For Somaliland and Djibouti, Will New Friends Bring Benefits?

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Interest in the Horn of Africa from foreign powers has always been a double-edged sword.

Local fishermen’s boats moor at Berbera port, in the breakaway territory of Somaliland, on July 21, 2018. (Mustafa Saeed/AFP/Getty Images)

BERBERA, Somalia—On any given day in Berbera, the deep-water port on Somaliland’s Red Sea coast, ramshackle ships dock next to small boats known as dhows. Most of them are waiting to set off for the Persian Gulf, laden with spices, scrap metal, and often more lively cargo—goats raised for the global market on the country’s scorched landscape.

It may be hard to tell by looking at it, but some 30 percent of the world’s crude oil transported on ships passes just a few miles offshore, a detail that has made Berbera’s port a prized location for outside powers looking for a new connection to the world’s most vital sea transport route. As a result, Somaliland, like its neighbor Djibouti, which is emerging as a hub for foreign military installations, has found itself at the center of big power rivalries that could reshape the Horn of Africa.

By 2020, Berbera’s dhows are set to have some much larger neighbors. Somaliland’s authorities have inked a deal with the United Arab Emirates for a $442 million port upgrade and the establishment of a new UAE naval base, offering the UAE a new launch point for its involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a way to strengthen its footing in the Horn of Africa.

When it becomes operational, Berbera’s new port is set to be run by DP World. After getting its start building Dubai’s Port Rashid, the largely state owned company from the UAE has become one of the world’s biggest port operators. The project will also include the establishment of a free trade zone, which aims to deliver huge economic gains for Somaliland and the Horn of Africa more broadly.

Given that Somaliland is not a country that formally exists, this new development is particularly ambitious. Although the territory has declared itself to be independent from Somalia, no other government recognizes its sovereignty, despite years of effort.

For the UAE, deepening ties with Somaliland aligns with a broader determination to punish Somalia. The Emiratis are aggrieved by Mogadishu’s coziness with Qatar and its refusal to join in the Saudi-led blockade of that country. In January, Qatar donated 68 armored vehicles to Somalia’s military. In April, the UAE retaliated by shutting down a key hospital it had funded in Somalia’s capital.

For Somaliland, the infusion of Emirati money means a lot more than being able to accommodate bigger ships and process more containers. For many, this set of investments is being viewed as an accelerant for the territory’s attempts to achieve formal independence from Somalia.

According to the head of Somaliland’s port authority, Saed Abdullahi Hassan, it is the largest infusion of foreign cash the region has ever received.

According to the head of Somaliland’s port authority, Saed Abdullahi Hassan, it is the largest infusion of foreign cash the region has ever received.

Hassan added that the investment “means everything to us.” He told Foreign Policy that the port “is something big for us … as you know that we are moving away from Greater Somalia.” For him, “DP World coming to Berbera shows the stability of the country.”However, Somaliland’s relative stability is only part of the equation. Western powers have said it’s up to the African Union to decide whether or not it will recognize Somaliland first. Given the complexities of revising colonial borders in Africa and the reluctance of larger African states to set a precedent that could be leveraged by their own rebellious regions, the African Union’s member states have few incentives to change the status quo. Somaliland is facing some very high barriers to realizing its ambitions of statehood, first and foremost in the form of opposition from Somalia.

The willingness of outside backers to support Somaliland has aggrieved Mogadishu. Since the Somali state collapsed into a three-decade-long cycle of conflict and violence, Somalia’s government has been trying to regain control of the country’s entire territory. Somaliland’s plans for Berbera’s port directly challenge that vision.