Djibouti fiddles amid the scramble for the Red Sea
Gateway to the Indo-Pacific, Djibouti is becoming the site of a 21st century scramble for ports, military bases, and economic models.
Today’s large-scale infrastructures that link African countries to each other and to the outside world are imbricated in colonial relations of power. Colonialism itself can be read as an infrastructure project speeding up, directing, and controlling movement to, from, and within Africa. The current infrastructure scramble that is sweeping East Africa seems to reproduce colonial patterns along Western models of development. Traditional colonial powers have, however, gained unexpected competition from new actors, who develop their own models of how to achieve development. Today’s global logistics companies not only finance infrastructural projects, but also actively project pathways of development that resemble those of their “motherland”.
Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa, emerged as the outcome of European imperial rivalry in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Djibouti’s strategic importance lies in its geographic position at the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and carries over 30% of today’s global shipping trade.
The close connection between economic and military power is directly visible in present-day Djibouti, which also became a centre of geopolitical competition over military bases, especially in the context of the Global War against Terror. The small country hosts several overseas military bases including those of France, the United States, and China. Situated at the mouth of the Red Sea, Djibouti has been at the heart of an infrastructural scramble and subject of several development models.
Until recently, Djibouti followed the model of Jebel Ali port and free zone in Dubai, which provides a blueprint for infrastructure-led development. After Djibouti’s falling-out with the Emirates-based global port operator and logistics giant, Dubai Port World (DPW) in 2018, the country turned its attentions East, to China. China, which built its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, provides a one-size-fits-all model based on the port city of Shekou, one of the early Chinese free zones and industrial parks developed by the state-owned China Merchant Group (CMG). Djibouti is yet to find its “own” vision of how to evolve as a globally competitive financial and logistics hub.
Shekou Model in Djibouti
In December 2020, CMG, China’s largest port operator and logistics company, reached an agreement with Djibouti to invest $ 3 billion in the expansion of the port of Djibouti. These investments, so goes the promise, will transform Djibouti from a transit point in Ethiopia’s impex trade into an autonomous regional hub for trade, business, and logistics.
CMG is replicating the “Port-Park-City” model that transformed Shekou within a few years in the 1980s, from a small town into a metropolis of over 13 million people. The model entails the integration of the port, free zones, industrial parks, commercial buildings, highways, power plants, and residential areas.
Since 2012, CMG has funded and built Doraleh Multipurpose Port (DMP) and Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ). Following the Port-Park-City model, CMG has designed a real estate complex on the site of Djibouti’s old port to serve as an “integrated development platform” featuring a hotel, marina, business centre and shopping mall, all estimated to cost $350 million. It was at the DIFTZ that the Red Sea Exhibition Centre was inaugurated to showcase the Shekou model as a blueprint for Djibouti’s modernisation and development.
The Red Sea Exhibition Centre (RSEC)
The Red Sea Exhibition Centre is the launchpad for the vision of a “New Djibouti”. The imagery – maps, graphs, photos, short films – displayed in the RSEC promotes the vision of a hub that sits geographically, economically, and socially at the junction of different worlds. The development of infrastructures features centrally in this vision of global connectivity, through a “win-win partnership” between China and Djibouti.
The exhibition details three stages of the development of the Port-Park-City model for Djibouti: (1) the expansion and building of ports; (2) the establishment of an industrial park (including free zones); and (3) the development of tertiary sectors and urban development. Infrastructural projects include modernisation of the Damerjob livestock port; a port in Tadjourah to export potassium extracted in Ethiopia; and a port in Goubet specialising in the salt trade. Gas and oil terminals, two free zones, and a second multipurpose port are also planned.
Ports and terminals are linked through transport corridors that demonstrate the continued importance of Djibouti to Ethiopia: a railroad connecting the Djibouti port to Addis Ababa, and a new highway that links Tadjourah in the east of Djibouti to Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, inaugurated in 2019. In addition, a road network is planned to connect Djibouti’s seven ports with an international airport and rail stations.
The RSEC promotes Djibouti’s potential to foreign investors and fosters the benefits of a South-South partnership with China. A “New Djibouti” is only possible if the country is able to “sell” this vision to investors. This might also be the reason why the bumpy relationship between Djibouti and China Merchant Holdings on the one hand, and DPW on the other, that invested millions in the port but whose contract was later terminated, with court suits in multiple jurisdictions, is not mentioned in the exhibition.
Djibouti in Search of its Own Model
The story of a “New Djibouti” emerging from an alliance with China is one among many narratives shaping Djibouti’s search for investors in the past few decades. From 2002 to 2017, DPW developed and built the Doraleh container terminal and a free zone in Djibouti, and promised to transform Djibouti into the “Dubai of the Horn“. After the expulsion of DPW, the country toyed with modified aspirations – becoming the “Singapore of Africa” for instance, and it appears to have now embraced the Shekou model.
All of these models have yet to improve the living conditions of a population that has been constantly marginalised by infrastructural scrambles.
African ports – in particular, the ports on its eastern shores – are collectively one of the last remaining sites in global maritime trade where exponential cargo growth is still possible. China advanced as Africa’s largest financier, and countries, like Djibouti, are taking debts that they may not be able to repay. China is now competing with traditional colonial actors on the continent, creating uneasiness particularly in the United States, and fuelling geopolitical competition over military and economic access in this tiny African country.
The scramble for infrastructural development is a source of hope across the continent. Djibouti’s search for a model is a story of an infrastructure-led development imbricated in affects, emotions, and aspirations for development, modernity, and prosperity. In the current infrastructural scramble in the Red Sea and East Africa, mostly driven by state-owned enterprises, African countries are yet to identify their own development models and find their place in the landscape of competitive ventures by global logistics companies.
*Research for this piece was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors. The research is part of the project: Port Infrastructure, International Politics, and Everyday Life in the Horn of Africa.