New Scramble for the Horn

The New Scramble for Africa


Source: Critical Threats, American Enterprise Institute

[Note: the American bases are not shown]

The modern scramble for Africa is intensifying.

A sharp uptick in the expansion of foreign militaries in the Horn of Africa accompanied the growth of economic competition in the region in 2017. China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have opened military bases throughout the area in the past two years. The region is strategically important to these states for various reasons: securing shipping routes in the Bab al Mandab Strait, proximity to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and the desire to array forces in the region alongside rivals including the United States.

  • China has concentrated its military presence in Djibouti near American and other Western forces.
  • The competition between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in the Horn of Africa has yielded mixed results in Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has received significant counterterrorism training support from both nations, as well as humanitarian aid from Turkey. The competition has strained relations between the SFG and Somalia’s semi-autonomous regions, however. Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo rejected the legitimacy of a 30-year Emirati contract on the port of Berberain Somaliland, for example.[1]
  • The 2017 crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE exacerbated tensions between Somaliland and President Farmajo after the semi-autonomous government of Somaliland supported the boycott of Qatar, while the SFG remained neutral in the conflict.[2]

Emirati operations in Yemen relied originally on basing in Djibouti. The UAE invested heavily in Eritrea beginning in mid-2015.[3]The Emirati military now operates from the Assab base in Eritrea and smaller outposts on the Yemeni islands of Socotra and Perim. The UAE is also expanding its presence into Somaliland at the port of Berbera.[4]

  • In 2008, Djibouti agreed to lease the Doraleh Container Port to Dubai-based company DP World.[5]
  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia leased a base in the Haramous district of Djibouti City in April 2015 to support operations during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
  • On April 28, 2015, the UAE and Djibouti broke diplomatic relations due to a conflict between Emirati officials and the chief of Djibouti’s Air Force over the lease and after an Emirati plane landed at Djibouti’s Ambouli International Airport without authorization.[6]
    • Longstanding strained relations exacerbated tensions between the two countries after Djibouti prematurely rescinded a 20-year agreement with Dubai’s DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal in 2014.[7]
    • Djibouti ordered the eviction of UAE and Saudi troops from the country the following day.
  • On April 29, 2015, as Djibouti evicted Emirati troops, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz met with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to finalize a 30-year agreement to base Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) operations in Yemen out of Eritrea.[8]The UAE conducted a heavy military buildup at the Assab base in Eritrea in May-July 2015. The UAE also undertook significant infrastructure developments at Assab, including the addition of new deep-water port facilities next to the airfield, the construction of a pier, the expansion of the airfield’s tarmac space and air traffic control system, and the rerouting of major highways and security perimeters around the base.
  • The UAE launched operations from Assab to retake Aden, Yemen in August 2015.
  • Emirati forces have also used the Assab base to train and equip thousands of Yemeni counterterrorism forces.[9]

The UAE opened a military training center in Mogadishuin May 2015.[10]

  • UAE Special Forces fund and operate the base with the goal of training a brigade of Somali National Army soldiers to combat al Shabaab.[11]The facility and training program remain operational.[12]
  • The UAE signed a 30-year lease on the Port of Berbera in Somaliland in February 2017. The base remains under construction, but Emirati ships have docked at the port. Emirati forces are using it to support operations in Yemen.[13]The Yemeni al Houthi movement threatened to strike the Berbera port with ballistic missiles in December 2017.[14]
  • Somali President Farmajo called for the cancellation of the Berbera contract in February 2017.[15]
  • The UAE has funded police and intelligence operations in Puntland and Somaliland.[16]
  • The UAE also took over the management and development of the Boosaaso port in the semi-autonomous Puntland state in October 2017.[17]

The UAE confirmed the presence of its military forces on the Yemeni island of Socotrain May 2017.[18]

  • President Hadi reportedly leased the islands of Socotra and nearby Perim and Abd al Kuri (part of the Socotra archipelago) to the UAE for 99 years before abdicating his position in 2014.[19]
  • The UAE does not appear to be using Socotra to support operations in Yemen. It has only trained soldiers on the island thus far.[20]
  • The UAE also is reportedly building an airstrip and related support facilities on Perim Island to support its operations in southern Yemen.[21]The UAE has not yet established a presence Abd al Kuri.

China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti’s Gulf of Tadjouraon August 1, 2017.[22]

  • China had used the port in Djibouti since February 2015 but negotiated permission for construction of a permanent military base with President Ismail Omar Guelleh in early 2015.[23]The Chinese began construction on the base in early 2016 and completed construction in July 2017. Djibouti is attractive for numerous reasons, including its proximity to key shipping lanes through the Bab al Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal.Djibouti is attractive for numerous reasons, including its proximity to key shipping lanes through the Bab al Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal.Additionally, China’s new presence in Djibouti alongside major Western powers such as the United States, France, Spain, and Italy indicates its intent of maintaining military capabilities with global reach.
  • The current agreement ensures China’s right to maintain up to 10,000 soldiers in Djibouti through 2025.[24]Approximately 1,000 personnel currently staff the base.[25]
  • China has previously invested heavily in Djiboutian infrastructure, funding upgrades to ports and airports and financing 70% of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway.[26]
  • China claims that the base will be used to support blue-helmeted peacekeepers and humanitarian operations in Africa, as well as anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. China will also likely use the base to protect its economic interests in the region and ensure safe shipping between East Africa and China.[27]
    • China has approximately 2,200 personnel deployed in Africa and 500 others in the Middle East.[28]
    • China claims to have escorted more than 6,000 ships through the Gulf of Aden.[29]

Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in Mogadishuon September 30, 2017.[30]

  • The Turkish military began construction on the base in 2015.
  • Turkey has announced its intention to use the base to train 10,000 Somali soldiers. The base reportedly has the capacity to train 1,500 personnel at a time.[31]
  • Turkey claims that it intends to maintain only 200 troops at the base, but a Turkish official clarified that the opening of the base aligns with Turkey’s prioritization of weapons sales to new markets.[32]
  • Turkey has previously cultivated a strong relationship with Somalia through a combination of direct investment and humanitarian aid.
  • Turkey’s only other operational foreign military base is in Qatar, which houses approximately 5,000 Turkish troops.[33]

Sudan signed an agreement on December 26, 2017 to transfer responsibility for Suakin Islandin the Red Sea to Turkey.[34]

  • Turkey has stated its intent to build a naval dock on the island to support both military and commercial vessels, stating that the agreement “could result in any kind of military cooperation.”[35]
  • The agreement prompted Egypt to deploy hundreds of troops, additional weapons, and military transport vehicles to the Sawa military base in Eritrea.[36]Sudan responded by deploying thousands of troops to the border region of Kassala. Ethiopia similarly sent additional troops to the Eritrean border.[37]The Suakin Island agreement followed decades of disagreement between Sudan and Egypt over the Halaib Triangle border region.[38]

Watch how the new scramble for Africa has developed since 2010:


A military armoured personnel carrier patrols during the opening ceremony of the new Turkish embassy in Abdiazizi district of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

September 26, 2017

The Gulf Contest for the Horn of Africa

Effects of the Qatar crisis have not been contained to the Gulf. The crisis has diplomatic and financial implications for states in the Horn of Africa, where we have observed a competition for influence among the Gulf States and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the Horn of Africa as a strategic opportunity to enhance their capabilities in the Gulf of Aden to support operations in Yemen. Turkey diverges from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in its Horn of Africa priorities: instead of expanding its military presence in the region, Turkey’s strategy involves a combination of heavy investments and commercial contracts, hoping to boost its economic competitiveness in the region. Qatar has largely aligned with Turkey and prioritized a humanitarian response to the drought in Somalia. Long-term, all four countries are looking to counter Iran’s intent to expand its naval capabilities in the region.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut formal ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, resulting in the withdrawal of ambassadors and bans on trade and travel. Saudi Arabia also expelled Qatar’s contingent from the coalition fighting in Yemen. The conflict has bolstered relations between Qatar and Turkey, which has responded to the crisis by providing food aid and recommitting to providing Qatar with increased Turkish military presence.[1]Saudi Arabia originally presented Qatar with a list of thirteen demands, including ending diplomatic and military ties with Iran, cutting ties to all terror organizations, and shutting down Al Jazeera. The list has since been shortened to six demands, but mediation efforts by the US and Kuwait have made no progress in ending the dispute.[2]

Implications for Somalia

Somalia’s strategic location and complex ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states placed Somalia at the center of negotiations, with both sides in the Qatar conflict persuading the nation to abandon its neutral stance.[3]

Qatar and Turkey can leverage political ties and substantial humanitarian aid commitments to pressure Somalia to maintain its neutral stance. 

  • Qatar maintains close ties with Somali President Farmajo, whose chief of staff previously worked on his campaign as a liaison with Qatar.[4]The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia has previously accused Qatar of influencing Somali electoral outcomes through its financing of preferred candidates. Qatar has subsequently lobbied these government officials to support policies that increase Qatar’s commercial competitiveness in Somalia.[5]
  • Both Turkey and Qatar have had long-term commitments to humanitarian aid in Somalia and have increased their support in recent months in response to the drought.[6]
  • Qatar has attempted to hold talks between Gulf States and Somalia, where it encouraged Somalia to maintain its neutrality in the Qatar conflict.[7]Turkey has also been in talks with UAE and Saudi officials, advocating for an end to the embargo on Qatar before the end of Ramadan (which did not occur).[8]Somali officials, however, remain committed to neutrality in the conflict.[9]Somali’s federal government recently criticized the semiautonomous regions of Galmudug, Puntland, and Hirshabelle for cutting ties with Qatar.[10]

The Saudis are leveraging financial aid to pressure Somalia to cut ties with Qatar.

  • Saudi Arabia pledged $50 million in aid to Somalia in January 2017 on the same day the Somali government announced it was cutting ties with Iran.[11]
  • Saudi Arabia offered $80 million to Somalia on June 11 in an attempt to persuade the country to dissolve diplomatic relations with Qatar and reportedly warned Farmajo that it may withdraw all financial aid if Somalia maintains neutrality in the conflict.[12]

The UAE could leverage commercial contracts to influence Somalia’s stance, but it is unlikely to hold much weight as Farmajo already disapproves of the contracts with Somaliland and Puntland. The UAE is more likely to withhold support for Somali defense entities.

  • The UAE recalled its ambassador to Somalia and reportedly deported Somali citizens as public disapproval of Somalia’s neutral stance in the Qatar conflict.[13]
  • The UAE opened a new training center in Mogadishu to train Somalia’s counterterrorism forces in May 2015. It has also provided armored vehicles to Somali forces and pledged in October 2015 to pay Somalia National Army (SNA) salaries.[14]The UAE has no official military presence on the base.

Saudi and Emirati influence secured support from northern Somalia.

  • Both Somaliland and Puntland announced support for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. On June 10, the Government of the Republic of Somaliland issued a resolution in support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and assertion of its independence from Somalia.[15]Somaliland’s stance might only exacerbate tensions between the Emiratis and Farmajo, who rejects the legitimacy of the contracts. The Puntland administration announced on August 16 that it supported the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and it called on the Somali Federal Government to reconsider its neutral stance.[16]
  • The UAE operates in the Puntland region of Somalia through funding the Puntland Maritime Police Force and Puntland Intelligence Agency.[17]Former Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid of Puntland has been a strong advocate for Somalia to cut ties with Qatar.[18]
  • The Somaliland parliament approved an agreement with the UAE to establish a base in the port of Berbera in February 2017.[19]The base is still under construction, but UAE ships have docked at the port and reportedly intend to use the base for air support in Yemen.[20]
  • Dubai-based port developer DP World has signed contracts to manage the commercial ports in Berbera and Boosaaso Port in the Puntland region.[21]Somali President Farmajo has publicly shown disapproval for the contract with Somaliland and Somali MPs have introduced parliamentary motions against the Berbera Port agreement.[22]

Broader contest for influence in the Horn

Saudi Arabia and the UAE

The two states’ presence in the Horn of Africa indicates broader shifts in their strategic goals. Saudi Arabia prioritizes countering the  Iranian-backed al Houthis in Yemen and setting conditions to declare victory and end the war. The UAE has used the collapse of the Yemeni state and the war to project its influence further into the Gulf of Aden.

  • The UAE reportedly warned Saudi Arabia to abandon its support for Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadior the UAE will abandon the coalition.[23]Relations between the two states are strained by a combination of UAE skepticism toward prospects of a military victory and the UAE’s aversion to political Islamists in the north.[24]These tensions were bolstered by former governor of Aden Aydarus al Zubaidi’s attempted declaration of southern independence, as the UAE has been accused of secretly supporting the secessionist movement.[25]
  • The forced departure of Qatari troops from Yemen could further hinder Saudi progress in Yemen.[26]
  • Sudan’s proximity to the Red Sea is likely too far from the Bab al Mandab for GCC states to see Sudan as worthy of maritime investments. However, GCC states are pursuing strategies in Sudan similar to those in the Horn: Saudi Arabia is prioritizing military aid, while Turkey focuses on humanitarian aid.
  • Sudan severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 after Iran executed a Saudi cleric.[27]A Saudi deposit of $1 billion into Sudan’s central bank further supports the conclusion that Sudan has shifted its support to the Arab states under Saudi Arabia. Remittances from hundreds of thousands of Sudanese living in Gulf States likely factored into Sudan’s change in position as well.[28]
  • Saudi Arabia has also looked to counter Iranian influence through military assistance. In February 2016 Saudi Arabia diverted military aid from Lebanon to Sudan, amounting to $5 billion.[29]

Saudi Arabia envisions Djibouti as the future center of its operations in the Horn of Africa.

  • Saudi Arabia has had access to Djiboutian airspace and the airfield at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti since October 2015 to support operations in Yemen.[30]
  • The Saudis announced in December 2016 their intentions to upgrade to a full military base there to act as a launching point for operations in Yemen and for interfering with Iranian attempts to supply Houthi forces.
  • Saudi Arabia likely chose Djibouti for its base in part due to the presence of other forces for the purpose of power projection, and as preemptive assertion against Iranian interests in the region.[31]
  • Djibouti has not cut ties with Qatar completely, but “downgraded” its relationship with Qatar, claiming “solidarity with the international coalition combating terrorism and extremist violence.”[32]

The UAE previously operated out of Eritrea, but shifted focus to new military projects in Somaliland.

  • The UAE began construction on the Port of Assab in eastern Eritrea in September 2015.[33]
  • The UAE was previously operating out of Djibouti, but the two states broke off diplomatic relations in April 2015 over a lease conflict, resulting in the withdrawal of Saudi and Emirati troops from the country. The Djiboutian port had been leased to the Saudi coalition for operational support in Yemen.[34]
  • The base has been used in operations to retake Aden, as well as training Yemeni counterterrorism forces, blockading Houthi-held ports, and sending humanitarian assistance into Yemen.[35]
  • Eritrea previously had relatively close ties to Qatar but followed Saudi Arabia and the UAE in distancing themselves from Qatar. Qatar withdrew peacekeepers from the Eritrea-Djibouti border, and Eritrean forces promptly took control of Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island. The UN Security Council is mediating discussions between the two states.[36]

Qatar and Turkey

Turkey diverges from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in its priorities. It has expanded its military presence in the region in a limited way, while focusing on a combination of heavy investments and commercial contracts to boost its economic competitiveness in the region.[37]

  • In Somalia, Turkey has worked with both the TFG and the semi-autonomous government in Somaliland but has indicated a preference for a unified Somalia. Turkey’s largest investment in Somalia is the management of Mogadishu’s seaport and airport. These ports are the source of 80 percent of the Somali government’s revenue.[38]
  • Ethiopia receives the largest percentage of Turkish direct investment in Africa (so far has attracted over 40 percent of such investments). Recently, Turkey loaned Ethiopia funds for the Awash-Woldiya railway, and Turkey is investing in manufacturing, power generation, and food security.[39]In return, Ethiopia is Turkey’s fourth largest trading partner in Africa. Turkey established an industrial zone in 2015 that provided 33,000 jobs to Ethiopians.[40]
  • Ethiopia has committed to remaining neutral in the Qatar dispute, but officials from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have met with Ethiopian officials since the start of the crisis, likely in attempts to pressure Ethiopia to declare alliance to one side.[41]
  • Qatar has no military presence in the Horn of Africa and is unlikely to compete with Turkey in the region after accepting a deployment of Turkish troops.
  • Qatar has invested heavily in Sudan, becoming its largest foreign donor in hopes of ending economic and military cooperation between Iran and Sudan. It acquired farmland to enable its own food security and pressured Sudan to influence its rough relationship with Egypt.
  • Turkey is pursuing a similar strategy in Sudan and Somalia. The Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) have launched aid campaigns in Sudan to target those affected by drought.[42]


The buildup of GCC presence in the Horn of Africa could indicate broader anti-Iranian posturing in the region.

  • Iran has indicated that it intends to strengthen its naval presence in the Indian Ocean.[43]
  • Turkey also plans to open a military base in Mogadishu in May 2017 for the purpose of training SNA soldiers. It is set to be Turkey’s largest foreign base, meaning that Turkey likely possesses ulterior motives, most likely for anti-piracy efforts but possibly including countering Iranian posturing in the region.[44]
  • The UAE utilizes the Port of Assab for blockades of Houthi-held ports in the Red Sea, preventing Iranian support to the Houthis.[45]
  • Saudi Arabia pledged $50 million in aid in January 2017 to Somalia on the same day Somalia announced it was cutting ties with Iran.[46]
  • The base in Djibouti will serve Saudi Arabia’s interests by enabling interference with Iranian attempts to supply Houthi forces and preemptively asserting Saudi influence against Iranian interests in the region.[47]


  1. The scramble for the Horn of Africa, a political powder keg region could have a dangerous consequence as witnessed in Somalia, with the fragile state now caught between rival interests; hence, the old tricks of “divide and rule” were played with scale in the form of billions of dollars’ worth of deals infused with corruption and predatory behavior.

    The question remains: why the deafening silence from the international community on this ‘new scramble’ phenomenon driven by reckless opportunism that could further destabilize a region that is already unstable?


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