One Port, One Node: The United Arab Emirates expand its influence in Africa thanks to its investments in ports and infrastructure.

By Eleonora Ardemagni

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has built a sophisticated geostrategic presence in Africa thanks to its investments in port infrastructures. Each port represents a node connecting the Gulf with Africa. The UAE’s Africa approach is also another aspect of the flourishing Gulf-Asia relations. This “string of ports” strategy allows the UAE to access African economies and markets, with the Jebel Ali port in Dubai playing the role of a super hub linking Africa and Asia.

We are replicating what is in Dubai today in other countries“, stated Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman, and CEO of the Dubai-based company DP World, at Expo 2020. In several African countries, the UAE forged business ties before China did, and it is the only country competing with Beijing on concessions and projects. Out of the many of states which invested, the UAE entrenched later defense and military relations, strengthening influence and projection abroad.


Since the main UAE-based companies of transport, logistics, and maritime services are ultimately owned by the Emirati royal families via holding companies, their policies largely overlap with those of the government.  While the UAE began investing in African ports in the mid-2000s, the continent perfectly fits into the economy-first foreign policy the federation is now pursuing (as outlined by the Principles of the 50 documents). In fact, the Emirati economy is built upon export and trade: the UAE perceives the world order as a network of people and resources. For this reason, Abu Dhabi cultivates a neutral stance between global rivals despite heightened international polarization, trying instead to maximize the economic opportunities enabled by multiple partners. Therefore, the UAE places great emphasis on the connectivity agenda, with massive investments in trade, logistics and infrastructure.

The African continent is part of this political effort. According to bin Sulayem, “Africa has something that others don’t have – Africa has a growth more than any other potential market we have seen”. In the last few years, the Emiratis have strengthened their economic presence in the continent. Currently, the UAE is the fourth largest investor in Africa, after China, European countries, and the US. The number of African companies registered with the Dubai Chamber increased by 15.5% percent since 2019 reaching 24.800 in 2021 and Africa represents 10% of DP World’s revenues as of 2021.

This analysis traces the trajectory of the Emirati presence in African port infrastructures, mapping concessions, new constructions, economic zones, and competition dynamics. This highlights the UAE’s current acceleration mode vis-à-vis Africa.

One Port, One Node The Emirati Geostrategic Road To AfricaResearch Findings:

  • Ports concessions are the primary driver of UAE’s economic ambitions in Africa. Since 2006, the Emiratis (through the Dubai-based company DP World and the Abu Dhabi-based company Abu Dhabi Ports Group) are operating 12 port infrastructures in Africa, including a port concession currently under legal dispute, an inland container depot “dry port”, and a logistics platform.
  • In the last seven years (since 2016), the Emiratis signed deals for 7 out of the 12 port infrastructures. Moreover, 3 new ports are currently under construction, and 1 Head of Terms (preliminary to concession agreement) was signed.
  • The UAE both develops partnerships with foreign companies (ex. the UK-based CDC Group; the Indian Adani Ports and SEZ), and acquires local companies (ex. Imperial Logistics; J&J Group) to optimize its commercial presence on the continent,
  • The UAE often establishes military ties (defense industry cooperation; defense procurement; military cooperation and training), with the same African countries in which it runs commercial-maritime infrastructures. A “spill-over effect” from economy to defense-security exists and combines, in some cases, with the Emirati-related interest in enhancing the countries’ security.
  • Since 2022, Abu Dhabi Ports Group has increased its investments in Africa, especially in the Western coast and in the Red Sea. This is not going to challenge the primacy of the Dubai-based DP World in the field, but rather to further boost the ′Emirati brand` in the development of maritime infrastructures abroad, as well as UAE’s geostrategic influence.
  • The UAE has invested in port infrastructures in countries where both China and Russia also have rising economic and security interests (Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo-Brazzaville). The UAE and China quietly compete over concessions and projects in Africa, alongside complementarity and mutual interests.
  • In several countries, the UAE started to invest in port infrastructures long before China and Russia (in Puntland; Rwanda; Mozambique; Guinea; Senegal), or invest where Chinese and Russians aren’t involved (like Somaliland). Therefore, the UAE had already turned to Africa before global powers focused or refocused their strategies on the continent.

The Emirati maritime-commercial investments in Africa. Ports, “dry ports” and logistics platforms

Ports operated by UAE’s companies and economic zones:

Djazair (Algeria): DP World, 30-year concession since 2008, port container with a 755.600 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) capacity per year, able to receive vessels up to 2000 TEUs, port capacity doubled in 2021.

Sokhna (Egypt, South Suez area): DP World, concession since 2009, a port container with a 1.75 million TEUs annual capacity as of 2021.

Safaga: (Egypt, Red Sea area): Abu Dhabi Ports Group, 30-year concession agreement since 2023, Port capacity: 450.000 TEUs. Further 2023 agreements:  Al Arish Port and West Port Said Port (development, 15-year agreement); East Port Said (Memorandum of Understanding-MoU, for logistics and economic zone); Sokhna (Head of Terms-HoT, development of three terminals); Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh (HoT, development, and operation of cruise terminals).

Djibouti (Djibouti): DP World, concession since 2006 to develop, build and operate the Doraleh Container Terminal (opened in 2009), as a joint venture with the Djibouti ports company. A long-time legal dispute between DP World and the Hong Kong-based China Merchants Port Holdings on port’s concession is ongoing. In 2018, Djibouti seized the terminal when DP World established a corridor for imports to Ethiopia through Somaliland. Djibouti had almost monopolized Ethiopia’s imports. According to the Emirati Company, Chinese Merchants succeeded in pressuring Djibouti’s government to hand over the Doraleh Container Terminal from DP World to China Merchants.

Berbera (Somaliland): DP World, concession since 2017 to operate the port, a new integrated maritime, logistics, and industrial hub in the Horn of Africa, with a Special Economic Zone, opened in 2023 and connecting to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). Major import commodities: cotton, sugar, and rice. An edible oil terminal is currently under construction, with a storage capacity of 18.000 tonnes which will allow Berbera to handle bulk imports of cooking oil. Port capacity: 500.000 TEUs per year.

Bosaso (also known as Bender Qaasim, Puntland): P&O Ports, a DP World’s subsidiary, received a 30-year concession since 2017 for the management and development of the port. In 2022, DP World signed a construction agreement with the regional government of Puntland to expand and upgrade the port to handle container vessels, with more direct port calls from Dubai (so without transshipping). It is mainly used for livestock export towards the Middle East. Port capacity: TEUs not available, although it is going to remain smaller than Berbera port.

Kigali (Rwanda): DP World, a 25-year concession since 2016, logistics platform opened in 2019 to connect Rwanda with neighboring countries and access the ports of Mombasa (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), now expanded to host warehouses for commodity distribution. Annual capacity: 50.000 TEUs.

Maputo (Mozambique): DP World, the concession to manage the container terminal since 2006, the building of infrastructures to distribute goods by road or rail. Port capacity: 300.000 TEUs in 2020 (1 million TEUs to be reached in the medium term).

Komatipoort (South Africa): inland container depot or dry port (a “port without ships”, the first in the region). DP World, concession since 2019, it is placed at 100 km from the coast, in connection with Maputo port in Mozambique.

Luanda (Angola): DP World, 20-year concession since 2021. Port capacity: 700.000 TEUs per year to be reached with training and development of existing staff. New sustainability initiatives have been just introduced, for instance on waste management and water consumption.

Pointe-Noire (Republic of Congo, Brazzaville): Abu Dhabi Ports Group, HoT (preliminary to concession) signed in 2023 to develop, operate and manage the New Mole Port. Main export items: copper, diamonds and gold.

Kamsar (Guinea): Abu Dhabi Ports Group, concession since 2016, after a 2013 MoU for exploring opportunities in mining ports. Main export: bauxite transport to China. Port capacity: 2000 TEUs per year.

Dakar (Senegal): DP World, 25-year concession since 2008. Port capacity: 900.000 TEUs per year.

New ports and economic zones currently under construction/to be constructed:

Ndayane (Senegal): DP World, concession agreement signed in 2020 to build and operate the deep-water port, under construction since 2022. Placed at 50 km from Dakar (another port operated by the UAE-based DP World). Goal: creating a hub and gateway to West Africa, with a Special Economic Zone included. Port capacity: 1.200.000 million TEUs expected per year.

Banana (Democratic Republic of Congo): DP World, 30-year concession signed in 2021 (a joint venture between DP World, 70% and the DRC government, 30%), under construction. Goal: building a deep water port on the Atlantic shore. Port capacity: 450.000 TEUs per year expected.

Abu Amama (Sudan): Preliminary agreement signed in 2022 between a consortium led by Abu Dhabi Ports Group, the Dubai-based Invictus Investment (affiliate of the Sudan-based manufacturing conglomerate DAL Group), and Sudan. Abu Dhabi Ports Group will operate the port (expected port capacity not available), whose construction has not started yet. Goal: the port is going to connect the agricultural area of Abu Hamad in Sudan’s River Nile state (200 km north of Port Sudan); an airport, an agricultural zone, and an economic zone are also part of the investment.

Emirati deals on ports and maritime infrastructures:

Mauritius: in 2019, Abu Dhabi Ports Group and Mauritius Ports Authority signed an agreement to boost port infrastructures and the cruise industry.

Mauritania: in 2021, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development funded the modernization project of the Tanit fishing port in Nouakchott. The project encompasses refurbishment plus the building of an ice factory for refrigeration storage.

Tanzania: In 2022, DP World and Tanzania Ports Authority signed a preliminary agreement to finance projects aimed at improving the efficiency of Tanzania’s ports.

Kenya: In 2022, DP World worked to strike a deal with the Kenyan government to invest in four ports:  Mombasa, Naivasha, Kisumu, and Lamu (also creating here a Special Economic Zone). However, the Emirati move came during the general elections campaign in Kenya, thus igniting the debate about concessions: for instance, dock workers rejected the government plan to allow UAE’s investments. The final decision was postponed by Nairobi, who reportedly had agreed to show preference towards DP World. In early 2023, DP World expressed interest in investing in the Dongo Kundu Special Economic Zone in Mombasa, and it is conducting a feasibility study.

Angola: In 2023, Abu Dhabi Ports Group signed a framework agreement with the government to develop maritime services and infrastructure, comprised logistics platforms and a maritime academy. As part of the deal, AD Ports Group could consider the development of the Caio Deepwater Terminal at Cabinda Port, in the oil-rich north-west of the country. The Abu-Dhabi based company also inked an agreement for a joint venture with the state-owned logistics and transport company Unicargas, which currently manages the multipurpose terminal at Luanda port.

UAE’s projects for military bases:

The UAE developed a military base at Assab (Eritrea), as well as a project for a military airport at Berbera (Somaliland). This occurred while the Emirati troops were intervening in Yemen (2015-19) against the Houthis, as part of the Saudi-led military coalition. In 2015, the UAE obtained a 30-year lease agreement for the military to use the deep-water port of Assab. The base was later dismantled in 2021, as the Emirati forces had massively withdrawn from Yemen. In 2017, the UAE also planned to build a military airport at Berbera (Somaliland); then, in 2019, the project was transformed for civilian purposes.

One Port, One Node The Emirati Geostrategic Road To AfricaHow the UAE works in Africa. Partnerships and local acquisitions

In Africa, the UAE enhances its economic presence in port infrastructures by combining partnerships and the acquisition of local companies. In 2021, DP World and the CDC Group, a UK-based development finance institution and impact investor owned by the government, established an investment platform for Africa. The investment topics are origin and destination ports, inland container depots, logistics, and economic zones. The partnership seeks to acquire minority stakes in DP World, expanding assets in Africa, with particular regard to Dakar (Senegal), Sokhna (Egypt), and Berbera (Somaliland). In 2022, Abu Dhabi Ports Group and Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited (India), signed a Memorandum of Understanding for joint investments on ports developments and logistics infrastructures in Tanzania. In 2022, Abu Dhabi Ports Group and the Africa Finance Corporation, the leading infrastructure solution provider in Africa, signed a collaboration agreement to address infrastructural gaps in Africa.

With regard to acquisitions, DP World announced in 2021 the purchase of Imperial Logistics, an integrated logistics and market access company operating both in Africa and Europe. The goal is to strengthen DP World’s position in Africa thanks to ports, terminals, and economic zones. In 2022, Imperial, the company just purchased by DP World, acquired the J&J Group, a company providing end-to-end logistics solutions along the Beira and North-South corridors in South-East Africa. In 2022, Imperial then completed the acquisition of a controlling stake in Africa FMCG Distribution Ltd (AFMCG), which is part of the Chanrai Group of Companies, multinational distributing consumer products in Nigeria. These choices clearly suggest the UAE aims to control not only a significant segment of African port infrastructures but also their trade and distribution channels, thus shaping economic corridors.

Spill-over effect. Port investments foster cooperation in the defense-security field

In many of the countries in which the UAE invested in port infrastructures, these projects have been followed by cooperation in the defense-security field. This reveals a spill-over effect and, in some cases, the Emirati interest to contribute directly to strengthening security to protect its investments. In the case of Algeria (concession to operate port Djazair in 2008), defense industry cooperation with the UAE has begun in 2012, when NIMR Automotive, the Emirati leading manufacturer of light and medium-weight wheeled military vehicles, signed an agreement to coproduce NIMR military vehicles in Algeria. With Egypt (a concession to operate Sokhna port since 2009), the UAE tightened military cooperation during the Al-Sisi presidency, for instance with joint military exercises, and discussions are ongoing for defense industry cooperation projects between the Egyptian AOI (Arab Organization for Industrialization) and EDGE, the Emirati defense industry conglomerate. In Somaliland, the UAE launched a training program for local police and military forces in 2018, a year later that DP World won the concession to operate the Berbera port (2017). With Tanzania, DP World signed a port cooperation deal in 2022 and, just one year later, the Emirati EDGE signed a cooperation agreement on the defense industry with the People’s Defense Force.

A similar sequence of events occurred between the Emiratis, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Angola. While the Emiratis were signing the port concession deal with Kinshasa in 2021, they were also investing a billion dollars in the country, also in the security field (plus the delivery of 30 tactical armored vehicles from the UAE); after DP World won Luanda’s port concession in 2021, the Emirati Abu Dhabi Ship Building (EDGE’s subsidiary) signed a 1 billion dollars deal in 2023 to provide a new fleet of 71-meter corvettes to the Angolan Navy. Puntland is the exception: security investments –widely due to the piracy phenomenon- anticipated those on port infrastructures. The UAE has been training, equipping, and funding the Puntland Maritime Police Force since 2011, while a DP World’s subsidiary operated Bosaso port since 2017.

Beyond Dubai: the rise of Abu Dhabi in port investments. Boosting the “Emirati brand” in Africa

In the past few years, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has doubled its investment efforts in African port infrastructures. After it’s first-ever port concession in Africa (in Guinea, at Kamsar port, 2016), Abu Dhabi Ports Group has signed, since 2022, concession agreements and cooperation deals with Sudan and Tanzania (2022), Angola, Republic of Congo-Brazzaville and Egypt (2023). However, Abu Dhabi’s acceleration on investments in African ports will not likely create a competition trend with Dubai as DP World has a long-established, widespread presence in the continent, and it is quite improbable that Abu Dhabi succeeds in –nor wants- to challenge its position.

Rather, Abu Dhabi Ports Group’s rising investments in the African continent will strengthen the UAE’s influence in Africa through ports and commercial infrastructure. As a matter of fact, the Emirati Federation builds networks of influence starting from economic relations. This is due to the development of personal ties, but also thanks to formal initiatives. For instance, DP World launched its charity, the DP World Foundation, in 2022 seeking to advance public-private humanitarian initiatives in the health, education, and food sectors. On port infrastructures in Africa, the UAE doesn’t have direct challengers among its Gulf neighbors, although competition is growing. In 2018, Qatar signed a 4 billion dollars deal with Turkey to develop the port at Suakin Island in Sudan; however, the agreement was halted one year later due to the ousting of President Omar Al Bashir. Furthermore, the building of a port at Hobyo, in Somalia, is currently stopped due to Somali uncertainties: in 2019, the state-owned company Mwani Qatar had announced it “has entered into an investment partnership” with the Somali side. In 2022, Qatar and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) signed an agreement to relaunch Kinshasa’s Commercial Company, Transport and Ports. Capitalizing on historical ties, the Sultanate of Oman, through the Oman Investment Authority, signed in 2022 a MoU with the local government to study the possibility to develop and operate the Malindi Tourist Port in Zanzibar, and the transferal of commercial activities to the new Mangga Pwani port.

In Africa, the Emiratis have often ′arrived` before the Chinese (and Russians)

In many African countries where there are Emirati investments, China –and to a lesser extent Russia- are also bourgeoning players. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (which has existed since 2013) and Moscow’s deployment of the Wagner Group (since 2017) have in fact consolidated this trend: Chinese and Russians are now capitalizing on economic ties, defense cooperation and procurement, or security assistance (ex. Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo-Brazzaville) to strengthen their position in Africa.

However, there are countries where the UAE had established economic relations through port investments before the ′arrival` of the Chinese and Russians. These include Puntland where China signed a deal for building a port at Eyl in 2019 but the UAE won the Bosaso port concession in 2017 and has supported local maritime forces since 2011. In Rwanda, China became the largest trading partner of the country in 2020, while the UAE gained concessions for building the Kigali logistics platform in 2016. In Mozambique, China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016 (agreeing to renovate Beira port in 2017), and Russia deployed the Wagner Group in 2019 but later withdrew. However, the UAE’s DP World has been managing the Maputo port since 2006. In Guinea, China started to import about half of its total bauxite ingress after a 2017 loan, while the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Ports Group had signed an agreement to explore opportunities in mining ports since 2013. With Senegal, China became the second largest trading partner after France in 2020, but UAE’s DP World has a concession agreement for the port of Dakar since 2008. In Somaliland, the Emiratis manage the port of Berbera while, conversely, the Chinese and Russians don’t have significant influence in the country, also due to different geopolitical postures, for instance, Somaliland and Taiwan have mutual representative offices.

Currently, the UAE is the only country able to compete with China in both Eastern and Western Africa: the rapid increase of the Abu Dhabi Ports Group’s investments since 2022 makes this dynamic quite tangible. In some cases, the UAE and China compete for the same African sub-regions or even the same port concessions. As previously stated, the case of the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti is still open. In Tanzania, the Chinese project for the development of the Bagamoyo port (2013, with a Special Economic Zone) was halted by former president John Magufuli who stated the agreement was exploitative. Also, the Omani State General Reserve Fund supported the project, with particular attention to the building of the portside industrial city in the SEZ. From the Emirati side, the preliminary agreement signed in 2022 between DP World and the Tanzania Ports Authority to finance port projects could also include Bagamoyo; and the 2022 MoU between Abu Dhabi Ports Group and Adani Ports and SEZ (India), is about joint investments in ports and logistics infrastructures in Tanzania. In 2022, the Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan mentioned both DP World and Abu Dhabi Ports Group among the potential investors for Bagamoyo. In Kenya, China signed a series of agreements on ports in 2017, which included the building of the Lamu deep water port. This is one of the Kenyan ports where the UAE wanted to invest: but its 2022 deal was stopped. Sudan is another country at the center of the subtle Emirati-Chinese competition. Beijing consistently invested in port infrastructures: for instance, the building of Haidob port and the Sudanese-Chinese direct shipping service inaugurated in 2022. Abu Dhabi has just announced the agreement for Abu Amama, which would allow the Emiratis –combined with the port projects at Egypt’s Sagafa and its neighborhood- a notable strategic presence in the Red Sea.

However, the UAE-China relationship is most of all about shared interests, as seen in the case of maritime security, and, in some cases, cooperation prospects. On one hand, the Chinese COSCO Shipping operates the Khalifa Port container terminal project in Abu Dhabi since 2017: this 35-year agreement means the Emirati trade and maritime growth across the continents is also in Beijing’s interest. On the other hand, the Belt and Road Initiative triggers investments in Africa resulting in a heightened trade volume, thus improving the Emirati economic trade-off in operated ports. In some cases, the UAE and China are complementary players. In the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), the Chinese agreed in 2018 to build and fund the Special Economic Zone at Pointe-Noire; Abu Dhabi Ports Group signed later a preliminary deal in 2023 to develop, operate and manage the New Mole Port at Pointe-Noire.

In Africa, the UAE doesn’t follow the footsteps of big powers, since it pursues its own, long-established geostrategic path towards the continent. A path where ports are vectors of influence and stand at the core of UAE’s African policy.

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