UAE base in Berbera: New challenge or opportunity?

By Yacqub Ismail

Although the international community hasn’t still recognized Somaliland and they are still seeking to recognize as a de jure state, more than quarter a century after when Somaliland declared its independence, however, Somaliland lies in a strategic region that interfaces the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, the Red sea and Horn of Africa. This strategic region is more important for the trade and furthermore the security of the world because it is a global trade route. On the other hand, the Red Sea is more vital because the Red Sea is a strategic route that links the trade between Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. That is why the British Empire establishes a protectorate in Berbera (the coastal city of Somaliland) during the 19th century. Berbera was also a base for both the Soviet Union and the United States respectively during the Cold War. After the Cold War, the remaining superpower (the United States) establishes a military base in Djibouti (Camp Lemonnier) for the strategic importance of Horn of Africa in the War on Terror. Beside of the importance of the region, for the last 25 years, Somaliland was not on the part of the regional war in the Middle East and there was an absence of relations between Somaliland and the Arabian countries, yet the Somaliland political view about the Middle East war was shifted in March 2015, when an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia was formed and has conducted some military operations in Yemen against the Houthi’s rebel backed by Iran, President Silanyo of Somaliland declared in his annual speech to the joint session of the parliament, that ‘Somaliland is fully supporting the position of the Arab league about the legitimate government in Yemen led by Mansur Al-Hadi’.

On October 2016, the government of Somaliland announced that President Silanyo has attained a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that takes into consideration the UAE to establish a military base in Berbera. This MOU was on several days after when the Somaliland government has signed another agreement about the investment of Berbera Port that DP world (an emirate company that invests ports and logistics) invests more than $400 million. This army installation is more different from that previous agreement between Somaliland and DP World about the port, this is a military base and it depends on political and security issues. The government of UAE hasn’t still recognized Somaliland as an independent state but the relations between the two countries is currently on the ascent. However, the UAE is a member of the Arab League and the Arab position about Somaliland is clear. Every communiqué about Somalia from the Arab league states that the Arab League is ‘affirmed the respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia’ which is a full statement that is directly against Somaliland. Nonetheless, there is a political rivalry between some of the Middle East regional powers that are mainly interesting the Horn of Africa raises the enthusiasm of UAE to form a military base in Berbera. Turkey is setting up a military base in Mogadishu and previously manages the port and the airport of Mogadishu.

In this article, I will try to examine the relations between Somaliland and UAE, the political alliance between the Gulf countries, the Yemen war, the interest of UAE in Berbera, and also the political challenge between the Middle Easterner regional powers that may affect directly the stability of Horn of Africa.

Relations between Somaliland, Arab league, and UAE

The diplomatic ties amongst Somaliland and the Arab League countries are not in a good circumstance, the Arab League countries clearly declared that their interest is in a United Somali government between Somaliland and Somalia. On the late 90s, the ties between Somaliland and the Arab League countries drove by Saudi Arabia and Egypt came to on their most exceedingly terrible time after when the Arab countries declared that they banned the livestock trade between Somaliland and Saudi Arabia. Livestock is the backbone of the economy of Somaliland. Still, the relations between Somaliland and Saudi Arabia are not good although Somaliland exports their livestock to Saudi Arabia but nowadays there is a ban from Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, when the African Union proposed a debate about the recognition of Somaliland, Egypt and Sudan who are Arabian countries in the African Union were the first countries that started a motion in order to fail the proposal. At that time, UAE was a business oriented country and was not mostly involved in dynamics of politics but in these recent days, UAE was more interesting to involve in politics especially in the Horn of Africa politics.

The relations between Somaliland and the UAE was started in 2009 when President Rayale visited UAE in order to request a humanitarian assistance in Somaliland, and from that time the UAE started water projects in order to help the Somaliland people. That relation was just a humanitarian aid that the UAE charity foundations like Al-Khalifa foundation and others were helping Somaliland. But on March 2011, when President Silanyo started his first visit to the Arabian countries, he visited the UAE in order to take a negotiation about another humanitarian aid while the people of Somaliland was suffering from continuous droughts at that time. The UAE government has invited President Silanyo and his delegation to attend an Anti-piracy conference that was led by the UAE government. From that time, the relations between Somaliland and UAE was continuously growing up. On June 2012, the UAE facilitated a negotiation table between President Silanyo from Somaliland and President Sharif from Somalia while the international community supported a dialogue between the two countries in February 2012.

While most of the Somaliland imports come through Dubai, Somaliland has opened a diplomatic mission with a representative in Dubai and also signed a port investment agreement with DP World, but the UAE hasn’t opened a diplomatic office in Hargeisa. The Berbera port agreement was another achievement that UAE made in order to strength their influence in Horn of Africa.

The competition between UAE and the other Middle Eastern countries

The presidential elections in Cairo and Mogadishu in the mid of 2012 shifted the UAE foreign policy from a business oriented country to a political influential state. The reason was that the ‘involvement of Qatar’ in the elections of Somalia and Egypt. The Doha’s involvement sends a signal to Dubai that ‘cash is a powerful weapon in politics of a country without effective government’. The impact of UAE in Somalia’s presidential and parliamentary elections this year was a new movement of the UAE new foreign policy towards Africa. It is crucial for Somaliland to evaluate the new UAE policy before taking some hard decisions that can affect Somaliland negatively or positively.

The reason for this military base and the capacity of UAE for this military base

Many political analysts agree that this base is for the Berbera’s next door war. The Yemen war between the Houthi forces upheld by the Islamic Republic of Iran and also the Yemeni government, along with their alliances such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. UAE is an important ally for the Arab coalition in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. Many analysts argue that ‘this military base in Berbera will be important for the invasions in Yemen’ and also to secure that the Houthi’s ‘have not found some help alongside the regional countries’. This military base has the same purpose with the UAE military base in Assab, Eretria. UAE has conducted some military operations from Assab towards Yemen over the past 24 months. Also Saudi Arabia has now secured a military base in Djibouti (A. Egal). Additionally, another important thing to mention is that the UAE armed forces are a small force that doesn’t have a capacity to operate abroad. The main question to answer is ‘why UAE wants another military base in Horn of Africa?’ and furthermore ‘does UAE have the capability of running a military base?’ The reason is understandable; the Sunni fear from the expanding influence of Iran in the Middle East is the main objective of this base.

The UAE defence forces are less than 100000 personnel who receive more military assistance from the Western countries like the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and others. The government spends less than 1% of the GDP in the military expenditures as shown in the UAE economy report in 2005. This demonstrates that the UAE is not able to run a military base abroad unless there are other interests that are pressuring them to set up a base in Somaliland.

The regional dynamics and the effect of this military base

Ethiopia plays as a regional power in Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is the largest economy (by GDP) in East and Central Africa. According to Global Fire Power, Ethiopia has the 42nd most powerful military world and the third most powerful in Africa. In Somaliland, Ethiopia plays as a key partner for Somaliland as far as of politics, while Ethiopia is the main gateway for Somaliland within regards to of engagement with the other world. On the other hand, Somaliland is important for Ethiopia in terms of security and furthermore in trade. Ethiopia was the first country that opened a diplomatic mission in Hargeisa, likewise, the first international airline that visited Somaliland was the Ethiopian Airline and this shows how the relations amongst Somaliland and Ethiopia were historically long. Yet, Ethiopia hasn’t recognized Somaliland as a de jure state but they work with Somaliland directly as an independent state. Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam declared in his speech at the parliament in 2013 that ‘Somaliland is an important ally of Ethiopia and they are ready to defend Somaliland if they met an attack from anyone that is against Somaliland’. This is a powerful speech that shows that Ethiopia is ready to work with Somaliland.

On the other hand, the relations between Ethiopia and Egypt are in a difficult circumstance. Ethiopia is investing a major venture that is essential for Horn of Africa energy uses known as The Grand Renaissance Dam project. Egypt, another regional power in Africa and also in the Middle East has serious concerns about this venture while Egypt uses the Nile water for agriculture, and agriculture plays an important role in the Egyptian economy. Additionally, the Ethiopian government has some concerns that the Egyptian government has a political impact inside Ethiopia like supporting the anti-government rebels in Ethiopia. Egypt needs more to have a base in Horn of Africa and mostly they try to use the Somali people in Somaliland and Somalia with a specific end goal to shield their enthusiasm in the Nile river, so if the Berbera military base is a base for the Arab coalition in Yemen, Egypt is an important part of this coalition and this may directly affect the strategic relations amongst Somaliland and Ethiopia.

In conclusion, the main argument of President Silanyo of Somaliland and his government is to link the investment of Berbera port to the military base while they are different issues that cannot interrelate with each other, the investment of DP World is an economic benefit for both UAE and Somaliland if the venture succeeds but providing a military base is an issue that matters a lot in the security and the political stability of Horn of Africa and the Middle East, not only Somaliland. This is not something easy that Somaliland rushes to sign because it has consequences that relate to security and also policy. The alliance of Somaliland with UAE and the Sunni countries in the Gulf means that Somaliland is not more neutral about the dynamics of the region as it was for the last 26 years and they are backing the Gulf States against Iranian influence in the region, and also we don’t see something that is becoming an exchange to them.


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  2. Copley, Gregory. Game of Ports in the Horn of Africa.
  3. Rondos, Alexander. The Horn of Africa –Its Strategic Importance for Europe, the Gulf States, and Beyond.
  4. Ulrichsen, Coates Kristian. The Geopolitics of Insecurity in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
  5. Tesfamariam, Sophia. Horn of Africa, Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb.
  6. Devi, Mathias. The Water of the Nile: Ethiopia Challenging Regional Hydro-Hegemony.

Yacqub Ismail is a blogger and a political analyst. Yacqub is also a politics and economics student at the University of Bristol. He can be reached on Twitter @yacqubismial. 

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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