FOLLOWING the altercation in Djibouti on 27 April between Wahib Moussa Kalinleh, the commander of Forces aériennes djiboutiennes (FAD – Djibouti air force), and Ali Al Shihi, Vice Consul of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Djibouti and the UAE broke off diplomatic relations on 4 May, 2015.
The UAE consulate in Djibouti was closed on 28 April. Then, on 29 April the departure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops based on a plot of land that Djibouti had put at its disposal in Haramous in early April to set up its military base: the crisis is dragging on and is leading to a vast reshuffle of the regional alliances.
Still using his country’s strategic position in the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (IOG) is strengthening his country’s ties with China.
Meanwhile, Eritrea, Djibouti’s longstanding rival, is also upsetting alliances to draw closer to the Gulf States.
IOG Stokes Competition Between USA and China
On 9 May, IOG suddenly declared to AFP that he was in negotiation with China about setting up a permanent Chinese military base in Djibouti. This was taken as a slap in the face by the Americans, particularly as it came just four days after the official visit to Djibouti by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
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China is developing massive port, rail and airport infrastructure in Djibouti. But so far, they have been purely civilian investments.
There is one, at least partial, explanation to IOG’s act of bravado: John Kerry declined to intervene with the Emirates to settle the diplomatic crisis with Djibouti. The Djibouti president had asked him to do so when they met in Paris on 8 May at the meeting of GCC foreign ministers. IOG was so confident in the American intervention that on 7 May he recalled the special delegation led by the general chief of staff, General Zakaria Cheikh Ibrahim and his investment advisor, Fahmi Ahmed El Hag, which was sent to Abu Dhabi to revive the dialogue between the two countries. In fact, what the President of the UAE Federation and Emir of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, wanted was an apology from the Djibouti Head of State.
Sheikh Khalifa had lost faith since Djibouti’s unilateral revocation in July 2014 of the Doraleh Container Terminal concession contract with the Dubai company DP World. IOG, for his part, was strongly irritated by the fact that a red carpet was rolled out for Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, in Riyadh on 28 April and felt the Gulf States had abandoned him. That was why he was in no hurry to settle the dispute with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s ally in the GCC.
Eritrea Lying in Wait
This disgrace was finally confirmed on 29 April, when King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia concluded a security and military partnership agreement with Issayas Afeworki. The Indian Ocean Newsletter has learned that Asmara offered Riyadh to have the GCC military base in Eritrea rather than Djibouti.
A few days previously, two delegations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE had moreover visited the Eritrean ports and islands. In return, the Gulf States undertook to modernize Asmara airport and build new infrastructure. In this strategic thaw with Asmara, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have gone back on the strong reticence they felt until recently against the Eritrean president. Only a short time ago, it was Iran that [allegedly] used Eritrea as a base to supply arms and train the Shiite Houthi rebels of Ansar Allah.