Posted by on March 05, 2014 in Blog

By Firas Suqi 
Spring Intern, 2014


Djibouti is an Arab League nation that’s probably more discussed in the U.S. for its similar phonetic structure to a phrase in the title of a 1976 hit by KC and the Sunshine Band. That being said, the country has an ongoing role in the Arab Spring uprisings, and houses the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier, which the Pentagon recently announced plans to spend $1.4 billion in expanding.

Just what are American interests in this north-east African country, and how is it that the country continues to avoid media spotlight while growing political opposition and the rise of insurgency from its neighbors threaten the small country of roughly 800,000 citizens?

Djibouti’s is straddled on land by the notoriously unstable Somalia to the southeast, and shares maritime borders with the slightly more stable (which isn’t really saying much) Yemen to the northeast. In the aftermath of 9/11, U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the Horn of Africa led to the U.S. acquisition of Camp Lemonnier, which had previously been used by the French Foreign Legion and the Djibouti Armed Forces. Today, Camp Lemonnier serves as the hub of U.S. military operations in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen and several Indian Ocean island states.

While calls for the ouster of President Ismail Omar Guelleh were quietly subdued in the first wave of Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, dissident voices continue to surface in the country. As a major strategic ally to the U.S. and home to Camp Lemonnier, opposition parties to the Guelleh regime will most likely continue to be trumped in their pursuit of political leverage and appeals for greater media coverage, as the State Department had applauded Djiboutian leadership’s role in stabilizing the Horn of Africa.

In the latest edition of Politico Magazine online, Aly Verjee elaborates on Djibouti’s solidified friendship with the U.S., and mentions a unique indicator of it with Rear Admiral Robert Bianchi’s announcement of the country’s first Subway restaurant in front of Congress last November. Following the Thomas Friedman logic found in the “Golden Arches Theory of Prevention,” which states that no two democratic countries with a McDonald’s restaurant have waged war on one another, Verjee borrows a similar logic in relating the symbolic presence of a Subway restaurant in Djibouti to their cemented relationship with the U.S. for years to come.

Even though the country serves as the centerpiece of U.S. drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, Djibouti’s leadership will incur crucial challenges in the near future. The rapid pace of change happening with presence of the U.S. military in Djibouti comes with the risk of an armed ideological infiltration from al Shabaab militants in Somalia, in addition to continued domestic concern over the autocratic rule of president Guelleh, a member of the politically powerful Mamassan clan that has ruled over the country since its independence.

All future risks of instability considered, drone campaigns have continued and Camp Lemonnier is expanding. However, issues surrounding the air safety of drones flying over Djibouti’s airspace have raised brief tensions with the U.S., resulting in the temporary move of drone operations to an airstrip in a remote region within the country. After a brief hiccup, Washington’s relationship with Guelleh and Djibouti were restored.

Drones aren’t the only thing buzzing around Djibouti. Economic promise has surfaced over the Pentagon's plans to expand Camp Lemonnier, which contributes $38 million annually to the country’s GDP in rent revenue alone. Economic investment has been pouring into Djibouti due to its strategic position of being the most stable port in the Horn of Africa, supported by the U.S. military presence in Camp Lemonnier.

U.S. ally and powerplayer in the region, Saudi Arabia, relies heavily on stable Djibouti ports for oil exports entering East Africa, and for its waterways for oil exports to Asia. Taking note of Djibouti’s stability and potential to bridge the African Continent with Asia, Saudi contractors have undertaken construction on the $20 billion, 18-mile Bridge of the Horns (the world’s longest bridge), linking the two land masses with twin economic cities named Al Noor in both Yemen and Djibouti by 2020. If Djibouti’s infrastructure wasn’t getting revamped enough, Ethiopia is financing an Ethio-Djibouti Railway connecting one of the world’s fastest growing economic centers, Addis Ababa, to the port of Djibouti.

Djibouti is on pace to develop into an economic hub in the Horn of Africa, largely financed by housing the U.S. military drone campaigns in Somalia and Yemen. The increased presence of the U.S. military has eased security concerns for investors, prompting infrastructure projects that have potential to spark greater economic and social development in the country that ranks 164th in the United Nations Human Development Index.

The circumstance behind Djibouti’s potential development is unique and also quite alarming. The same U.S. drone campaigns that financed much of the country’s recent developments risks making it a target for insurgents. If efforts to end the controversial drone campaign in the region are successful, the looming threat of expanded insurgency into Djibouti will become real. This would be counterintuitive to both U.S. and Djibouti’s mutual interests. What’s the alternative? A prolonged U.S. military presence in Djibouti that will remain in Djibouti for decades to come; hence the expansion of Camp Lemonnier and the opening of the country’s first Subway.

So far Djibouti’s strategic location has thrust the sparsely populated country into the middle of unseen economic and diplomatic circumstances, sprouting its eminence in the region that’s bound to continue growing. 20 years from now Djibouti’s economy will be completely changed. The catalyst? It very well might be drones.

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