Feast and Famine in Africa’s Dubai

Djibouti City – As balmy night settles over Djibouti City, the arc lights come on at its growing network of ports as ships are offloaded 24 hours a day and trucks laden with cargo depart westwards into the Horn of Africa interior. Not that long ago Djibouti was known for little more than French legionnaires, atrocious heat and its old railway line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Nowadays, however, this tiny republic of only about 900,000 people on the Horn of Africa coast has big plans, including turning its capital into the Dubai of Africa.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has steadily carved out a regional role through its strategic and commercial relevance at the junction of Africa and the Middle East, and at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, overlooking a passage of water used by 30 percent of the world’s shipping transiting from and to the Suez Canal.

“It’s a weird place, really,” says an Addis Ababa-based foreign diplomat. “Djibouti’s also important strategically. I don’t know why more isn’t reported about it.”

Recently-acquired Chinese investment totaling more than 12 billion dollars is funding the building of six new ports, two new airports, a railway, and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone in Africa, potentially giving the capital, Djibouti City, an edge over its rivals.

“About 2 million African customers travel to Dubai each year,” says Dawit Gebre-ab, with the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority overseeing the city’s commercial infrastructure development. “We know what is on their shopping lists, and they could be coming here instead.”

Helping secure such ambitions is the fact that Djibouti is viewed as offering some of the most prime military real-estate in the world, both to counter piracy threatening that key shipping lane—since peaking in 2011, when 151 vessels were attacked and 25 hijacked, piracy has steeply declined—and to shore up regional stability.

Another foreign diplomat referred to Djibouti as “an oasis in a bad neighbourhood”.

In 2014, the US military agreed a 10-year extension to its presence—with an option to extend for another 10 years—centered on Camp Lemonnier, its African headquarters.

US president Barack Obama described the camp as “extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region.”

A similar perspective happens to be held by China, also. In addition to its Djibouti investments, having invested huge amounts in the rest of East Africa—especially in neighboring Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and 90 percent of whose imports come through Djibouti—it wants to secure those interests and others throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

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By James Jeffrey