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Published On: Sat, Jan 28th, 2017

Who is opposing the UAE military base in Berbera and why?

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The proposed United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) military base in Berbera serves multiple strategic, geo-political, security, trade, and commercial objectives for several countries including the federal democratic republic of Ethiopia, Somaliland and of course the UAE. Understandably, Djibouti considers the military base as a threat to its economic and financial interests.

Ethiopia lost its direct access to the sea after Eritrea declared its independence and seceded from the country. As a result, they invested heavily on an effort to foster economic, security and trade ties with the tiny Republic of Djibouti on the Red Sea in order to utilize its ports. However, from a strategic national security perspective, it is dangerous to depend exclusively on one single access point for trade and vital supplies. In addition, considering the potential political instability and the prevalent social strife in Djibouti, Ethiopians came to the conclusion that it is vital for them to secure a supplementary seaport access. The deep-sea Port of Berbera was a natural choice.

The UAE have been pursuing a bold new policy of fighting terrorism and religious extremism not only in their own country but overseas. In addition they have been investing large sum of money buying farming lands in East Africa primarily in Ethiopia in order to safeguard sufficient food supplies for their peoples.

The UAE cleverly packaged their intention to secure the military base by pairing it with the Port of Berbera’s long-term management agreement between DP World and the government of Somaliland. Nevertheless, the agreement has its critics. And there are several actors who consider themselves as stakeholders that are opposing it. The critics include the “religious establishment” in Somaliland, the opposition political party (Wadani), government of Djibouti, government of Ethiopia and some members of the citizenry. However, it is important to note that these opponents have diverse and conflicting motives against the military base. Thus the probability of derailing the agreement diminishes significantly.

The UAE, as part of the counterterrorism and anti-religious extremism efforts that they are pursuing have labeled many Islamic organisations including Muslim-Brotherhood, Al Qaida, ISIS, Al Itihad, Al Islah and others as “terrorists” or terrorist “sympathisers”. Therefore, the powerful religious establishments in Somaliland fear that the UAE government will have stronger political influence in the country and thus will threaten their political and economic interests. Far more importantly, the religious establishments are nervous about the government of UAE which is determined to use its huge political and economic powers to route out adherents of extreme “political Islam” will potentially expose their secretive business and political networks. Therefore, they are trying very hard to defeat this project.

The opposition party (Wadani) is not necessarily opposed to the establishment of UAE military base in Berbera on political grounds or on an ideological principles. However, they are proposing the agreement to be put on hold until a new government is installed in the country. The reason is that they are fearful that if the agreement goes through, the ruling party (Kulmiye) will use the compensational funds they receive from the UAE government to get reelected and thus form a new government. They are also simply playing to their local political audience. However, this is a dangerous and parochial political view that does not serve the security and long-term economic interests of the people they claim to represent.

The government of Djibouti publicly stated that the proposed military base could destabilise the security of the region. However, the real reason is that it wants to maintain the monopolistic status of its ports. Djibouti is understandably also concerned the potential competition the deep-sea port of Berbera might pose in the long run. Djibouti maintains some level of political influence through financial and clan ties with some of the most prominent business people and political heavyweights in Somaliland. However, the counter-weight against Djibouti’s political influence and financial incentives it might bring to the table is very strong in Somaliland. Thus, the probability for success is uncertain at best.

The government of Ethiopia is yet to make its position regarding the proposed military base in Berbera, however, diplomatic and national security sources are quoted as saying that Ethiopia is using this issue to pressure the UAE government to abandon its military base in Eritrea. Needless to say, this is part of the continuing Ethiopian strategic position to apply political, economic and military pressures on Eritrea from all fronts. As stated above, the UAE government skilfully attached the military base with the enlargement and modernisation of the Berbera port agreement. And since Ethiopia needs that port, it will be almost impossible for them oppose it in the event the UAE government insists linking the port agreement with the military base.

Recently, a delegation from Somaliland was invited to visit Egypt. However, after a hash diplomatic push from Ethiopia, the visit did not take place. Most likely, Ethiopia will apply similar pressures, nonetheless, whether they will succeed or how much pressure they will eventually apply on Somaliland is not clear at this stage.

The proposed military base in Berbera could generate huge economic and financial benefits for Somaliland and other stakeholders including Ethiopia. And it could help secure needed direct foreign investment (DFI) in Somaliland and in the region as whole. Unfortunately, the government of Somaliland inadvertently and amateurishly politicised the project. And that is what could potentially derail the agreement.

Author: mukhtar ainashe

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