Djibouti--A Little "Afro-Arab" State on the Horn of Africa: At The Crossroads of Arab-Middle East Politics
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Referred to as a “postage stamp-sized” country, Djibouti is home to a small population of Yemeni Arabs. Some of these Arabs emigrated there many years ago across the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a short distance over the Red Sea. But some Yemenis are of more recent vintage, having recently escaped war-torn Yemen, which is being fought over by the Iranians and Saudis. Djibouti is ruled by politicians of Somali origin and the country has many international residents as well as several military bases established on its strategically-placed real estate. Because of its cosmopolitan nature, it has been described as the “French Hong Kong in the Red Sea.”
The Djibouti Republic
Djibouti is geographically small with an equally small population of around a million. Somalis make up 60% and Afar tribal people of Ethiopia about 35% of the population. Yemenis are less than 5% of the total. Most people live in the urban center of Djibouti City, while only about ¼, who are pastoralists, live in the rugged, mountainous outskirts of the City. French and Italians comprise most of the foreign population. As a former subject of France, Djibouti has been the home to a contingent of the French Foreign Legion. Due to its proximity to some of the world’s most active shipping lanes in the Red Sea-Indian Ocean zone, it is an important center for refueling and transshipment. In addition to its emerging role as a strategic spot for military bases, Djibouti also serves as a major maritime port for its landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia.
Djibouti became independent of France in 1977, through a referendum. The then-new country joined the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League, and the United Nations. Its economy is based on service activities tied to its geostrategic position, mainly that of a deep-water port on the Red Sea. In the absence of natural resources and industry, Djibouti is dependent on foreign assistance, especially in meeting its balance of payments and in financing new projects. Unemployment is a dismal 40%, with a spectacular youth unemployment rate of 80%.
The country relies on imported food and water and even its power depends on imported diesel fuel. China has become a major partner in developing port modernization projects and the Djibouti-Addis Abba Railway, as part of China’s “Belt and Road initiative.”
Yemenis of Djibouti—Longtime Residents and Now a flood of Refugees
Yemeni residents of Djibouti City comprise only a small portion of the total population–less than 100,000. They tend to be poor, small merchants and are not involved in the politics or governing of the country, which is dominated by major tribal factions of Somali origin. Yemenis are Muslim, as are most of the rest of the country.
They brought with them from Yemen the practice of chewing chat (khat or qat), the leaves of a shrub which provide a stimulant that is chewed or drunk as a tea. Many of the African population of the country also imbibe in chat. While chat’s use is legal in Djibouti and some other nearby countries, it is illegal in others, including some Arab countries. The World Health Organization has classified chat as a drug of abuse that can cause dependence. Based on the author’s earlier work in Djibouti City, he found that some Djiboutians felt that the practice of chewing chat was debilitating and that it detracted from the effectiveness of the country’s development.
Recently, the short distance across the strait of Bab al-Mandeb has attracted Yemeni refugees from the war in Yemen to flee and locate in Djibouti. At least 1500 Yemenis have boarded small fishing boats to take refuge in tiny Djibouti. Many end up in United Nation’s camps, which provide basic shelter and food. The Government of Djibouti has allowed the refugees to stay in a camp in the Obock region or in the capital city. The sailing has not all been smooth for the refugees, however, given reports that migrant boats have sunk off the Djibouti coast. Despite the short distance across the Bab al-Mandeb, it is still a dangerous voyage.
Djibouti is perhaps the only country in the world to willingly accept refugees from Yemen. With some recent prospects for peace in Yemen, the refugees from that war-torn country living in Djibouti, however, have little to cheer about. In addition to living on meager supplies, these refugees must endure one of the hottest climates on earth (Djibouti was once noted as having experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded on the earth.)
Djibouti and the War in Yemen
Titled a “Port in a Storm” in a recent BBC report, Djibouti is depicted as a “model of stability in an otherwise volatile region.” Its stability seems to be one of its strong assets. However, its partiality has begun to emerge in the form of favoring the U.S. in its support of Saudi Arabia in the latter’s proxy war against Iran in Yemen. Djibouti, which has been an ally of Saudi Arabia, has allowed the use of its airport for coalition bombing missions in Yemen. In addition, given Yemen’s proximity to Somalia, the U.S. base in Djibouti has been convenient in providing support in fighting al-Shabab militants. Worrisome to western powers are reports of China’s interest in establishing a military base in the Obock region of Djibouti.
Djibouti, as an independent state, must select from an array of opportunities coming its way from countries that understand its critical geopolitical importance in the Africa-Middle East region. It is dealing with difficult crosswinds from East and West and within the Arab-Iran vortex. As much as it reaps in financial payments for “rent” of its space for commercial and military purposes, it also needs to provide a means of employment for its vast number of un- and underemployed citizens. Whether it’s China, the U.S. or Saudi Arabia, juggling regional and international relations is a tricky business. Djibouti’s Afro-Arab and UN connections are critical in maintaining its geopolitical strategy, but its own, selective decisions about how to align with one nation versus another will be critical to its overall, strategic sense of balance.
(References: “Yemenis find refuge, little else, in Djibouti’s Obock camp,” 23 September 2018; “Why are there so many military bases in Djibouti?” BBC News, 16 June 2015; “Yemenis flee across the Red Sea to escape war,” Aljazeera News, October 2018; “What are the prospects for peace in 2019 and beyond?” Equal TImes, January 2019.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.