The Strategic Relations Between Saudi Arabia and Djibouti

In recent years, Riyadh and Djibouti have signed several agreements aimed at enhancing military cooperation to counter Iranian influence in the region. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay discusses the strengthening ties between the two states

King Salman with Djibouti President Guelleh at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh

Djibouti, with a population of 875,000 people and the size of only 23,000 square kilometers, is located at a strategic point, namely Bab al Mandab straits, linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is an increasingly vital economic and energy hub thanks to its geostrategic location – a path through which 10% of the world’s oil exports and 20% of commercial exports pass annually.

On April 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti signed a cooperation agreement in the military field. The agreement, which aims at enhancing military cooperation between the two states, was co-signed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense, and his Djiboutian counterpart Ali Hasan Bahdon.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed held a meeting with Bahdon at his office where they reviewed bilateral relations and discussed aspects of cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense. The meeting was attended by Chief of General Staff Abdul Rahman al-Bonyan; Consultant at the Royal Court and Supervisor General of the Defense Minister’s Office Fahd al-Isa; Deputy Chief of Staff of Djibouti Maj. Gen. Taher Muhammad Ali; and Commander of the Djibouti Naval Forces Col. Abdurahman Ali.

As part of the strategic alliance between the countries, Djibouti will sign an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow the Gulf state to build a military base on the coastline of Djibouti. From a Saudi perspective, stationing forces in Djibouti is both a defensive and a potential offensive measure in its pan-regional conflict with Iran, with particular bearing on the nearby war in Yemen.

The strategic cooperation between the two countries started with the visit of President Ismail Omer Guelleh in Saudi Arabia. On October 15, 2015, King Salman and President Ismail Omer Guelleh held talks in Riyadh on bilateral relations and on the developments in the region, including Yemen. President Guelleh was accompanied by Mahmoud Ali Yusuf, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and International Cooperation. President Guelleh presented King Salman of Saudi Arabia with the Djibouti Grand Star, Djibouti's highest award, in recognition of the king's efforts in the service of issues of Islamic and Arab nations.

The War in Yemen

Riyadh is leading a coalition fighting Houthis in Yemen, which lies across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Saudi Arabia backs forces loyal to the Yemen government, which control Aden and other parts of southern Yemen.

Yemen has been wracked by chaos since late 2014, when the Houthis and their allies overran the capital, Sanaa, and other parts of the country, forcing members of Yemen's Saudi-backed government to temporarily flee to Riyadh.

The conflict escalated in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Muslim allies launched a massive military campaign aimed at reversing Houthi gains in Yemen and restoring the country's embattled government.

On January 6, 2016, Djibouti has cut diplomatic connections with Iran after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by violent protesters in retaliation for the execution of Sheikh Nimr. The move by Djibouti intended to exhibit solidarity with Saudi Arabia, which cut ties with Iran on January 3, 2016.

Djibouti is cooperating with Riyadh to monitor any military intervention or weapons smuggling from Iran to Yemen. In mid-February 2016, Saudi intelligence officials, tracking the flow of munitions from Iran to its Houthi proxy militia in Yemen, discovered that the Islamic Republic was using Djibouti as a waystation. A ship en route to Yemen carrying encrypted military communication equipment and other hardware had originated in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The Kingdom intercepted it en route, and recognized the importance of strengthening its capacity to act in and around Djibouti.

Saudi Arabia's Soft Power Activity in Djibouti 

Saudi Arabia's soft power activity in Djibouti serves to intensify the ties between the countries. Saudi Arabia, a prominent donor to Djibouti’s public works, has spent generously on social welfare projects for the country’s poor; built housing, schools, and mosques for its swelling Yemeni refugee population; and dispatched teachers and preachers from the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).

Two memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and a bilateral agreement were signed on the sidelines of a Saudi-Djibouti businessmen forum in Djibouti on April 21, 2017. The MoUs were signed to rehabilitate King Fahd Road in Djibouti, and a grant was offered to support the health sector there.

The signing took place in the presence of Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Saudi Commerce and Investment Minister Majid Al-Qassabi.

Summary

Saudi Arabia is seeking to counter what it regards as Iranian interference in conflicts in the Arab world, ranging from Syria to Yemen. The Saudi Arabian military base in Djibouti, therefore, is an attempt to open up a new front against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and thus counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Djibouti is an Arab League member state and has joined the 34-member, Saudi-led “Islamic coalition” against Iran-sponsored terror announced by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in December 2015.

Riyadh’s closer ties with Djibouti coincide with its goal to take a more assertive approach to regional security, and Saudi attempts to bring fellow Sunni nations into a grand alliance to project power and rely less on Western military backing.

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