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  • Writer's pictureAlain Catzeflis

DJIBOUTI: A 5-star caravanserai for the world's armies

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

We arrived back at the gates of our hotel from a pizza and Ethiopian St George's beer in downtown Djibouti to find the road blocked by three pick-ups loaded with armed soldiers of the Djiboutienne Guard Republicaine, their red berets winking in a dazzle of blue flashing lights.

Our rickety green and white Mazda had been preceded by - but was not clearly not part of - a convoy of black limousines. Our taxi pulled over to let us out and was immediately harangued by an officer and told to make himself scarce in no uncertain terms.

His Excellency Abdullah Hamdouk, Prime Minister of Sudan was in town for a conference on security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and staying at our hotel. Fair enough. We could do with some of that.

We're here for some R&R after four fabulous but arduous weeks wandering around the mountains and deserts of Ethiopia mostly by car. I've always wanted to come to Djibouti in the way that one always wanted to see Checkpoint Charlie.

We had planned to come on the new Chinese built train from Addis Ababa.

But it's become slow and a tad unreliable. Camel owners keep driving their animals onto to the track in the hope of trousering the hefty compensation paid for dead camels which has been set above the market price. So we flew.

The Kempinski in Djibouti is a sort of ultra-luxurious Green Zone at the heart of the most militarised territory in Africa strategically placed at the jugular of the Red Sea. It's surrounded by a 16ft wall topped with coils of barbed and razor wire, concrete blast barriers and a state of art CCTV system.

It's actually a beautiful hotel. Yummy breakfast, fab pools, great Yemeni restaurant, super comfy beds and lovely, mostly Somali staff. Guests are made up almost entirely of armed forces personnel, NGO staff and officials from various African nations passing through.

Primer: Djibouti stands guard. like the Guns of Navarone, on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes at the approaches to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The territory is barely 32kms from the Yemen where the Saudis backed by the US are fighting a proxy war with Iran and the Houthi rebels who recently shut down half of Saudi Arabia's oil storage facilities with a drone strike. Djibouti also shares borders with Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia.

Djibouti is a kind of military souk. Or the mercenary camps of the Middle Ages on a 21st century armed Silk Road. And the Kempinski is its caravanserai a role which it plays with grace and aplomb.

Everyone has a stall because everyone has an interest in policing the gateway to and from the Suez canal: the US of course which has recently set up a second base for its drones that strike into Yemen and, when needed, Somalia; France; Spain whose personnel spend hours over leisurely breakfasts; Japan has its only overseas base here; Saudi Arabia is building a base for its fast jets and, of course, China.

Beijing's base is operated by the People's Liberation Army. It's Great Gamesmanship by President Xi of course but to be fair some 40% of China's seaborne trade passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb straits: the Gate of Tears.

As I write this I can see tankers and bulk carriers queuing to pass through. Mid-morning a brace of Mirage 2000 jets of the elite French air force Escadrons de Chasse Corse flies low over the pool area.

John Bolton predictably was really upset at this lèse majesté by the Chinese and in response Washington is pumping an extra US$1bn into upgrading the plumbing.

Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh who appears to have pulled a fast one by secretly agreeing to give the Chinese their own base, says the United States had a "fixation" about the Chinese base and complained "incessantly" that the Chinese were hampering their operations.

He added that the Japanese were even more worried than the Americans. The Chinese claim to have intercepted two Japanese divers nosing around their warships. Shades of Buster Crabb. Everyone would get along just fine said Mr Guelleh if they would just stop spying on each other. Non-aligned to a fault is Mr Guelleh.

As always someone's coining it in: According to French radio RF1 Djibouti has now replaced Eritrea as the number one arms trafficking hub in the Horn of Africa.

The British specialist intelligence company EXXAfrica says most of the weapons appear to be coming from Houthi controlled territory in Yemen. They're then shipped to Djiboutian ports from where they are passed to armed groups in northern Somalia and the Sudan with the blessing or so EXXAfrica claims of the government in Djibouti. Though not it claims to Al-Shabab terrorists. How would they know I wonder? Guns go where the money is.

Back to our pizza: downtown Djibouti is a frankly depressing place. People live and trade amid dilapidated old French colonial buildings and real squalor.

The country’s only real asset is its geo strategic position and its land which it has sold or leased to foreign armies.

It’s a living but not one that confers much dignity on its people.

The ordinary people of Djibouti hardly seem to be beneficiaries of the billions being poured into the tiny spit of land by armies ostensibly here to protect us at home. No surprise there.

Alain Catzeflis


February 2019

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