After ten years of sulking, France and Djibouti are talking again at the highest level. On Tuesday, February 28, 2017, François Hollande received his Djiboutian counterpart, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, at the Elysee. It must be said that Djibouti is home to the largest French military base in the world. And, Tuesday, the two heads of state have spoken a lot about strategy. Decrypting with the specialist Robert Wiren, who published in Karthala the book Somaliland, quarantined country .
RFI: Why did François Hollande finally decide at the end of his mandate to receive Ismaïl Omar Guelleh ?
Robert Wiren: I suppose that in the past conflicts between the two countries [ France and Djibouti, note ], it is a situation that could not last. Especially since Djibouti is the object of covetousness. The Chinese have been well established, including in Ethiopia. So France, which has always maintained its base, could not possibly consider staying away in this country, where, in addition, there is a hot conflict happening just opposite on the other side of the Red Sea.
The civil war in Yemen.
We know that there are currently some 1,400 French soldiers based in Djibouti, but there are also military bases set up by the United States, Japan, Germany, Italy and soon China. Does France still have a place in this country?
Apparently, yes, since it always has its basis. I think that initially there were all these conflicts with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and then piracy in the Gulf of Aden, which caused the United States to have an eye on this region. The Chinese will also be numerous, since they are building a base in Tadjourah, not in Djibouti itself.
In the Bay of Djibouti.
Djibouti, it is the terminal of a new railway, Addis Ababa-Djibouti, built by the Chinese. But is not Djibouti now facing competition from another deep-sea port in the region, Berbera in Somaliland?
This is likely to happen following the agreement reached last year with Dubai Ports World, which will invest between 400 and 500 million dollars to modernize the port of Berbera. And at the same time, Ethiopia has signed an agreement with Somaliland to consider transferring 30% of its foreign trade through the port of Berbera. This means that there are so many goods that no longer pass through Djibouti, and this would undoubtedly lower the price of services, since Djibouti currently has a sort of monopoly on port commerce.
And these new investments from Dubai Ports World to Berbera is all the more interesting to follow as there is a dispute between Djibouti and the same company Dubai Ports World?
Indeed, the man who was in charge of the port of Djibouti was a Franco-Djiboutian, Abdourahman Boreh , who was also an old friend, an old acquaintance of President Guelleh. But when the latter wanted to make the mandate too much, which was probably not provided for in the Constitution, Mr. Boreh was rather against and told him. As a result, President Guelleh’s revenge was to accuse Mr. Boreh of being corrupted by the authorities of Dubai.
Hence the disturbance between Djibouti and Dubai Ports World.
This also means that certain investments, which Dubai has planned, will not be realized.
Today we have the port of Djibouti, which is losing its monopoly position on the Red Sea. What is the interest seen from Ethiopia?
For Ethiopia, it is above all a call for competition to weigh on the prices of port operations.
So there is this trade competition between Djibouti and Somaliland, but now there is also a strategic competition, since we are talking about a future military base of the United Arab Emirates, that is to say of Dubai, in The port of Berbera, in Somaliland?
Yes, this agreement came a bit surprisingly following the agreement on the commercial port. And one wonders why. One hypothesis would be that in the long term, the UAE might want to leave Assab in Eritrea , given Eritrea ‘s poor UN record on human rights, and so on. Perhaps the conflict in Yemen is a factor that has tilted in this decision, but at the same time, coming to Berbera, perhaps also the idea is to protect the future investments of Dubai in Somaliland which has already much to do to protect its borders with possible incursions of Shebab came from southern Somalia. On the other hand, there is also the fact that Somaliland also has difficulty controlling its coast which is nearly 800 kilometers on the Gulf of Aden,
To combat piracy?
And can we speak, at the time, of a growing militarization of the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb?
Yes, unquestionably, since we now have Saudis who take off from Assab in southern Eritrea. We have the western and Chinese military bases in Djibouti. Then now, an upcoming UAE base in Somaliland. It is an area that has become very important, probably because of its strategic location: the Strait, the Red Sea, oil convoys, container convoys with Chinese goods going to Europe.
And the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen too?
Yes, of course, and also the fact that South Somalia is a gray area since the transitional government can not control. The shebabs are still there. And they are a potential threat.