The port of Berbera, located in Somaliland, has been modernized and redeveloped as part of the evolving geopolitics of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). The port’s strategic location has attracted foreign powers, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) playing a key role in contemporary geopolitics. The port aims to become an important transshipment hub in the Gulf of Aden, with geopolitical and geoeconomic significance. The development of the port and supporting infrastructure in and around Berbera converges the interests of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and the UAE.

The WIO region, which includes the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Mozambique Channel, is characterized by geopolitical engagement by major Gulf powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. The port signals the strategic willingness of these powers to develop ports, establish bases, and stay engaged in a difficult geopolitical environment. For land-locked Ethiopia, Berbera offers an opportunity to reduce its dependence on Djibouti and diversify its access points to the sea. For Somaliland, the port of Berbera is a prized national asset that promises to change the fortunes of the de-facto state, attract international shipping, foreign investments, and recognition through increased engagement with the world facilitated by Berbera.

The article is structured in seven parts, focusing on the strategic importance of Berbera through history and geopolitics. The UAE’s growing interest in Berbera is not surprising, as it can now monitor and shape maritime affairs in the Gulf of Aden more effectively. As the interests of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and the UAE converge at Berbera, the article explains the interconnections and complementarity of these interests with each other.

The Port Of Berbera and Geopolitics Of The Western Indian Ocean

The Port Of Berbera and Geopolitics Of The Western Indian OceanSankalp Gurjar

Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, India

Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka, India


First published online November 3, 2023



The article discusses the importance of the upgradation and modernization of the port of Berbera in the context of the evolving geopolitics of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). The modernization of the Berbera is part of the larger processes of geopolitics of seaports which is being played out in the WIO. The strategically important location of Berbera has always attracted foreign powers, and in contemporary geopolitics, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is playing a key role. The port of Berbera aspires to emerge as an important transshipment hub in the Gulf of Aden, and the port development has geopolitical as well as geoeconomic significance. In the development of the port and supporting infrastructure in and around Berbera, interests of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and the UAE converge. Therefore, the article focuses on the interests of these three powers in the context of the evolving geopolitics in the region.


In June 2021, phase 1 of the modernization of the port of Berbera in the self-governing territory of Somaliland was inaugurated. DP World, a company backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has developed the port and is going to operate it for the next three decades. The inaugural ceremony was attended by high-level dignitaries from Somaliland including its President, Ministers of Finance and Transport from neighboring Ethiopia, and top officials of the DP World (DP World, 2021). The significance of developing a world-class port on the southern coastline of the Gulf of Aden, in an unstable neighborhood of Yemen and Somalia, goes beyond economics and international trade. The emergence of such a port was possible because of the convergence of interests of Somaliland, UAE, and Ethiopia. Therefore, the port signals the strategic willingness of a major Gulf power (UAE) to develop ports, establish bases, and stay engaged in a difficult geopolitical environment. For land-locked Ethiopia, Berbera is an important opportunity to reduce its overwhelming dependence on Djibouti and diversify its access points to the sea. And finally, for Somaliland, the port of Berbera is a prized national asset which promises to change the fortunes of this de-facto state. It hopes to attract international shipping, foreign investments, and possibly, eventual recognition through the increased engagement with the world facilitated by Berbera. Therefore, the port of Berbera is a symbol of geopolitical churning taking place in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO).
For the purpose of this article, WIO is defined as the region lying between Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south and India in the east which incorporates geo-strategically important water bodies such as the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel (Gurjar & Dutta, 2021). The geopolitical impact of the development of the port of Berbera and UAE’s expansive engagement is felt more prominently in the region lying between the triangular maritime and continental space formed by Sudan, Kenya and Oman.
The article is structured in seven parts. After the introduction, the article locates Berbera in the larger process of development of ports and military bases in the WIO. The region lying in the Sudan–Kenya–Oman triangle has been experiencing the engagement by major global as well as regional powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE. These powers are engaged in activities like building infrastructure, developing ports and establishing military bases in this region. The development of the port of Berbera is part of this geopolitical process. The article then establishes the strategic importance of Berbera through the lens of history and geopolitics. A natural deep-water port like Berbera once hosted Soviet Russia’s military base and therefore, in contemporary geopolitics, UAE’s growing interest for Berbera is not surprising. UAE, though its bases in southern Yemen and presence in Somaliland, is now in a position to monitor and shape the maritime affairs of the Gulf of Aden and project its influence in the region more effectively. As the interests of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and the UAE converge at Berbera, the article explains the interests of each of these three actors in the three sections. It remains sensitive to the interconnections and complementarity of these interests with each other. And finally, the concluding remarks tie up major arguments of the article.

Geopolitics of Ports in the WIO

In the past few years, major global as well as regional powers are strengthening their economic, military and strategic presence in the littoral states of the WIO. Powers such as China, the United States (US), Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey and Russia have become quite active in the region and are engaged in a range of activities to augment their presence (Melvin, 2019). It includes the establishment of military bases and listening posts, building dual-use infrastructure such as railways as well as extending loans and economic packages to the littoral states to ensure their support for the strategies of these states. As a result of these activities, countries located in the greater Northwest Indian Ocean region such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen and Oman find themselves at the receiving end of the strategic rivalries between these major global as well as regional powers. Even a self-governing territory like Somaliland (which has been functioning as a state and is vying for international recognition) and a semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland, which is located at the tip of the Horn of Africa, are attaining increasing strategic importance in the geopolitics of the WIO (Vertin, 2019).
Djibouti has emerged as probably the most important country in the region. The establishment of military bases in Djibouti, located off the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and northern neighbor of Somaliland, by Japan (in 2011) and China (in 2017) and their implications for regional security have garnered a lot of media and scholarly attention in the recent past. The economic and military activities of China related to Djibouti are significant. China has established a military base at Djibouti and is operating as well as expanding the port of Doraleh in Djibouti, which is likely to increase its leverage even further (Blanchard & Collins, 2019). Earlier, UAE’s DP World was developing the port of Doraleh and Djibouti ejected the UAE from the project. Therefore, UAE has reasons to undercut the pre-eminent role enjoyed by Djibouti in the Northwest Indian Ocean. Moreover, China has connected Djibouti with Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, through a 750-km modern railway line and therefore, Djibouti is likely to remain important as a conduit to sea for landlocked Ethiopia’s international trade (Tarrosy & Vörös, 2018).
Djibouti is not the only country that has seen a frantic development of infrastructure, especially ports, by foreign powers. Kenya, a southern neighbor of Somalia and an important state in the East African geopolitics is also leveraging the interest of major global powers to its own advantage. China is developing the port of Lamu in Kenya whereas Japan is funding the modernization of the port of Mombasa (Akwiri, 2015; BBC News, 2016). Japanese assistance for Mombasa includes the development of a bridge that will link Mombasa’s mainland to an island in the city. Japan is supporting the development of road, power, water supply and drainage projects to facilitate the special economic zone near Mombasa as well (Obulutsa, 2019). The China-built port of Lamu is aspiring to emerge as a trans-shipment hub for global shipping and will be a useful node in the transport corridor linking Kenya with landlocked South Sudan and Ethiopia (Bachmann & Kilaka, 2021). It is also likely to bring northern Kenya into the mainstream of the Kenyan economy (Bachmann & Kilaka, 2021). The modernization and upgradation of Kenyan infrastructure, especially ports on the Indian Ocean, through the Japanese as well as Chinese assistance are likely to increase Kenya’s attractiveness as a major shipping hub in the WIO and could position Kenya as a gateway for the foreign investments coming into the region. Coupled with their military bases in Djibouti, the presence in Kenya allows China and Japan to extend their influence in the region and expand their strategic footprint in East Africa.
Two other states Somalia and Yemen are important owing to their location in the maritime and continental space of the Northwest Indian Ocean. They are plagued by internal conflicts and political instability. Yet their strategically important location near Djibouti and Somaliland, both of which are politically stable, makes it imperative for interested foreign powers to build military facilities in these countries. Turkey has established a military base in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and is supporting Somalia through training and equipment to establish country’s navy and coastguard (Melvin, 2019, p. 14). It is also engaged in developing a slew of other infrastructure projects in the country and enjoys considerable influence in Somalia (TRT World, 2020). It has also gained substantial experience in operating and safeguarding critical infrastructure in conflict-ridden regions, which also increases Turkey’s international importance. In this context, it is no surprise that Turkey had offered to deploy troops to protect the Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan while the Taliban was taking over the country (Meral, 2021).
In the case of Yemen, the Houthi rebels and the weak government have not been able to prevent the UAE from acquiring control over the strategically important ports and islands like Perim and Socotra Islands, and the port of Aden located in southern Yemen along the Gulf of Aden and the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (Vertin, 2019). It is unlikely that even when the war in Yemen ends, the UAE will let go of control over such prime real estate without significant international pressure (Riedel, 2021). The UAE’s military presence in Yemen is part of its broader strategy of expanding its influence in the Northwest Indian Ocean and the Red Sea region. It has also acquired bases in Eritrea, Somaliland and Puntland and along with these military facilities, the strategic presence in Yemen makes UAE a key player in the geopolitics of the Gulf of Aden and Southern Red Sea (Vertin, 2019). Through its bases, UAE will be able to monitor the global shipping and petroleum traffic passing through the region.
Apart from these ports, geopolitics is also being played out with respect to other important ports in the Northern Indian Ocean such as the port of al-Duqm in Oman. In the past few years, Oman has been performing the difficult balancing act between China on the one hand and India, the US, and the United Kingdom (UK) on the other hand. The special economic zone around the port of Duqm has received substantial Chinese investments whereas the navies of India, the US, and the UK have secured the access to the strategically important port (Lons, 2019). Three other ports, that is, Chabahar in Iran, Gwadar in Pakistan and Berbera in Somaliland, are important in the geopolitics of ports in the Northern Indian Ocean. The article is concerned about the role of Berbera and therefore does not focus on the other two, equally or perhaps even more important, ports. Their significance in the shaping of Indian Ocean geopolitics is acknowledged nonetheless.

Berbera Port: History and Geopolitics

The port of Berbera is located in a strategically important Gulf of Aden and historically, it has attracted foreign powers. The Gulf of Aden connects the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea via the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. Energy resources exported from West Asia to the North Atlantic region pass through the Gulf of Aden and the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (US EIA, 2019). It is an important waterway for the international trade between Asia and Europe (Reuters Staff, 2011). Therefore, the Gulf of Aden becomes a key artery for global energy security as well as international trade. The rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia and the advent of weak and unstable states such as Yemen and Somalia underscore the need for global and regional powers to acquire a foothold in the region to protect their shipping and monitor the developments in and around the Gulf of Aden.
In the context of the colonial competition for acquiring colonies in the strategically important regions of the world, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Britain had acquired a part of the Somali coast that included Berbera and formed the British Somaliland. In fact, Somali coast was colonized by three different powers: France, Britain and Italy. France occupied Djibouti (which was known as French Somaliland), just north of British Somaliland whereas Italian Somaliland was lying to the south of British-controlled Somali coast. Britain did not focus on developing the port of Berbera as the port of Aden in Yemen was given more priority as a relay and re-supply point between Europe and the Far East. Britain considered the control over Aden crucial for the security of its interests in the Indian Ocean. Berbera, in the British hands, remained relatively underdeveloped and under-utilized (Woodward, 2002, pp. 14–27). However, the significance of holding territory south of Djibouti and north of Italian Somaliland, opposite Aden, lays in its ability to safeguard British presence at Aden and consolidate control over the Gulf of Aden.
The importance of the coastal strip around Berbera went up significantly after the decolonization and the emergence of Somalia as an independent state. (British and Italian Somaliland merged to form the modern state of Somalia.) During the Cold War, in the late 1960s, as Soviet Russia’s navy became active in the region East and South of Suez, it began to expand its strategic presence in the littoral African states of the Indian Ocean (Millar, 1970). The presence at the port of Berbera, with its strategically important location near the oil-rich West Asia and on the waterway carrying critical petroleum supplies to the West, would have served strategic as well as political purposes. With Somalia emerging as a close politico-military partner in Africa in the late 1960s, Soviet Russia began to develop military facilities such as Berbera, Mogadishu and Kismayo, all of which were important ports in the context of the geopolitics of the WIO. In the Soviet strategy, Kismayo was developed as a communications facility whereas Berbera emerged as an important Soviet military base with air and naval capabilities in the region at the crossroads of Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean and the Southern West Asia (Woodward, 2002, pp. 137–138).
Soviet base at Berbera had developed submarine pens, missile repair and storage silos which increased the capacity of the Soviet navy to operate in the WIO. Soviet navy had also built a large floating deck at Berbera (Kaufman, 1981). In the war between Ethiopia and Somalia during 1977–1978, Soviet Russia switched sides and chose Ethiopia, which was larger in terms of population and territory, over Somalia (Woodward, 2002, pp. 137–140). Therefore, it lost access to its facilities at Berbera. As the US supported Somalia, it could access the port of Berbera. However, Soviet navy had obtained facilities in Southern Yemen (which was an independent state till 1990), just across the Berbera, and therefore, the large floating deck at Berbera was towed to the island of Socotra off Yemen. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US was keen to expand and upgrade its military presence in the Indian Ocean to counter the growing Soviet naval and political presence. Therefore, it spent millions of dollars obtaining and upgrading military facilities at Diego Garcia as well as in Kenya, Egypt, Oman and Somalia. Berbera was a beneficiary of this spending and saw an upgrade in facilities (Kaufman, 1981).
However, after the end of the Cold War, the importance of the base declined substantially. The US retreated from the region after the tragic incident of ‘Black Hawk Down’ in 1993 in which 18 American soldiers died in a military operation in Somalia. The implosion of Somalia as a nation-state and the emergence of the self-governing territory of Somaliland (in 1991) also complicated the matters regarding Berbera. The port of Berbera, however, remained an important outlet for the newly independent Somaliland. In fact, it is considered as an economic lifeline for the self-governing territory. Ethiopia, which had become a large landlocked state as it lost its Red Sea coastline after the secession of Eritrea, kept the option of using Berbera open although it doesn’t recognize the independence of Somaliland (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017).
In the past few years, Persian Gulf powers are taking greater interest in the affairs of the Horn of Africa and are expanding their influence (De Waal, 2018). Consequently, Somaliland, with its geopolitically important location, has assumed increasing strategic significance. UAE has emerged as an important partner for Somaliland (Ramani, 2021). It is developing the port of Berbera to compete with Djibouti. Ethiopia had been growing economically till the COVID-10 pandemic and the war in Tigray. It needs to diversify its conduits to the sea and therefore, is interested in the development of the port of Berbera (Seleshie, 2020). It will facilitate greater connectivity for southern and eastern Ethiopia and reduce its excessive dependence on Djibouti. As a result, there are three main stakeholders keen in the port of Berbera: Somaliland, UAE and Ethiopia (Vertin, 2019). Keeping this convergence of interest in mind, Ethiopia actively supported UAE’s role for the revival of the Berbera. UAE’s DP World has been developing the port of Berbera since 2016 and recently, completed phase 1 of modernization.
In June, 2021, a new container terminal was inaugurated at the port of Berbera. The new container terminal has a 17-meter-deep draft, 400-meter quay and three ships to shore (STS) cranes can handle the largest ships in operation. The capacity of the port has also been tripled, from 150,000 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) to 500,000 TEUs. In the next phase, DP World plans to increase the quay from 400 meters to 1000 meters, add seven more STS cranes and expand the capacity of the port to be able to handle two million TEUs. The port is modelled on the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai (DP World, 2021).
Underscoring the strategic significance of the modern port in the region, the inaugural ceremony was attended by a high-level delegation from neighbouring Ethiopia, President of Somaliland and CEO and Group Chairman of DP World (Team KT, 2021). The event also included a ground-breaking ceremony of Berbera Economic Zone. DP World has committed to invest up to $442 million in the three-phase port modernization program and will also operate the port for the next three decades (DP World, 2021). The opening of a modern port, backed by a major Gulf power, is significant not only for its anticipated economic benefits but also for its geopolitical implications. In this context, it would be interesting to consider the importance and role of Berbera in serving the interests of Somaliland, UAE and Ethiopia.

Strategic Importance of Berbera for Somaliland

Somaliland, a self-governing territory since 1991, is a break-away republic which is not recognized by any other state in the world. (Self-governing territories possess all the attributes of a modern state except recognition by other states.) Therefore, Somaliland, despite the low per capita income and lack of natural resources, can neither seek loans from the international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund nor can it obtain developmental assistance from major donor countries (Felter, 2018). Lack of recognition severely curtails the opportunities to attract foreign investments as well as to engage in foreign trade. Therefore, Somaliland depends primarily on remittances sent by the expat population living abroad. It also exports livestock to Ethiopia, Djibouti as well as to Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about $2 billion for a population of approximately four million means Somaliland is one of the poorest countries in the world (Felter, 2018). Seen in this context, the port of Berbera can change Somaliland’s fortunes.
Berbera is a natural deep-water port and is likely to emerge as a prized asset for Somaliland. Somaliland has sought to benefit from the competition between the Gulf powers to establish bases and develop ports in the Horn of Africa. UAE is particularly aggressive in this regard and hence, it was no surprise that UAE’s government-backed DP World chose to develop the port of Berbera. Sensing the opportunities with Somaliland, UAE is not only developing the port of Berbera but has also provided security guarantees to the self-governing territory (Vertin, 2019). In fact, the UAE is building a naval and air base near Berbera. The base would have two parallel runways and a deep-water naval port. The lease for the base is for 25 years and would come at a cost of about $90 million. The military base would provide security to the port of Berbera and would also help in securing the coastal waters of Somaliland. The UAE is also training Somaliland’s police, coastguards and security services (Melvin, 2019). In September 2019, it was reported that the UAE is going to convert military base at Berbera into a civilian airport (Reuters Staff, 2019). However, the overall security partnership between UAE and Somaliland is likely to stay intact. In this context, it would be interesting to see how UAE’s presence in Somaliland evolves in future.
The establishment of military partnership and the incipient investments in the port modernization indicates the growing role of UAE in Somaliland. For Somaliland, military, economic and political support of the UAE would prove crucial in ending its isolation. As Somaliland lacks recognition, connectivity is also a major problem. Engagement with the UAE is likely to provide solutions to this question as well. There are regular flights to Somaliland from the UAE and in future, UAE’s investments might be attracted into Somaliland (Somaliland Sun, 2017). UAE can act as a gateway for investments into Somaliland. In fact, UAE believes that development of Berbera ‘reflects our confidence’ and ‘intent to develop it into a significant, world-class centre of trade’ (DP World, 2021).
Underlining the role of Berbera in Somaliland’s economic future, at the inaugural ceremony of phase 1, the President of the self-governing territory Musa Bihi Abdi said that, it ‘is a proud and historic moment for Somaliland and its people’ because ‘the completion of the first phase has made our vision of establishing Berbera with its strategic location into a major trade hub in the region a reality’ (DP World, 2021). He added that, ‘with the new terminal, along with the second phase of expansion and economic zone along the Berbera corridor, we are now firmly positioned to further develop and grow our economy through increased trade, attracting foreign direct investment and creating jobs’ (DP World, 2021). It is clear from the remarks of the President that Somaliland considers Berbera important not just as a major trading hub but also for attracting foreign investments and employment generation. Berbera would perhaps provide a major boost to Somaliland’s economy, increase trade with the Gulf countries and bring this self-governing territory into the mainstream of global economy. Somaliland can also benefit by the presence of an economically dynamic Ethiopia as its neighbour.
The port of Berbera features prominently in Ethiopia’s economic, foreign policy as well as trade and commercial calculations. DP World has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Transport in May 2021 for ‘developing the Ethiopian side of the road linking Addis Ababa to Berbera’ and making it ‘into one of the major trade and logistics corridors of the country’s international trade routes’ (DP World, 2021). There are plans to connect Berbera with the Ethiopia–Djibouti railway line to improve the connectivity. A 310-km railway line is envisaged that will be built through the public–private partnership model. Of this, a 250-km stretch would be built in the territory of Somaliland. The estimated cost of the project is $1.5 billion. The railway line would complement the road that is already being built (Ivudria, 2021). Given the political stability of Somaliland and Djibouti and the economic potential of Ethiopia, such a railway line would boost the prospects of the port of Berbera.
Moreover, the location of the port is such that the southern and eastern regions of Ethiopia could be connected with the world through Berbera. In fact, DP World’s Group Chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem has remarked at the inaugural ceremony that Berbera will ‘be a viable, efficient and competitive option for trade in the region, especially for Ethiopian transit cargo’ (DP World, 2021). The port of Berbera is likely to diversify Ethiopia’s access routes to the sea, reduce excessive dependence on Djibouti and could provide fillip to the economic development of the hinterland regions connected to the Berbera Corridor. Therefore, it was no surprise that at the inaugural ceremony of phase 1 of Berbera, Ethiopia’s Ministers of Finance and Transport also attended the ceremony with a large delegation. Ethiopia’s interest in the port of Berbera and in engaging with Somaliland also has a foreign policy dimension.

Ethiopia’s Interest in Berbera

Ethiopia was once considered an important Red Sea power owing to the control over the coastline which is now part of Eritrea. In fact, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Soviet Russia had gained a foothold in the Red Sea region because of its firm support to Ethiopia (Etzold, 1984). However, in the early 1990s, Ethiopia lost its direct access to sea as Eritrean separatists succeeded in attaining independence. As a result, Ethiopia emerged as the largest land-locked state and since then had been dependent on Eritrea initially, and then on Djibouti for facilitating international trade. The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 had cut-off Ethiopia’s access to Eritrean ports such as Massawa and Assab. Consequently, Djibouti became an overwhelmingly important conduit to sea for the world’s largest landlocked state (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017).
As of now, Ethiopia’s 95% international trade passes through Djibouti. Growing trade volumes and dependence on Djibouti created huge opportunities for port development in Djibouti. To handle the large volumes of Ethiopian cargo, it had to modernize the port of Doraleh in the 2000s. DP World played a critical role in the modernization and operation of the port. As a result, Doraleh became the only port in the region which could handle large, 15-000 tonne plus container vessels (Styan, 2013). With time, Ethiopia’s rapid economic rise, growing population and consequently growing international trade had steadily increased its dependence on Djibouti to a large extent. Another important development which facilitated the growth of Ethiopian dependence on Djibouti was the completion of a Chinese-financed and China-built 750 km modern railway line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. It has shortened the distance from about three days to 12 hours and in effect, has contributed to increasing the bargaining power of Djibouti vis-a-vis Ethiopia (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017).
Such excessive dependence creates its own set of complex dynamics for dependent states and shapes policymaking as well. Ethiopia recognizes that such dependence on Djibouti is not a sustainable option in the long run and therefore, just like any other land-locked state, it would like to diversify its outlets to the sea. Single conduit to sea for a growing economy like Ethiopia accords immense leverage to the tiny Djibouti and also has serious implications for the economic and security interests of Ethiopia. There have been frequent disputes between Djibouti and Ethiopia over costs and taxation. Djibouti has also resisted Ethiopia from acquiring stakes in port facilities (Styan, 2013).
In this context, from Ethiopia’s point of view, the importance of developing Berbera cannot be overstated. The modernization and operationalization of Berbera would reduce Ethiopia’s dependence on Djibouti, diversify its access points to sea and would also bring economic development to southern and eastern regions through the growth of Berbera corridor and economic zone. However, before 2016, despite multiple attempts by Ethiopia, Berbera could not be developed as a viable modern port (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). Lack of international recognition of Somaliland’s independence, complicated state of relationship between Ethiopia and much-weakened internally divided Somalia and the history of secessionism in the region (e.g., the emergence of Eritrea out of Ethiopia) were some of the major hurdles that shaped the diffidence about Berbera. Ethiopia, on its parts, did not wholeheartedly supported the efforts of modernizing Berbera and Somaliland lacked resources to do so on its own (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). The rivalries between Gulf powers and their interest in the Horn of Africa proved crucial at this juncture. It has begun to change the geostrategic, geopolitical as well as geo-economic dynamics of the regional security and political economy.
In 2015, as UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in Yemen to suppress the Iran-supported Houthi rebellion, they found it necessary to acquire bases along the coastline of the Horn of Africa, especially in the southern Red Sea, to maintain presence beyond Yemen and acquire strategic depth (Vertin, 2019). UAE sought to win over an isolated Eritrea, which, in the past, had permitted Iran to open a support base at the port of Assab. UAE persuaded Eritrea to end its co-operation agreement with Iran and allow it to open a military facility at Assab to support its war efforts in Yemen (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). It also began to undertake some construction activities at the Assab such as building of a modern airbase, military depot and deep-water port. UAE’s growing engagement with Eritrea through the base at Assab and construction activities rang alarm bells in Ethiopia as its relations with Eritrea post-2000 were marked by tensions, hostility and antagonism. Ethiopia had invested considerable diplomatic capital to isolate Eritrea. Besides, in the Horn of Africa, regional balance of power favoured Ethiopia and therefore, strengthening UAE-Eritrea ties did not go down well in Addis Ababa (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017).
In 2015–2016, Ethiopia sought to persuade the UAE to develop Berbera instead of Assab through a proactive diplomacy. Ethiopia’s Transport Minister was quoted as saying that ‘We are better off having UAE investing in Somaliland than in Eritrea’ (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). He admitted that Ethiopia ‘would not like to see any investment going to Eritrea’ (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). Meanwhile, by this time, the once-flourishing relationship between UAE and Djibouti had deteriorated sharply and ultimately, Djibouti evicted DP World from the port of Doraleh (Crisis Group, 2018). It awarded the contract to a Chinese company. Around the same time, the focus of the war in Yemen also shifted from the western coast of Yemen to the region lying east of Aden. These developments had increased UAE’s interest in Berbera and diminished the importance of Assab in the evolving strategic dynamics (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). Ethiopia’s persuasion, coupled with the changing realities in the Yemen conflict, pushed UAE towards the development of Berbera.
The government of Somaliland was waiting to embrace such an opportunity. In May, 2016, Ethiopia engineered the deal between UAE and Somaliland (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017). The deal revived the prospects of developing Berbera into a modern port with an ability to emerge as a trans-shipment hub in the Northwest Indian Ocean for the Horn of Africa. The deal, simultaneously, served interests of UAE, Somaliland as well as Ethiopia. Demonstrating their seriousness about the project, all three stakeholders acquired stakes in the port: DP World holds 51% whereas the rest is divided between Somaliland (30%) and Ethiopia (19%). Somalia reacted angrily over this development (Vertin, 2019). However, it lacks capacity and resources to stop the DP World from developing the port of Berbera or even do anything about it. The Berbera port project went ahead unhindered. Consequently, Ethiopia succeeded in creating an alternative access point for its international trade, in weaning the UAE away from developing the port of Assab, in keeping Somalia divided and in supporting Somaliland without formally recognizing the self-governing territory (Cannon & Rossiter, 2017).

Berbera in UAE’s Strategic Calculations

Berbera remains as important for UAE as it is for Ethiopia and Somaliland. The intensifying economic and military engagement of UAE in the Northwest Indian Ocean including in the Horn of Africa has been a key factor shaping the evolving geopolitics of the region. In the past decade, evidently, Gulf powers’ engagement with the region has been growing steadily and UAE is perhaps the most active amongst these (De Waal, 2018). Initially, as we noted, the development of the port of Doraleh in Djibouti offered a good opportunity to the UAE to consolidate its presence in the region (Styan, 2013). Subsequently, the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring and the brewing conflict in Yemen with the government failing to ward off challenges posed by Houthi rebels was another key driver for UAE to expand its engagement with the region (Crisis Group, 2018). For this purpose, it sought to enlist support of strategically located regional states such as Sudan and Eritrea. These states were offered generous financial packages and political support and in exchange, they supported UAE’s war efforts. UAE could count on these states for acquisition of bases, limiting Iranian influence and sending their military forces to fight on behalf of UAE. In fact, a large number of Sudanese troops have been spotted in Yemen (Evers, 2020).
Since 2015, UAE and Saudi Arabia have provided direct military support to the embattled government of Yemen and consider the growing power of Houthi rebels as an extension of Iranian power in the southern Arabian Peninsula. However, despite the involvement of their air as well as ground forces, so far, these two Gulf powers have not succeeded in defeating the rebels (Falk, 2021). However, the war in Yemen provided excellent opportunities to UAE for strengthening its presence in the region (Vertin, 2019). The involvement of UAE in the region has now reached a stage where irrespective of the resolution of the Yemen crisis, it is likely to retain its control over the strategically important ports and access points.
Control over southern Yemeni ports and islands coupled with the growing engagement with Somaliland positions UAE in an enviable geopolitical role wherein it can monitor and influence the northern as well as southern coastlines of the Gulf of Aden. The foothold in Somaliland is also supported by a dominant regional power (Ethiopia) and therefore, UAE is likely to continue its engagement with the self-governing territory. It would increase UAE’s ability to monitor and shape developments in the Northwest Indian Ocean. As Djibouti and UAE are locked in a legal dispute over the operation of the port of Doraleh, developing the port of Berbera serves UAE’s objective to reduce Djibouti’s prominence for the region.
Besides, the Somaliland–UAE partnership is mutually beneficial and allows the UAE to consolidate its military, economic as well as political profile in the region. The scale of UAE’s proposed investments ($442 million for the port) and long-term security partnership indicate the growing strategic interest and long-term planning. It also helps Somaliland to reduce its isolation, expand its external partnerships and position itself as a viable option in the Gulf of Aden as a trans-shipment hub as well as a gateway for the Horn of Africa. For example, international food assistance to eastern Ethiopia is channelled through Djibouti. For this purpose, Berbera would, perhaps, be a better alternative in terms of costs and accessibility.
It is interesting to note that, in the past decade, UAE has sought to develop politico-military ties with all the littoral states from Sudan in the north to Somalia in the south (Melvin, 2019; Styan, 2013; Vertin, 2019). Overall, the results have been mixed. It fell out with Djibouti and Somalia and has succeeded in Somaliland and Sudan. It has acquired a base in Eritrea. With a reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, UAE does not have to choose between the two. It has quickly adjusted its policy in response to the changing strategic situations. With its economic power and assertive foreign policy, UAE has managed to increase its footprint in the Northwest Indian Ocean and is in a position to influence geopolitical realities. The port of Berbera might well emerge as the lynchpin of UAE’s strategic engagement with the region.

Concluding Remarks

In the past few years, competition for developing ports and acquiring military facilities in the WIO is being played out. Major global as well as regional powers such as China, Russia, Turkey and UAE are active in this competition and have succeeded in establishing their presence in the region through means such as infrastructure building, port modernization and/or opening military bases. As a result of this competition, littoral states in the region, such as Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya are at the receiving end of their engagement and have been able to garner political, military as well as economic support from these regional and global powers.
UAE has probably been the most active power in this contest and a de-facto state like Somaliland has been a major beneficiary. Somaliland’s location along the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden has attracted foreign powers historically. UAE has been developing the port of Berbera in Somaliland and has also established an important military base near it. The phase 1 of the modernized port of Berbera was inaugurated in June 2021. UAE has also been training Somaliland’s police and coastguards and has extended security guarantees. Through the firm foothold in Somaliland and southern Yemen, UAE is in an enviable position to influence regional affairs. It can project its power in the region and monitor the maritime traffic as well as petroleum trade passing through the region. Owing to the scale of its investments and engagements, UAE has emerged as probably the most important external security, economic and political partner for the self-governing territory. The engagement with the UAE is likely to help Somaliland to reduce its isolation, attract foreign investments from the Gulf region and enter the global economy.
Ethiopia, world’s largest land-locked state, also supports the emergence of a modern port at Berbera. Ethiopia depends on Djibouti as its primary conduit to sea and would like to reduce the overwhelming dependence by diversifying its access points to sea. Ethiopia also welcomed UAE’s investments in Somaliland as it sought to prevent the development of the port of Assab in Eritrea. There are plans to build a Berbera corridor, special economic zone and modernize the connectivity infrastructure including the roads and railway. It is likely to boost the economic development of Somaliland and the southern as well as eastern regions of Ethiopia. The port of Berbera signals the convergence of interests of Somaliland, UAE and Ethiopia. Therefore, the emergence of a modern port with world class facilities at Berbera is likely to reshape regional politics, economics and security.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.


The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



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