The UAE signals a shrinking presence by tearing down some military structures in the Horn of Africa, though it continues to expand its military, economic and political footprint in the region.
The UAE is dismantling part of its first power projection site, a military base in Assab, Eritrea, according to an Associated Press analysis of satellite images, but its deep economic and military presence in the region continues to provide the country a foothold in the strategic region.
“The UAE are only nominally withdrawing from the region,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of security studies at King’s College London. “This is a strategic withdrawal from the base for the time being to signal to the United States in particular that the UAE are withdrawing from the Horn of Africa. In reality, however, it doesn't have a major impact on UAE operations.”
“The base’s partial downsizing is indicative of Abu Dhabi’s shifting posture in relation to Yemen,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics told TRT World in a written statement. “Nonetheless, the Emiratis are merely downsizing, which means that the UAE will likely continue having access to this port and runway.”
Joe Biden had pledged to take a harsher stance on the Gulf countries compared to his predecessor. Within days of taking office, the Biden administration paused jet and arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively. It announced that it was largely pulling back US support to the Yemen war soon after.
The UAE has already come under fire for its close ties to Russia and China, and its potential to reveal crucial US military technology to its opponents. Its relations with the two countries continues to grow, however.
“In many ways Abu Dhabi is becoming somewhat a backdoor for Russia and China into Eastern Africa,” says Krieg. “That is being used strategically by Abu Dhabi to build ties with Beijing and Moscow and that something that will continue.”
Starting in April 2015, the UAE started using the port at Assab as a launching point for air and sea campaigns against the Houthis in Yemen, after signing a 30-year deal with Asmara for military use.
By late July 2015, it had expanded its construction to create a logistics support area and by the Fall of 2015, it had become a major airbase and its first international power projection site. The site includes barracks; container housing; a tent city to train Yemeni counterterrorism forces; “one of the best field surgical hospitals anywhere in the Middle East”; prisons which drew international condemnation for their use as torture sites; and deep-water port facilities.
Assab is also reported to have housed Yemeni and Emirati troops, as well as at least 10,000 Sudanese fighters, some of whom were ferried across the sea to fight in Yemen.
“Assab has been too much of a focal point for negative attention and reputational cost for Abu Dhabi,” Krieg tells TRT World. “Especially with the Biden administration and Africom, [which has] repeatedly expressed concerns over the UAE operations taking place through Assab or in Assab.”
The Assab port was also used for the internationally-condemned Hudaida and Mokha blockades. Hudaida is the main port through which food, aid, and fuel entered the country.
The UAE, a major player and part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, has received heavy criticism from the international community for its involvement in the war, which has killed, directly and indirectly, nearly a quarter million people including civilians, since the start of the conflict in 2014.
All sides in the war have been accused of human rights abuses and war crimes including the deliberate targeting of children and other civilians, torture and sexual abuse, employing child soldiers and laying landmines.
In addition to the war in Yemen, the Assab base has also allegedly been used as a launchboard for other military operations on the continent.
Some flights carrying military supplies to Libya, where the UAE supports warlord Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, appeared to depart from the Assab base.
Moreover, in November 2020, Getachew Reda, advisor to the Tigrayan regional leader, claimed that the Ethiopian Prime Minister had enlisted the help of the UAE through drones in Assab in the Tigray war.
@AbiyAhmedAli is now enlisting the support of #UAE drones based in Assab in his devastating war against the people of #Tigray. In the meantime, Tigray Defense Forces have targetted facilities in Eritrea including the Asmara airport that are being used to stage attacks on Tigray.— Getachew K Reda (@reda_getachew) November 15, 2020
A subsequent Bellingcat Investigation deemed the claim “possible but improbable”.
Wider regional strategy
Security and maritime commercial interests in the Red Sea, alongside its involvement in the Yemen war and competition with regional powers drove the UAE to establish bases and control coastal ports in the region, which are among the most strategic in the world.
In addition to Assab, Socotra Island; Berbera in Somaliland, whose expansion by Emirati company DP World is near completion; and Aden still provide the strategic choke points for the UAE.
“If anything, we see in the UAE that it’s going in the opposite direction,” explains Krieg. “It’s not withdrawing at all. It is actually going more intensely into building and expanding its foothold in the Horn of Africa.”
Military bases in the area are part of a larger foreign power strategy on the continent, which also includes economic and political aspects.
The UAE in particular stood out for leveraging its vast shipping and port infrastructure to become one of the biggest GCC traders in Africa.
In 2018, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged aid and investment packages to Ethiopia and Eritrea and helped mediate a two-decade-long war. The same year, the UAE also announced that it planned to build a pipeline from Assab in Eritrea to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Having poured tens of millions of dollars into the countries in the region, it is not likely to scale back in any real sense of the word, Krieg says, adding that this year at IDEX, the international defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi, the UAE will concentrate its efforts on African clients and try to bring them together with vendors and defense companies from China and Russia.
“We see an intensification of UAE involvement, but below the threshold, [and] below what is actually open for the eye to see,” he says. “Because that's a smarter way for the UAE to get away with some of the activities they are involved in, particularly following pressure from the United States.”