Constructing Commercial Empire: The UAE In The Red Sea And The Horn
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By Rohan Advani
Almost a decade ago, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi described a “nightmare” he had for his country: “an Egyptian agenda that is financed by Gulf money.” Zenawi, an ex-rebel and an intellectual, was expressing his fear of expanding Egyptian influence in the Horn of Africa, made possible by the financial power of the Gulf monarchies. “Imagine how much weaker Ethiopia’s position will be with the [United Arab Emirates] controlling every port we use,” Zenawi warned.1 In 2019, in the midst of dramatic Middle Eastern expansion into Red Sea ports, Zenawi’s words seem almost prophetic.
But Zenawi was only half correct. His nightmare has come true, sans the bogeyman of Egypt—it is a Gulf agenda financed by Gulf money. Today, the Emirates and other Gulf states control a vast array of commercial ports and military bases along the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, transforming the political geography of the Horn of Africa. And the scenario he imagined seems to be a subplot in a much broader reorientation.
A MAP SHOWING PORTS BELONGING TO DP WORLD AND ITS SUBSIDIARIES IN THE RED SEA REGION. SOURCE: ROHAN ADVANI/DATAWRAPPER
Most analyses tend to read the changing politics of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa as simply the result of competition between rival Gulf states, especially in the wake of the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis.2 While this framing helps to explain some recent developments, it does not explain why Gulf expansionism has specifically taken place in these regions. The interests and actions of commercial entities are equally important in understanding what Gulf policy looks like on a more molecular level.
This report examines the issue of Gulf expansionism through the case study of the Emirates-based company Dubai Ports World (DP World), a leading global port operator and logistics giant. DP World is an aggressively expanding privately owned enterprise with strong links to Emirati ruling families. In many ways, it is spearheading the aspirations of both the Emirati private and public sectors in the Red Sea and the Horn. Perhaps more than any other commercial or government entity, the story of DP World illustrates a convergence of state and capital that has echoes in many other Gulf states.
In turn, the story of DP World—and of the interests of Gulf capital more generally—illuminates the factors that influence state formation and fragmentation in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Such fragmentation is, of course, a dire concern. Somalia has been shattered for nearly thirty years, and is only becoming increasingly splintered. The war in Yemen, nearly half a decade old, rages on. Ethiopia and Eritrea, bitter and sometimes warring rivals, have been involved in a fragile rapprochement since the summer of 2018.
The precise nature of Emirati and Gulf power affects all these future-shaping processes. Private Emirati infrastructure projects in the Horn of Africa are not neutral economic projects. Rather, these ports, highways, security installations, and water and sanitation facilities are intimately linked to Emirati foreign policy. They are important mechanisms for the expansion of both Emirati capital and power. This expansion is, in essence, imperial—it is a marriage of international economic and political ambitions. This is not yet imperialism on the scale of, say, nineteenth-century Britain, but it is imperialism, nonetheless. Its aim is to exert political influence in the region and aggressively control and expand key trade routes and markets. Further, it is a hallmark of imperialism that the trade and strategic interests of Gulf states are not distinct. Rather, they are co-constitutive—they establish and reinvent each other.
In the Red Sea and the Horn, the nexus of state and commercial involvement in counterterrorism, counter-piracy, maritime security, and supply chain protection reveals fundamental realities—both about those regions, and about why Gulf state rivalries are so potentially volatile. Further, understanding that Emirati policy in the Red Sea and the Horn follows the logic of empire helps us better confront some of the drivers of disastrous state fragmentation in the region.