Base race in the Horn of Africa

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Base race in the Horn of Africa

February 07, 2018| Arlaadi Online

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A race is underway between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Turkey to build naval and military bases right across the Horn of Africa. This threatens to change the naval balance in the north-west Indian Ocean. But it may also presage the beginnings of a new strategic order in this complex and multipolar region where a host of major and middle powers jostle for influence and position.

The strategic order in the Indian Ocean is changing fast. In the last few years we have seen major powers, such as China and India, building new bases in the western Indian Ocean. But we are now witnessing several Middle Eastern players building their own areas of influence. This is happening in the Horn of Africa, but is likely to spread further into the Indian Ocean.

Base race in the Horn of Africa

Saudi Arabia has recently finalised a deal to establish a naval base in Djibouti. Its UAE ally has just built major naval and air facilities at Assab in nearby Eritrea. The UAE also runs a military training centre in Mogadishu in Somalia, and is rumoured to be seeking access to port and air facilities at Berbera in the breakaway province of Somaliland.

In recent weeks, Turkey signed a deal with Sudan to rebuild the old Ottoman-era port of Suakin on the Red Sea, which will reportedly include naval facilities. The port last hit the international spotlight in 1883 when British (and Australian) forces under Kitchener used it as a base to pursue the “Mad” Mahdi. A Turkish naval base at Suakin would upset the military balance on the Red Sea, potentially setting off a naval arms race with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is on top of Turkey’s existing military facilities at Qatar (where some 3000 troops are now stationed) and Mogadishu.

Indeed, hosting foreign military bases has become a bit of a regional specialty. Djibouti, which sits on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb (the maritime choke point between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal), has made virtue of its geography by creating a successful business model out of hosting foreign military bases. It now hosts naval and military forces from France, the US, Japan, Italy, China, and the Saudis, among other countries.

The immediate imperative behind these moves in the Horn of Africa is the growing rivalry between the two new Middle Eastern blocs: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt on one side; and Turkey, Iran, and Qatar on the other. A proxy conflict between these rival blocs in Yemen has a strong naval element, with the Houthi rebels being supplied by sea. The naval blockade of Yemen and support of government forces give the Emirate and Saudi navies good reasons to establish bases nearby.

But the implications of these developments go far beyond the Horn of Africa. This base race is symptomatic of bigger strategic aspirations of several “non-traditional” middle powers in the Indian Ocean region.

Turkey’s long-forgotten glories

Turkey has not been seen in the Indian Ocean since the time of Lawrence of Arabia, more than a century ago. But the country is undergoing a “global reawakening” that includes a national remembrance of the glories of the Ottoman Empire. In their heyday, the Ottomans exerted influence right across the Islamic world, through Africa and in the northern Indian Ocean. The Ottomans even boasted a protectorate in Aceh, in present-day Indonesia.

This history is now being disinterred. No doubt we will soon be reminded of the exploits of several long-forgotten Ottomans’ naval expeditions in the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca and beyond.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ambitions, which some call “neo-Ottoman”, across the region. Turkey is already a security player in the eastern Indian Ocean. In September 2017, Turkey was the first country to deliver aid to the Rohingyas in Myanmar and in Bangladesh during the latest bout of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar regime.

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