The Somaliland Ordeal : The Berbera Port Agreement and the Dangers it Involves

Introductory Remarks

It is not an easy matter to either categorically denounce or wholeheartedly support a strategic agreement which, like that of Berbera, has important cultural, economic, security, and political implications. Still, however, it is clear that the manner in which this agreement has been executed leaves a great deal to be desired. If nothing else, it shows a lack of ability, on the part of Somaliland leaders, to put into historical perspective the current political dynamics and the uncertainties the region is witnessing; as well as the global political and economic rivalries. For many people, the value of the deal does not reflect Berbera’s geostrategic location, nor the important economic gateway that it is. Whereas others argue that [because of this agreement], Somaliland has made a miscalculation and allowed itself to fall into a trap out of which it cannot negotiate. Still others consider this agreement a timely gamble!

Whatever the case may be, this is an agreement which would have a different face if there had been a more complete understanding of its impact, or if better informed answers had been given to a number of questions – some of which concern the importance of the Red Sea, the intentions lying behind the Emirates’ military base, and the danger that can result from Ethiopia’s access rights to the port. In this article, I am offering a brief analysis of the following: the Red Sea and the fundamental changes taking place, the financial investment of the Emirates and its military base in Berbera, and the strategy driving Ethiopia’s interest in the port.

 The Red Sea and the Changes Taking Place in it

The vital importance of the Red Sea should not be trivialized. It is currently the intersectional spot of international trade, terrorism, politics of power and oil, alliances, natural resources, and the territorial interests that world powers are all maneuvering to secure.

There are the countries in the West, whose influence in the region as a whole, and in the Red Sea in particular, is waning as their efforts are by and large restricted to security issues and the fight against terrorism. Pitted against them are the Chinese, whose economic power, political clout and influence are growing. When we set aside the agreements that they have entered into for mineral exploration, the Chinese have carried out, in many places in our region and on the continent as a whole, major projects which are aimed at boosting the economy. Examples include the installation of oil pipelines and railway lines and the construction of ports. The number of Chinese companies operating in Africa is estimated at 10,000, and their planned investment of capital is estimated at $60 billion.

Now, given these facts, the question that needs to be answered is this: how can Somaliland keep pace with, and secure optimal benefits from, these strategic transformations which are taking place in the Red Sea basin?

It is imperative that Somaliland revise the strategic relations it is going to have with the various parties in contestation, with great emphasis being placed on the way in which these multilateral relations could be made mutually advantageous and balanced. This means that Somaliland should not [allow itself to] be in the lower negotiation position. Nor should it be content with the leavings and scraps thrown its way, while at the same time exaggerating the small gains it has secured in order to cover up the shortcomings of the agreement. In doing so, it thereby demonstrates that it has been unable to make the best choices among the available opportunities. Conversely, the other parties always prove to be the ones who have a clear-eyed vision about their interests and completely worked-out plans to reach their goals.

When we set aside the intentions of the Western countries and the Chinese, there are other countries – foremost amongst them Turkey, India, South Africa, and Brazil – which have undergone great economic growth and at the same time currently have a good deal of influence in the world. This being the case, it is necessary that Somaliland should not have a one-eyed foreign policy, and it should not allow itself, through negligence and inadvertence, to pass up the many opportunities that present themselves to it. On the contrary, Somaliland should by all means possible try to make a comprehensive, in-depth study of every opportunity that presents itself so that it can realize its own interests; it should also at times establish relations with countries which have conflicting interests, that way placing itself in a better negotiating position, which empowers it to secure its vital interests. What is preventing [the] Somaliland [government] from putting in place bilateral relations with India and China; or from thinking of a way to create strong ties with Russia, with which it had connections for a long time? What is preventing Somaliland from seeking investment in agriculture from Qatar, a small but rich country that’s contemplating ways to feed its own people, and making available to it large areas of arable land for agricultural development, Likewise, what is preventing Somaliland from strengthening its ties with Turkey, a country with which it has shared a long historical bond of more than a century? So it might make use of that country’s extensive expertise in modern science and technology (for example, in education, energy, and light industry), as well as in the fashioning of methods to improve the economy. While, it is the case that the (Berbera) port has been handed over to the Emirates. When we give full consideration to the above-mentioned issues, it becomes clear to us that the questions which need to be posed are far more in number than the answers that the government has offered.

The Economic Investment of the Emirates and Its Military Base

The Emirates is a country that is seeking far more influence than it has the capacity to deliver, a fact that becomes clear when the limited scope of its land, its population, its economy, and its guiding ideology, as well as its military capabilities, are looked at carefully and dispassionately. For example, a whole host of unanswered questions present themselves when a country which has a population of less than 1.5 million people and a military force of less than 100,000 soldiers with a yearly outlay of less than 2% of its national budget nevertheless establishes – or tries to establish – military bases in Somaliland, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, and elsewhere. Why does the Emirates need all these bases, and what benefits does it derive from them? Does it even have the wherewithal to sustain them in the long run?

In reality, the Emirates is not a country that needs to protect its limited economic interests with military muscle. The fact is that the small capacity of its economy will not allow it to sustain these bases over the medium and long terms. For that reason, many people with expertise about political matters are convinced that the current policy of military expansion on the part of the Emirates is based on self-inflation, recklessness, and short-sighted competition with other leaders in the Gulf, like those of Qatar, who have different policies.

From another perspective, it is worth raising the question of why the Emirates should have a need for a military base near Berbera, a project on which it is spending a mere $400 million. Whereas it is investing a whopping $1.2 billion on the construction of a seaport for the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country about whose precarious security situation we are fully informed about – without entering into any formal agreement for concerning a military base (like the one concerning Berbera) . When looked at seriously and closely, it becomes clear that the real purpose of the Berbera base, whose land has been leased to the Emirates for a period of 20 years, goes far beyond the war currently being waged in Yemen. In fact it does not have much at all to do with the contests between the Gulf States, nor the protection of the small investment that the Emirates is making in expanding the port.

In light of all this, the important question that must be raised is this: for whom is the Emirates protecting this waterway, which serves as an important back-door for Israel and Egypt and connects Asia, Africa, and Europe? And from whom is it being protected?

Whatever the matter may be, it is clear that the Emirates has political connections at the global level and that the powerful friends with whom it has strong ties at the present time wield great influence in the world leadership arena.. This fact in itself is something that Somaliland could use to its own advantage if it [i.e. the matter of the Berbera port agreement] were approached in a strategically clear-eyed, effective manner. It could be a golden opportunity for Somaliland. This agreement, which was inaugurated three years ago and whose value is being exaggerated by the politicians, has secured neither political gains, nor new relations beyond UAE nor any tangible benefits that the Somaliland citizen can see with his eyes.

What is worse, Somaliland has, in quite a thoughtless fashion, cozied up to Ethiopia without much bargain, a country which is ranked as the 43rd most powerful country in the world and the 3rd most powerful country in Africa. 

Ethiopia’s Interests

Recently, there has been a change in the top leadership of Ethiopia. However it is worth understanding that ‘generally speaking there hasn’t been any significant change in Ethiopia’s foreign policy.’ Ever since the time of the reign of King Tewodros, who was the first leader to put in place a policy designed for the entire Horn of Africa region, and throughout the reigns of the monarchs who came in his wake – including Yohannes IV, Menelik II, all the way down to Haile Selase – as well as the post-monarchical political style of Meles Zenawi, the central pillar of Ethiopia’s foreign policy was security, imperialist expansion, and the search for a seaport.

An example of this policy took place in 1945 when King Haile Selase made known to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt Ethiopia’s desire to secure a gateway of its own to the sea. That dream came true five years later when Ethiopia was permitted to annex Eritrea in 1950, with America playing a major role in the execution of that scheme. This was a direct result of Ethiopia’s tenacious effort to gain access to the sea.

This is not the only example of Ethiopia’s expansionist foreign policy. On the contrary; one can easily point to agreements it made with European imperialist powers. For example: French Somaliland, March 1897; British Somaliland, June 1897; Italian Eritrea, 1900; Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1902; British East Africa, 1907; and Italian Somaliland in 1908. Finally, it took control of a land belonging to Somaliland (Hawd and the Reserved Area) as a result of an agreement it entered into with the English imperialists.  Whatever the case may be, the problem of Ethiopia’s lack of a direct route to the sea re-surfaced after Eritrea regained its freedom and sovereignty. Since that secession, which cut it off from the sea, Ethiopia has been attempting to invest in the development of Djibouti so that it can have access to the Red Sea. But none of these attempts have borne fruit because they were rebuffed by President Ismail Omar Geelle, who clearly saw the dangers that could result from Ethiopia’s long-term designs.

In contrast, the last successive Somaliland government have all adopted an approach which is quite different. Through carelessness, shiftlessness, or may be a lack of foresight, they have made it possible for Ethiopia to achieve its strategic goal almost overnight. They have enabled Ethiopia to have unlimited access to Somaliland’s sea practically as a gift, with no conditions attached – whether out of a lack of attentiveness and caution or in the absence of a full understanding of the situation. This is a development that poses serious dangers. England gave Ethiopia a territory belonging to Somaliland – namely, Hawd and the Reserved Area. Now, seventy years later, the leaders of Somaliland have, with the stroke of a pen, fulfilled Ethiopia’s age-old dream of gaining a route to the Red Sea.  Worse, they have done so without fully grasping, or asking themselves questions about, the future implications of their act, and without seriously considering the reasons for which President Geelle had adamantly resisted a similar arrangement. 


The conflicting strategic interests between various militarily and economically powerful states are always increasing the importance of the Red Sea – a fact which makes the Berbera port such a strategic spot. Therefore, it is imperative that Somaliland re-examines its foreign policy to consider this much wider context and prepare itself to negotiate with any interested party. Only then can it maximize its benefits and realize its own political and economic interests in the most advantageous fashion. In a parallel fashion, Somaliland should be wary of agreements which carry with them deadly consequences, agreements which allow others to take advantage of the economic and political vulnerabilities of the country at the present time. In a similar manner, the agreements that the country enters into should be fully transparent ones which quite clearly manifest the interests secured for the people and the country. Somaliland is in great need of economic investments from the Emirates, and likewise from Qatar, Russia, the West, and China, as well as the modern technology of Turkey and many others. The divergences and agreements among the parties which we have mentioned above should not worry Somaliland that much, and Somaliland should not be made into the exclusive satellite of just one country. Nor should it become part of a limited alliance. Rather, it should be one which watches out primarily for its own interests.

 * Abdinasir Ibraahim Ismail is a University Lecturer, Political Analyst and Researcher with the Horn Institute for Public Policy and Social Research “HIPPSOR”  ,Hargeisa, Somaliland

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