, Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki signed a far-reaching cooperation agreement with the Saudis and the armed coalition within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to build the Assab airport and upgrade the port. The first contingents of Eritrean troops went to the Yemeni front and the cooperation then extended to the Sudanese regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who also sent troops in exchange for significant Saudi funding. Such intense political and military activity has caused anxiety in Ethiopia, which saw its mortal enemy, Eritrea, forging a close alliance with Arab states.

In July 2015 the Gulf states and the Saudis also asked Somaliland’s president Ahmed Mohamoud Silanyo for troops and permission to use the port of Berbera. Djibouti’s president Guelleh has also been asked to open (another) base for the Saudi-led coalition and to send troops to Yemen. Eventually he granted permission for Saudi transport planes to land.
Eritrea’s relationship with the GCC, and its eventually getting drawn into a prospective conflict might be used by Asmara as a means of derailing the rise of Ethiopia, which would otherwise become the super region’s undisputed leader. Any GCC support to Eritrea would also worry China, which has a vested interest in seeing one of its closest non-Asian allies remain stable and succeed in its development. Moreover, since the GCC and its Turkish ally already have military bases forming a ring around Ethiopia that could easily be used to exert pressure against it, the chances that China would more visibly provide support to Ethiopia also increase, and this might lead to a less non-violent competition between the GCC and China over control of the Horn of Africa.

b) The current development of military facilities in the Horn of Africa is seen as leading to the strengthening of the Emirati deterrent posture against Iran. The Yemen intervention was indirectly aimed at Iran, and the Emirati naval and air base at Assab was critical in blockading the Houthi-held ports of the Red Sea.

While some experts were worried about the potential for Iran to develop blue water naval capabilities that might allow Tehran to project military power into the western Indian Ocean and Red Sea, in fact, it is the UAE that has achieved this first, creating the base infrastructure to sustain operations.

In the coming years, UAE is expected to 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.

Moreover, bases like Assab could contribute to the United Arab Emirates’ strategic depth in an eventual clash with Iran, threatened or actual. Whereas the entire Emirati sea shores are within the range of Iran’s missiles, the Assab base provides depth that might allow a reserve force of Emirati surface combatants, aircraft, and even submarines to remain active and able to interdict Iran’s coastline and shipping during an extended war.

c) On the other hand, the drive by the two heavyweights of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to strengthen their regional security roles has picked up steam as the United States’ scaling back of its military commitment as protector of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf has encouraged Iran’s efforts to assert itself as the dominant regional power.

In recent years, Iran has sought to establish alliances with Eritrea, Sudan and other countries in the Red Sea region to enhance its capabilities against two of its key enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both have naval access to the Red Sea. The Yemen war, in which Iran supports the Houthi rebels Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting, has provided Tehran with a toehold in the Red Sea.

It could also offer potential naval bases from which it could threaten shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the Red Sea’s southern gateway to the Indian Ocean, as it has long sought to do with the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Arabian Gulf.

GCC fears of Iranian hegemony were sharply heightened in July 2015 with the nuclear agreement between Iran and U.S.-led global powers, which Gulf leaders concluded marked a dangerous shift in the Middle East’s balance of power.

d) There are also broader purposes behind the military expansion by the Gulf Arab states towards a Saudi-led grand alliance of Sunni countries as the United States withdraws. One is to isolate the Islamic threat from Somalia, where al-Shabaab has close ties with Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is deemed by the United States to be one of the terror group’s most dangerous wings. Another factor of the GCC’s interest in north-eastern Africa is its agriculture, since East Africa’s land could feed their people as well as the large workforce needed to farm that land. To that end, Saudi Arabia has prioritized agricultural investment in the region.

China’s risks

Besides its risks related to the Ethiopia-Eritrea traditional conflict, China faces some geopolitical risks with its projects in Djibouti. The Horn of Africa nation has received wads of cash from Beijing (more than $14 billion), which went into large scale infrastructure projects such as two airports, three ports, a railway to Ethiopia and a pipeline to transport water. Yet given the fact that Djibouti is indebted to China at a scale of 60% of its GDP, it might well end up regretting Beijing’s munificence.

What’s more, China’s new military base is just a few kilometers away from Camp Lemonnier, the hub of operations for US Africa Command. The proximity of the bases is uncomfortable for both sides as well as for Djibouti, which might end up regretting the presence of rival superpowers on its turf.

The new Washington Administration is unlikely to take lightly the increased financial leverage that Beijing holds over Djibouti, and may shy away in the future from providing support to Djibouti, which has been led for nearly 20 years by an authoritarian president with a taste for political repression, restraints on basic liberties, and crackdowns on opposition politicians.

Dilemmas for the U.S.

In the Horn of Africa, the U.S. is in a very awkward situation. Apart from Eritrea and Sudan, every state in the region is officially a ‘friend’. Egypt is doing all it can to suppress the Muslim Brothers; Ethiopia remains a faithful ally (though it gazes at China longingly); the Saudis and Gulf states are sulking but have no alternative protector instead of the U.S. Eritrea is the only “dissident”, although its ruined economy and exodus of young people make it dependant on the powerful.

The U.S. is unable to reconcile all these ‘friends’ who make war without its permission, plot against each other and pursue their own interests, neglecting the U.S. umbrella (or borrowing it without authorization). The Arab coalition received nearly $10bn of US military supplies to pursue a war for which the U.S. has no enthusiasm. The GCC has also alienated Ethiopia by bailing out Eritrea, and has set all of the U.S.’s clients and allies against each other, perhaps throwing them into the arms of China.

The military arrival of China in Djibouti and the popular uprising in Ethiopia also seem to contribute to the diminishing US dominance in the Horn of Africa.

While it remains to be seen how the above-mentioned trends will materialize and affect the Horn of Africa, with the small states being used as a springboard for the promotion of grand regional strategies, the fact that it is too important a strategic base for all of the involved powers means that none of them can afford to shake its stability and risk undermining their own interests in the region.

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