Tucked away behind rows of tin shacks and unkempt acacia trees, a cluster of tumbledown villas, mosques and a synagogue conjures up the grandeur of a port that once marked the southern tip of the Ottoman Empire. “Berbera is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of east African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the western Erythraean shore,” wrote Richard Burton, a British traveller, in 1855. “Occupation [by the British]…has been advised for many reasons.”
After the British came the Russians and in the 1980s NASA, America’s space agency, which wanted its runway, one of Africa’s longest, as an emergency stop for its space shuttle. Now the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is Berbera’s latest arriviste. On March 1st DP World, a port operator based in Dubai, began working from Berbera’s beachside hotel. Officials put little Emirati flags on their desks, and refined plans to turn a harbour serving the breakaway republic of Somaliland into a gateway to the 100m people of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, Ethiopia. Three weeks later the UAE unveiled another deal for a 25-year lease of air and naval bases alongside. The agreement, rejoiced a Somaliland minister in the hotel café, amounted to the first economic recognition of his tiny republic. It would fill the government’s coffers, and bolster its fledgling army. Businessmen sat at his table discussing solar power stations, rocketing land prices and plans for a Kempinski hotel.
Berbera is but the latest of a string of ports the UAE is acquiring along some of the world’s busiest shipping routes. From Dubai’s Jebel Ali, the Middle East’s largest port, it is extending its reach along the southern rim of Arabia, up the Horn of Africa to Eritrea (from where the UAE’S corvettes and a squadron of Mirage bombers wage war in Yemen), and on to Limassol and Benghazi in the Mediterranean. Fears that Iran or Sunni jihadists might get there first—particularly as the region’s Arab heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, seem to flounder—propel the advance.
“If we waited to prevent these threats at our borders, we might be overrun,” explains Ebtesam al-Ketbi, who heads a think-tank in Abu Dhabi. The UAE also worries that rivals might tempt trade away from Jebel Ali, awkwardly situated deep inside the Gulf. Rapid port expansion at Chabahar in Iran, Duqm in Oman and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia all pose a challenge.
But as the expansion accelerates, observers are asking whether the UAE is bent on “the pursuit of regional influence”, as Ms al-Ketbi puts it, for its own sake. Most analysts ascribe this push to Abu Dhabi’s 56-year-old crown prince, Muhammad bin Zayed. He is the deputy commander of the UAE’s armed forces, and the younger brother of the emir of Abu Dhabi, who is also the president of the UAE.
On the prince’s watch, the UAE has gone from being a haven mindful of its own business into the Arab world’s most interventionist regime. Flush with petrodollars, he has turned the tiny country, whose seven component emirates have a combined population of almost 10m (only about 1m of whom are citizens), into the world’s third-largest importer of arms. He has recruited hundreds of mercenaries, and has even talked of colonising Mars.
In 2014 he imposed military conscription on his pampered citizens, and sent dozens to their deaths in the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Before becoming America’s defence secretary, General James Mattis dubbed the UAE “little Sparta”. Join the dots of the ports it controls, and some even see the old Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar, from which the emirates sprang, arising afresh.
The UAE has won Berbera and Eritrea’s Asaab base by agreement, but elsewhere it applies force. In July 2015 it defied doubters, including the Saudis, by capturing Aden, once the British Empire’s busiest port. “They have the only [Arab] expeditionary capability in the region,” oozes a Western diplomat, fulsome in his praise of the UAE’s special forces, who mounted an amphibious landing to seize Aden from the Houthis.
With the help of American SEALs, Emirati soldiers have since then taken the ports of Mukalla and Shihr, 500km (300 miles) east, and two Yemeni islands in the Bab al-Mandab strait, past which 4m barrels of oil pass every day. The crown prince has seen off Qatari interest in Socotra, a strategic Yemeni island, by sending aid (after a hurricane) and then construction companies, which a Western diplomat fancies may build an Emirati version of Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean atoll where America has a large military base. While Saudi Arabia struggles to make gains in Yemen, Emirati-led troops earlier this year marched into Mokha port and are setting their sights on Hodeidah, Yemen’s largest port and the last major one outside Emirati control.
The prince has also backed separatists in Somalia, helping to stand up both Puntland, by funding its Maritime Police Force, and Somaliland. And in Libya, he has sent military support to Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, an autonomous force in the east of the country. To Turkey’s fury, the UAE opened an embassy in Cyprus last year and is involved in military exercises with Greece and Israel.
But sceptics worry about the dangers of overreach and the potential for clashing with greater powers crowding into the Red Sea. On its western shores Israel, France and the United States already have big bases. China is building a port in Djibouti. Iranian generals look to establish their own naval bases on Yemen’s rebel-held coast. And though formally part of the same coalition in Yemen, some Saudi princes are looking askance at their ambitious junior partners. In February Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces fought each other over control of Aden’s airport. Saudi Arabia’s princes have also hosted Somalia’s president, who criticises the Emirates’ Berbera base as “unconstitutional”. Some wonder what the prince’s father and the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan, would have made of it all. “Be obedient to Allah and use your intelligence instead of resorting to arms,” he used to counsel when fellow Arabs went to war.