The Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have seen an explosion of military base construction in the last decade, and the pace has only accelerated since 2015. The installations range from official bases to shifting special operations outposts and are used by nearly every major power, including the U.S., China, Japan, France, the U.K., Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the U.A.E. In a 2017 report, AFRICOM stated, “Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same. We continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency.” The nexus of that competition is along the eastern coast of Africa, where East African states have taken advantage of their strategic location to extract economic investment and support from major powers. Djibouti has been the biggest benefactor, hosting over half a dozen bases and collecting an estimated $300 million a year in rental agreements. In December 2017, Turkey signed an agreement to operate a naval base in Suakin, Sudan. The bases have not been without their critics: the State Department has repeatedly highlighted the dire human rights record of Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh.
There are three primary, overlapping reasons for the intense military build-up in the area. First and foremost, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden serve as major commercial shipping lanes between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, running between Djibouti and Yemen, links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden; more than half of China’s oil imports are carried through this 25-mile-wide strait. The coastal military bases allow for improved anti-piracy campaigns and the protection of shipping in international waters. More recently, the Houthis have threatened to cut off shipping in the strait should the Saudi-led coalition not relent in its fighting in Yemen.
The second impetus for the military bases is power projection. Having overseas bases is generally seen as a symbol of military power. China and Japan, for example, have both used Djibouti’s willingness to accommodate military bases as an opportunity to establish a military presence outside of East Asia. Moreover, East Africa offers strategic access to the Middle East for broader combat operations. The United States has used its Djibouti-based facilities for drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen has operated extensively out of Eritrea and Somaliland.
Finally, Middle East regional rivalries are at play in the desire to establish bases along the Horn of Africa, with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. looking to blunt Iranian influence in the region. In 2017, Iranian Army Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri was quoted as saying, “We need distant bases, and it may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria, or bases on islands or floating [bases].” With the Iranians already having a growing influence in Yemen through the Houthis, denying the country footholds elsewhere is a high priority for the Gulf States. Thus, by shoring up alliances with the countries of East Africa, the Gulf states hope to prevent a two-front Iranian military presence on both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. An example of this dynamic at work was in 2015 when the U.A.E. supplanted Iran as the resident military presence in Eritrea. To that end, both blocs are using the carrots of economic incentives and military aid to garner diplomatic support from East African countries.
The high-value placed on the Red Sea corridor has resulted in a dangerous level of militarization of several powers within a small geographic area. Just as in the South China Sea, a greater military footprint increases the chance for miscommunication or conflagration. If anything, matters on the ground are poised to become even more tense as Iran, Russia, and Egypt seek to add their presence to the fray. While so far no major incidents have occurred, the former strategic backwater is now a key barometer for power in the Middle East. In the meantime, East African countries are looking for an easy pay day.