An opportunity for Djibouti

UNHCR prepares aid for Yemeni civilians. The East African country of Djibouti is being used a logistics hub for humanitarian aid (REUTERS/Lara Sukhtian)
UNHCR prepares aid for Yemeni civilians. The East African country of Djibouti is being used a logistics hub for humanitarian aid (REUTERS/Lara Sukhtian)

Djibouti, a tiny country sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, is back in the news for two related reasons. First, reports emerged that the country, which already hosts military bases of the US, France and Japan, is in discussions about China establishing a military base there.

More recently, Djibouti has become the focus of humanitarian efforts during the continuing crisis in Yemen. After the US pulled its diplomats and special forces from Yemen in light of the Houthi advance towards Aden, it relocated the centre of operations across the water to Djibouti. In the past week, as Iran threatened to send warships to escort a ship it said was carrying humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the US suggested the ship dock in Djibouti instead, where the United Nations is active.

All of which points to the source of both the problems and opportunities for Djibouti: geography. Because of its proximity to Yemen, Djibouti’s was a prime destination for Yemenis fleeing the fighting in recent weeks. At the same time, geography also makes it a destination for migrants seeking to leave East Africa. And it is that very position which makes countries so keen to have their military bases there, facing the Red Sea and its vital shipping lanes.

That presents an opportunity for the Arab world, in particular the Gulf. Djibouti is already close to the GCC in proximity and in culture; one of its official languages is Arabic. Closer cooperation could transform Djibouti into something of a neutral zone for the Arabian Peninsula, benefiting both Djibouti and the GCC.

With so much instability around the GCC and the Arabian Peninsula, it is natural for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC to seek something of a firewall around their countries. Djibouti could offer that – perhaps a space where Iranian ships could dock and be checked before moving to Yemen. The country has played an important role in Yemen’s crisis. There is no reason it could not continue to play a vital role for the GCC after this crisis has passed.

Published: May 14, 2015 04:00 AM

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