Wednesday February 7, 2018
A race is underway between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates
(UAE), and Turkey to build naval and military bases right across the
Horn of Africa. This threatens to change the naval balance in the
north-west Indian Ocean. But it may also presage the beginnings of a
new strategic order in this complex and multipolar region where a host
of major and middle powers jostle for influence and position.
The strategic order in the Indian Ocean is changing fast. In the last few years we have seen major powers, such as China and India,
building new bases in the western Indian Ocean. But we are now
witnessing several Middle Eastern players building their own areas of
influence. This is happening in the Horn of Africa, but is likely to
spread further into the Indian Ocean.
Base race in the Horn of Africa
Saudi Arabia has recently finalised a deal to establish a naval base in Djibouti. Its UAE ally has just built major naval and air facilities at Assab
in nearby Eritrea. The UAE also runs a military training centre in
Mogadishu in Somalia, and is rumoured to be seeking access to port and
air facilities at Berbera in the breakaway province of Somaliland.
In recent weeks, Turkey signed a deal with Sudan to rebuild the old
Ottoman-era port of Suakin on the Red Sea, which will reportedly include
naval facilities. The port last hit the international spotlight in 1883
when British (and Australian) forces under Kitchener used it as a base
to pursue the “Mad” Mahdi. A Turkish naval base at Suakin would upset
the military balance on the Red Sea, potentially setting off a naval
arms race with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is on top
of Turkey’s existing military facilities at Qatar (where some 3000 troops are now stationed) and Mogadishu.
Indeed, hosting foreign military bases has become a bit of a regional
specialty. Djibouti, which sits on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb (the
maritime choke point between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal), has
made virtue of its geography by creating a successful business model out
of hosting foreign military bases. It now hosts naval and military
forces from France, the US, Japan, Italy, China, and the Saudis, among
The immediate imperative behind these moves in the Horn of Africa is
the growing rivalry between the two new Middle Eastern blocs: Saudi
Arabia, UAE, and Egypt on one side; and Turkey, Iran, and Qatar on the
other. A proxy conflict between these rival blocs in Yemen has a strong
naval element, with the Houthi rebels being supplied by sea. The naval
blockade of Yemen and support of government forces give the Emirate and
Saudi navies good reasons to establish bases nearby.
But the implications of these developments go far beyond the Horn of
Africa. This base race is symptomatic of bigger strategic aspirations of
several “non-traditional” middle powers in the Indian Ocean region.
Turkey’s long-forgotten glories
Turkey has not been seen in the Indian Ocean since the time of
Lawrence of Arabia, more than a century ago. But the country is
undergoing a “global reawakening” that includes a national remembrance
of the glories of the Ottoman Empire. In their heyday, the Ottomans
exerted influence right across the Islamic world, through Africa and in
the northern Indian Ocean. The Ottomans even boasted a protectorate in
Aceh, in present-day Indonesia.
This history is now being disinterred. No doubt we will soon be
reminded of the exploits of several long-forgotten Ottomans’ naval
expeditions in the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca and beyond.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ambitions, which some call
“neo-Ottoman”, across the region. Turkey is already a security player in
the eastern Indian Ocean. In September 2017, Turkey was the first
country to deliver aid to the Rohingyas in Myanmar and in Bangladesh during the latest bout of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar regime.
The Emirates spreads its wings
The Emirates, a regional rival of Turkey, is also spreading its
wings. The Emirates has long had aspirations in the Indian Ocean, far
beyond the Yemen conflict. The UAE has given considerable financial and
political support to small island states, such as Comoros, Maldives, Seychelles,
Mauritius, and Comoros (which are Muslim-majority or have significant
Muslim populations), and it is a large investor in East Africa.
The UAE is also showcasing a broader political role in the Indian
Ocean, which will include taking the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim
Association, the Indian Ocean’s pan-regional political grouping, from
The UAE should be expected to be a significant Indian Ocean player in
the years ahead, as strategic competition grows in East Africa and
Middle power punch in the Indian Ocean
The new base race in the Horn of Africa underlines doubts over
Washington’s commitment to the region. The shale oil revolution has put
the US on a path to becoming the world’s biggest oil net exporter within the next decade, meaning that the Persian Gulf may become less of a strategic imperative for it.
Although US defence forces remain in the region (including the Fifth
Fleet in Bahrain), there are doubts over US staying power. This, of
course, has only been amplified by the antics of the Trump
administration. Regional players seem to be positioning themselves for
what they see as an inevitable drawdown in US forces.
Just as importantly, the base race by “new” middle powers
demonstrates just how multipolar and complex the Indian Ocean is likely
to become. For countries such as Australia, the Indian Ocean will not
only involve working with major powers such as the US, India, and China,
or allies such as France and Japan. It seems that there will be a host
of other players, each with their own agendas and alignments.
Australia has long experience working within international
coalitions, which in recent years has included commanding broad naval
coalitions in the western Indian Ocean. That may be the new order of the
day in the Indian Ocean.
David Brewster’s latest book is India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean. The
essays in the volume, by noted strategic analysts from across the
world, seek to better understand Indian and Chinese perspectives about
their roles in the Indian Ocean and their evolving naval strategies
towards each other.