By Justin Mhaka
The world’s buying.
The tiny north-African state, roughly the size of New Jersey, has morphed itself into a hugely influential diplomatic and military outpost for the rich and powerful.
But just what are they selling in Djibouti?
Prime geographical location.
“We don’t have anything else but location,” says Robleh Djama Ali, the head of business development at the Djibouti Ports and Free Zone Authority.
Although the country of 830 000 people doesn’t have any precious natural resources to speak of, it is situated in the horn of Africa.
It borders Ethiopia in the west and south, Eritrea in the north, Somalia in the southeast and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the east.
United States, France and Japan have all established a military presence in Djibouti.
The United States operates Camp Lemonnier, a Naval Expeditionary Base located at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport.
The base houses 4,500 troops.
The soldiers are strategically placed to launch counter-terrorism attacks on al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
France, Djibouti’s former colonial master, has deployed 1,900 military personnel to Djibouti.
While Japan has 600 Maritime Self-Defence Force troops stationed there.
There are also Spanish and German troops working under the banner of the EU anti-piracy fund.
And there’s more.
For $20 million a year, China’s set to establish its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
(The USA pays $63 million dollars yearly, as part of a 10-year deal.)
Middle-East powerhouse Saudi Arabia’s going to set up a base there too.
Djibouti’s central location makes it attractive for a number of reasons.
One: Djibouti is located near the Bab-el-Mandeb, a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.
Djibouti’s an important juncture in the Gulf of Aden-Suez Canal trade route.
About 20-000 commercial ships ply the route annually. 10% of those ships are Japanese.
What’s more, EU-China trade, worth roughly $1 Billion daily, is mostly seaborne.
Protecting the Gulf of Aden-Suez Canal trade route makes much financial sense for Japan and China, especially after rampant piracy threatened world shipping lines in the 2000s.
Two: Djibouti’s close proximity to political hotspots like Yemen, Libya and Somalia, as well as Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Saudis are fighting the Houthis in Yemen. A base in Djibouti would literally open a new battlefront in western Yemen for Saudi Arabia to launch attacks.
Although China claims its base in Djibouti will provide “logistical support and. . . recuperation of the Chinese armed forces conducting such missions as maritime escort in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance,” there’s everyone reason to believe China’s hoping to buttress it’s vast economic interests in Africa with a grand show of military might and political will.
Djibouti’s small economy stands to benefit enormously from this extraordinary convergence of vested interests.
In 2014, Djibouti’s GDP was just $1.6 billion.
Now, the country’s spending $9.5 billion on infrastructure development financed mostly through soft loans from China.
But unemployment stands at 60%.
Illiteracy is around 45%.
So Djibouti’s making the best of selling itself as a prime geographical location.