A senior European diplomat has warned the growing military presence of the United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa could prompt conflict in the region and add to massive migration towards Europe as well as create extremism and a threat to European trade routes.
The European Union diplomat, who declined to be named, spoke out as the Gulf state increases its military profile in the unstable Horn of Africa through alliances and the use of key ports.
“There is a scramble for bases and proxies,” said the official, who is engaged in EU African policymaking. “We are engaging increasingly with the Gulf to warn them about over-competing for influence in a fragile region. The law of physics means blowback.”
The UAE has steadily built up its military presence in Eritrea thanks to its use of a military airport and naval port at Assab, which has proved an essential launchpad for operations in Yemen, where the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are fighting a grueling war against Houthi rebels.
Mirage jets and C-17s have used Assab, as have Chinooks, Apaches, Black Hawks and Predator UAVs, while Yemeni forces have received training there, part of the UAE military muscle flexing that has earned the nickname the Gulf’s "Little Sparta" among U.S. generals.
Short of manpower to fight its war, the UAE has brought in fighters from Somalia and Sudan, while also funding military budgets in Somalia and Puntland, a self-declared autonomous state in Somalia.
Dubai also took over management last year of Berbera port in Somaliland — a second self-declared autonomous region in Somalia.
The buildup is not just aimed at supporting the Yemen war. The UAE is also seeking allies in the Horn of Africa to ward off influence building by its Shia rival Iran, an ambition also pursued by Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly used a large dose of funding to encourage Sudan to end ties with Tehran.
The EU official said the new “scramble for Africa” by the Gulf powers was a European problem for three reasons.
“Sixty percent of EU trade passes through the Red Sea — can we assume freedom of navigation will be maintained?” he said. “Secondly, a fight over proxies can promote fragmentation, and you don’t know what bad people will get involved. There is a spike of weapons and people coming into Africa from Yemen, including lots of Al-Qaeda and possibly ISIS,” he said.
“Thirdly, if we are concerned about migration, a scramble there could make things worse.” Thousands of Eritreans have already fled their home country to escape the brutal, and often lifelong, military service enforced by the country’s leader. “We are trying to encourage the UAE to be sensible, not a generator of conflicts,” added the official.
The official admitted that the UAE is unlikely to pay much attention to the European Union. “Only the U.S. could say, ‘Don’t dare,’” the official said, adding that the Emirates would likely move cautiously. “We are not saying don’t get involved; we are saying, ‘Be smart and strategic’. Dubai needs access to African ports — that’s good business. The concern is about unintended consequences, about extra migration and terror, but with wisdom, it could work well.”
The official suggested the UAE, compared to Saudi Arabia, is a known quantity. “We don’t know what the Saudis want. They are like the elephant in the room.” But one Rome-based analyst warned that giving the UAE tacit approval to build influence in the Horn of Africa was a mistake.
“Empowering the UAE won’t solve the problem of Saudi influence,” said Nicola Pedde, an analyst at Italy’s Institute for Global Studies. “And you don’t need the UAE to solve the region’s problems. Allowing the UAE a remit for maintaining security in the region is wrong — the EU should avoid giving the Emirates passive approval to do so,” Pedde added.