Egypt mulls Djibouti logistical zone to defend Red Sea interests

Egypt’s interest in Djibouti is less about economic benefits and more about security.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Strategic crossroads. A view of the port of Djibouti.  (AP)
Strategic crossroads. A view of the port of Djibouti. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt said it is considering establishing a “logistical free zone” in Djibouti, a Horn of Africa country that is increasingly a point of interest for regional powers.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said it was keen on pushing cooperation forward with Djibouti at all levels.

“This cooperation is important for boosting security and stability in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said.

At a meeting with Djiboutian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mahamoud Ali Youssouf in Mauritania on June 28, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo was depending on Djibouti for security at the southern entrance of the Red Sea.

Egypt is hoping to secure Djiboutian cooperation to develop a mechanism for security and economic cooperation in the Red Sea, Shoukry said on the sidelines of a meeting of the Executive Council of the African Union.

“Egypt and Djibouti,” he said, “face the same challenges and have the same aspirations [in terms of security and prosperity].”

Shoukry was the latest senior Egyptian government official to express interest in securing a presence in Djibouti. Other international powers have a military presence in the small Horn of Africa country. France, the United States, China and Japan have military bases in Djibouti, as do Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are seeking to counter Iranian influence in Yemen, on the other side of the Bab el Mandeb Strait.

Last November, Egyptian Trade and Industry Minister Tarek Kabil said the ministry would send a delegation to Djibouti to study establishing a free logistical zone in the country. Djibouti, Kabil said, could be a gateway for Egyptian exports to Horn of Africa counties, a market of more than 150 million consumers.

However, Egypt’s interest in Djibouti is less about economic benefits and more about security. Cairo wants to secure vital Red Sea shipping routes that are integral to the operation of the Suez Canal.

Security conditions in the region, analysts said, have a direct effect on the canal, the world’s busiest maritime passageway and a critical source of Egyptian national income.

“Egyptian presence in the southern entrance of the Red Sea acquires greater importance now that almost all regional and international powers are racing against each other to have a presence there,” said retired Egyptian army General Mahmoud Khalaf. “Djibouti’s location gives it control on the southern entrance of the Red Sea, the shipping route of most of the world’s trade and oil.”

Cairo had been watching international powers gaining a foothold in Djibouti for a long time. Developments in the southern part of the Red Sea convinced Egyptian officials that action was needed on their part.

In addition to establishing a presence in the Horn of Africa, Iran has expanded its influence in Yemen by offering military and financial support to the Shia Houthi militia.

The first thing the Houthis did after controlling the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in early 2015, was to take over Yemen’s port cities, including those on the Red Sea. Apart from using the ports to receive supplies from Iran, the Houthis also threatened maritime movement in the Red Sea by attacking ships passing Yemen’s coast.

This has alarmed Cairo, whose military planners are bound to secure navigation in the Red Sea to ensure the flow of international shipping to and from the Suez Canal.

In early 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, viewed with suspicion in Cairo, agreed with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to take administrative control of a Sudanese Red Sea island.

Although neglected and unused by Sudan for many years, Suakin has great strategic value for international maritime shipping and could challenge Egypt’s position on shipping and trade in the Red Sea.

Egypt, which also expects to be negatively affected by a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam being constructed by Ethiopia on the Nile, also wants a presence in the Horn of Africa to protect its water interests, analysts said.

Abu Zeid described Egypt’s relations with Djibouti as “very special,” adding that Djibouti’s location makes it vital to security conditions in the southern entrance of the Red Sea.

“This is why this country is very important for Egypt,” Abu Zeid said. “The fact is that Djibouti is an inseparable part of Egypt’s national security.”