Gulf states are asserting themselves in the Horn of Africa as never before. This unprecedented surge in political, economic, and strategic engagement across the Red Sea is challenging old assumptions and erasing old boundaries. As the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey seek to expand their spheres of influence—including through commercial ports and military outposts on Africa’s Red Sea coast—fierce Middle Eastern rivalries are playing out on a larger chessboard.

Interest from great powers has further complicated the changing geopolitical landscape as China’s arrival in Djibouti brings the number of foreign militaries in the tiny port nation to five. China, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States are all now stationed at the fulcrum of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. India and Saudi Arabia have also signaled interest in establishing bases in Djibouti, while Russia has flirted with its own strategic presence in the Horn. For the fragile African states on the western shores of the Red Sea, new engagement from outside powers presents both challenges and opportunities.  The most tangible manifestation of the so-called “new scramble for Africa” has been the proliferation of seaports and military facilities (or the rights to such perches) on the Red Sea coast. Much has been rumored about these acquisitions, though a holistic picture of the real estate bonanza has been lacking. This research report aims to fill that void. Included herein are facts about each site’s development, including stakeholders, contract terms, commercial or military uses, and relevant points of analysis. This report does not represent a comprehensive analysis of changing trans-regional politics, but rather offers a snapshot of the holdings now animating rivalries in the Red Sea.


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Zach Vertin

Visiting Fellow – Brookings Doha Center

Nonresident Fellow – Foreign Policy

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Zach Vertin is a nonresident fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy program and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, where he specializes in the Gulf, the Horn of Africa, and the changing geopolitics of the Red Sea. He is also a lecturer of public and international affairs at Princeton University. From 2013-16, he served in the Obama administration as director of policy for the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, which spearheaded policymaking on behalf of the State Department and the White House. Vertin previously spent six years at the International Crisis Group, where he served as a senior analyst for the Horn of Africa, and as an advisor on peace operations and multilateral affairs in the U.N. Security Council.

Vertin has worked in conflict zones and on a variety of peace processes and multilateral negotiations. He was a principal adviser to the chief mediator of the South Sudan peace process 2014-2016, and an architect of a U.S. diplomatic initiative that sought to catalyze change in Sudan by altering the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship, an effort that led to a presidential action in 2017. Vertin’s new book “A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State” (Pegasus Books | Amberley Publishing) chronicles the turbulent birth—and subsequent collapse—of the Republic of South Sudan.

Vertin was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and has consulted for the International Peace Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is also a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has published reports, op-eds, and contributed expert commentary to television, radio, print, and online media for: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, LA Times, Foreign Affairs, Economist, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Le Monde, Reuters, Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, and the BBC.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University and a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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