Battle of the Ports: Emirates Sea Power Spreads From Persian Gulf to Africa | Opinion

An aerial view of Jebel Ali Port in Dubai on October 25, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

The past few weeks have been particularly rich in new developments for the UAE's foreign policy. In Yemen, the UAE is at the forefront of the current struggle for the seizure of the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, a critical chokepoint for the arms and humanitarian supplies to the Houthis, and an important access to the Red Sea and strait of Bab el Mandeb, where 4.8 million barrels of oil and 8 percent of global trade transit every day.

On the other shore of the Red Sea, the Emiratis have reportedly played a key role at facilitating the rapprochement between 20-year rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia. On July 24, a few weeks after the two countries signed a peace agreement, Abu Dhabi hosted a tripartite summit with the two leaders, where it reaffirmed its support to their peace efforts. For the UAE, the stabilisation of these important partners could have strategic advantages, including for reinforcing its already solid influence on Horn of Africa's ports. Indeed, Eritrea hosts the UAE's first foreign military base in its port of Assab since 2015, and reports suggest that landlocked Ethiopia plans to use this port, possibly developed by Dubai Ports World, to diminish its reliance on the port of Djibouti.

Finally, the UAE also received last week the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, signing agreements in multiple areas, including cooperation on the project of Maritime Silk Road, given both countries growing footprint on regional ports.

These back-to-back developments mark further steps in the UAE's rapid maritime expansion in the Western Indian Ocean and suggest the shaping of an increasingly sophisticated Emirati diplomacy directed towards the achievement of its regional ambitions. This is playing out against the backdrop of regional competition between Gulf states across both the Gulf itself and the Horn of Africa, a competition also drawing in others such Turkey and China. This competition to control strategic ports and maritime routes represents a new, and potentially destabilizing, arena for intensifying regional rivalries.

Towards the emergence of an Emirati maritime empire?

Building on its long-standing presence in the Red Sea, the UAE has used the state-owned DP World as a key commercial and diplomatic tool, allowing it to multiply their commercial concessions and economic agreements with the ports on the Horn of Africa. This has resulted in a string of UAE controlled ports—running from Assab in Eritrea, to Djibouti, Berbera in Somaliland, Bosaso in the Puntland, Barawe in Somalia and Kismayo in southern Somalia. On the other side of the Red Sea, in southern and western Yemen, the Emirati intervention against the Houthis and Al Qaida has created an opening for the UAE to develop its influence in local ports such as Mukalla, Bir'Ali, Balhaf, Aden, al-Mokha, and now Al Hodeidah.

Yemeni fighters from the Amalqa ("Giants") Brigades, loyal to the Saudi-backed government, gather with armed pick-up trucks and armored vehicles on the side of a road during the offensive to seize the Red Sea port city of Hodeida from Iran-backed Huthi rebels, on its southern outskirts near the airport on June 21. SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

For a few years now, the UAE has also been using its presence in foreign ports as a launching pad from which it can project its military power into the region. Following the degradation of its relationship with Djibouti, the UAE established its first foreign military base in Eritrea's port of Assab in 2015, which played a key role in enforcing the coalition's blockade of Yemen, and in coordinating the air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen. The UAE is also developing a naval and air base in Berbara (Somaliland), and tightening its military cooperation with the Seychelles.

Emirati efforts have been focused mainly on the ports of the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean, which occupy a strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes linking Europe, Africa and Asia. As Iran threatens to put constraints on the access to the Strait of Hormuz, maintaining security and freedom of navigation in the Bab el Mandeb is crucial to the UAE. But maybe more importantly, the UAE is eager to make itself a key component of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for which the Gulf and Indian Ocean are strategic. At a time when Gulf countries are trying to diversify their economies, Asian investments and positioning on global trade routes represent important opportunities for the UAE's post-oil economy.

The battle of ports at the center of Gulf rivalries

The Emirati port of Jebel Ali provides a quarter of Dubai's GDP and stands today as the largest container port in the region, with a capacity that has increased by a third since 2015, reaching around 20 million TEUs. But if the UAE is currently the most proactive and rapidly expanding maritime power in the region, it is not the only one, and other Gulf countries have invested heavily in the development of their own ports and logistical infrastructures.

The Saudi ports of King Abdullah and Jeddah are planning to almost double their capacity over the coming years. A plan to connect these ports on the Red Sea to the city of Dammam on the Persian Gulf through new pipelines and rail networks would cut significantly trading routes, given them a competitive edge. Oman too is trying to take advantage of its strategic location on the Indian Ocean, which allows it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz, by upgrading its ports in Sohar, Salalah, and Duqm.

On the opposite shore of the Gulf, Iran is seeking to attract Chinese and Indian investments for the development of its port in Chabahar, which would be connected to Central Asia via railways. The return of U.S. sanctions may however limit its ambitions. Finally, Qatar, has brought forward the opening of its Hamad port to September 2017. While this primarily stems from the need to re-draw its trading routes as a result of the UAE-Saudi instigated blockade against it, its new port could also become a credible alternative to Jebel Ali.

But control of ports is also an inherently political issue. The blockade of Qatar has demonstrated how interdependency and connectivity can be used as a tool for political pressure. Gulf countries are keenly aware of this risk and are attempting to diversify and re-balance cross-border and maritime trade routes. As mentioned above, Qatar has re-directed its routes from Jebel Ali towards other regional ports such as Sohar in Oman, and Shuwakin in Kuwait. It has also signed a transportation partnership with Iran and Turkey to further help it bypass the blockade.

Similarly, Oman has framed the development of its ports in Sohar and Duqm, and greater cooperation with Qatar, as a means of lessening its vulnerability to mounting political pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Muscat continued relationship with Iran. Even close allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being prudent. Saudi investments in the Omani port of Duqm and infrastructure projects boosting land connections between the two territories—and circumventing the UAE—can be seen as an attempt by Riyadh to decrease its reliance on the Emirati ports, and loosen the latter's monopoly on Gulf trading routes.

Intra-Gulf competition over maritime trade routes is not solely confined to domestic ports. In a similar fashion to the UAE, other regional powers have also been developing their presence in ports and maritime choke points doted across the region, using them as ways to build wider influence. But as these powers expands outwards into the region, it is geopolitics rather than pure economics that is becoming the dominant driver.

The Horn of Africa and Red Sea especially have been subject to heightened militarisation due to a complex game of regional rivalries involving Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Egypt. In addition to being important aid donors to the Horn of Africa, these countries have sought to increase their military presence in the Red Sea. Besides the Saudi base in Djibouti, and Emirati bases in Eritrea and Somalia, Turkey is in the process of opening bases in Mogadishu and in Suakin (Sudan), Iran is conducting anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea, and there are rumours that Egypt is in talks on a base in Eritrea.

Regional powers have also been playing on internal eastern African tensions to counterbalance each other's influence. In Somalia for example, Ankara and Abu Dhabi are playing on internal rivalries between the central government in Mogadishu and Somali clans and federal states to increase their influence at the expense of the other.

The international community fears that Gulf-Turkey rivalries could have destabilising spill-over effects on an already fragile region. The Europeans especially, who have high strategic stakes in the Horn of Africa and depend heavily on the maritime trade routes passing through the strait of Hormuz and Suez Canal, see this regional power contest with a lot of concern. However, the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement suggest that the UAE is willing to impose itself as a peace broker and stabilising power in the region. Future developments will tell us whether connectivity and economic dependency will play more as a factor of conflict or as a factor of peace in the region—but they are already certain to confirm the Red Sea and regional maritime routes as the new arenas for regional contestation.

Camille Lons is a Programme Coordinator with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​