Developing Djibouti: An American Imperative

Updated December 1, 2012

The geographic extremities of any continent tend to have strategic value and it is thus no surprise that the so-called “Horn of Africa” was contested and divided between the colonial powers. Italy, the United Kingdom and France vied for control here. While the highlands of Abyssinia  remained a formidable challenge for colonizers (the Italians captured Addis Ababa only for a brief period from 1890 to 1896), the coastal regions got divided up between the colonial powers. Although the French had much of their clout on the Western end of the continent, they wanted an outpost on the Red Sea, given its strategic value in connecting Africa to Asia, leading to the establishment of a small colony of “French Somaliland.”

A street scene near the central mosque in the capital of Djibouti: Missed potential for developing a Muslim country in the Horn of Africa. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

This small colony is now the sovereign state of Djibouti, which gained independence in 1977 but retains strong ties to France. With a population of less than a million and hot dry climate with few mineral resources, the country has been off the beaten track of most travellers. However, during the last decade, due to the continuing instability in neighbouring Somalia as well as the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Djibouti has gained prominence. It is now the only source of maritime access for landlocked Ethiopia with its population and development needs of over 85 million people. It is also now also the residence for over 20,000 Somali refugees who have escaped through the “green zone” of Somaliland from the conflict in the south of fractured Somalia.

A nominal democracy, the country has been relatively peaceful yet still desperately poor. I had an opportunity to visit Djibouti recently after a visit to Ethiopia for the United Nations African Development Forum. My curiosity to visit this country was sparked by an article I had read in The Washington Post regarding the expansion of US military presence in the region. Landing at Djibouti International airport, one is alarmed to find one side of the air strip almost completely populated by US Airforce presence. The country is also among the few places in the world where drone aircraft can be seen on a civilian air strip, often overwhelming civilian traffic. The presence of these prized new airforce stealth weapons in Djibouti comes from its proximity to the Arabian state of Yemen which has become an increasingly significant hotbed for Al-Qaeda.

Talking to locals, there was little resentment towards American presence but also not much to show for their positive impact on the country. Occasionally one would hear stories of US soldiers volunteering for community service or building some unusual desert residence for local villagers, but the overall development impact of US presence here of over 3000 personnel has been minimal. Unemployment is still over 40% and much of the money that comes in from foreign investment is funnelled back to the foreign-owned businesses in the city. The US government pays only $38 million per year to lease the airfield for the drone operations and the African command base here which is under further expansion.

The lack of US investment in Djibouti is a tremendous missed opportunity to develop a country which could be a low-hanging fruit for citizen diplomacy with the Muslim world. With only 900,000 people and a relatively small land-base and a highly urbanized population, developing Djibouti with aid investment would be very easy to do. Imagine the positive impact of showcasing how US military presence was a force for positive investment in a Muslim country (the population is 95% Muslim), and genuinely changed the human development indicators of the country. Yet the USAID program in Djibouti is paltry and embarrassing, given the strategic value of the country to the US as a military base.

Aerial view of Lake Abbe, on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

The unrealized potential for various kinds of investment is also phenomenal. The climate is similar to the sunny Gulf states – hot and dry, but with far greater tourism potential. Djibouti has spectacular desert mountains, which rise up to 2000 meters and where the climate is cooler but accessible within a few hours drive from the capital city. There are two large spectacular lakes which could be a bastion for developing eco-tourism. Lake Assal is a massive crater lake surrounded by salt pans and spectacular mountain scenery. Lake Abbe, on the border with Ethiopia is next to a dormant volcano with its own unique set of geological features such as large limestone chimneys and is one of the key geographic features of the Afar depression which is a rare example of a tectonic triple junction where three geologic plates meet. In addition, Djibouti’s Obock region is the closest point across the terminus of the Red Sea and Arabia. Indeed, this unique location already attracted interest from Saudi investor Tarek Bin Laden (brother of infamous deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden) to build a “bridge of the horns” across the divide and develop a tourist resort and business development. However, instead of encouraging such development plans the United States has discouraged investment in such a project for ostensible security reasons.

It is high time the United States Departments of State and Defense pay attention to Djibouti’s development. It should be used as a prototype for positive US investment in the Muslim world and the chances of getting fast and palpable development progress here are far greater than in Afghanistan or Iraq. Providing incentives for American business to invest in Djibouti, coupled with massive development assistance to build infrastructure should be a top priority for the Obama administration’s next Africa policy. In his next trip to the continent, President Obama needs to visit Djibouti and see for himself what the US is missing in terms of development potential.

There are valid concerns about the existing corruption and lack of transparency in the country. However, this cannot be used as an excuse for inaction or reticence to further development assistance. International groups such as Friends of Djibouti can assist with more scrutiny of government action, similar to the efforts undertaken by offshore campaigns to improve the performance of government institutions in Burma/ Myanmar which have led to the current improvement of international relations and performance of the government. Clearly the United States now has far more leverage in Djibouti and should work with other international players to make a more concerted effort to improve social and political institutions in the country.  Such calls for reform should occur alongside targeted and deliberative development assistance that meets the aspirations of Djiboutians and also improves the potential for sustained economic investment.

Minor American development investment: A Coca Cola Sign at a decrepit commercial plaza on road to Lake Assal, Djibouti. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

As a starting point, the US should totally rebuild the civilian airport terminal in Djibouti with USAID funds since that is the most proximate connection to their own military base and is desperately in need of renovation. As the development of Dubai shows, airports can be essential catalysts in promoting international investment. The public diplomacy impact of this could also be enormous at a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in the military base next to the airport. Port-oriented development and tourism could be the next areas to attract international investment. USAID should also invest in a massive environmental cleanup and education program. The urban waste management system in Djibouti is deplorable and the pollution from waste dumping in the capital’s streets is among the worst I have seen in this region. Educational investment in schools and a regional university (similar to the American University of Cairo) could be another important move to attract students from the region. All this development can be done much faster than in most African countries. The country’s connections to France as well as to the Arab league provide it with a multilingual demographic labor force that could easily spur development.

The colonial scramble for Africa produced many anomalous national identities that have often impeded development by creating trade barriers or accentuating underlying ethnic tensions and conflict. The old “conquer powers” that divided and synthesized current manifestations of national identities as well as the new “order powers” who aspire for free flow of resources and commerce have an obligation to develop Africa. The task is daunting and trust among Africans is fleeting without some clear marks of resounding success. Djibouti has the potential to be such a success story for development in a relatively short time-frame. Such a prototype for development, in which an impoverished Muslim majority country that literally lies at the gateway between Africa and Arabia, could be a game-change for transcendent international cooperation.

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
  • Michele Stanford

    The French and Japanese also have military bases in Djibouti, so why does it only have to be the US that needs to invest in the country? You may want to check the facts regarding what monies from which agencies can be used to fund projects. Yes, Djibouti has great potential, however the Djiboutian government also has to have the desire to change.

  • S Parker

    As a woman who has travelledd to Djibouti alone several times, I have never been “alarmed” by a US military presence in close proximity to the Djibouti airport. I suspect that you are being intentionally dramatic or maybe you scare easily and should just stay home. I have always felt very safe at the Djibouti Amboulli airport and have found the airport personnel to be friendly and accomodating. The only alarming thing about this airport is the price of a one month visa ($90). Also, I have NEVER seen a drone aircraft taking off or landing while my plane was arriving, leaving or even parked at the gate. Your suggestion that drone aircraft is overwhelming civilian traffic is pure nonsense and fabrication. I don’t normally comment on news stories, but this publication comes from someone who obviously came to town, spent a couple of days trying to get locals to say bad things about Americans, took a picture of the trashiest part of town and typed up some uneducated nonsense so he could get another paycheck from Nat. Geographic. As for the bridge from Yemen, no one with any REAL knowledge of the area would be in favor of such a project. The people of Djibouti are very peace loving and friendly people. Djiboutians and Americans have a great mutual respect for each other and they work hand in hand to promote peace and security in the region. Building a bridge from Yemen would undermine everything Djibouti, American, the French and the Japanese are successfully accomplishing to keep radical hate groups out of Djibouti. As far as the US government ONLY paying $38 million a year to lease the land for the base, ARE you kidding me??? ONLY $38 million a year? This is a HUGE sum of money for the small little piece of desert this base leases and it is a MAJOR source of income for the people of Djibouti. Again, you have NO idea what you are talking about. You have no idea how many NGOs are working tirelessly in Djibouti and no idea how much aid money is pouring into this country. I guess you couldn’t be bothered to take enough time to actually do research and back you claims up with real numbers. You also have no idea about the political or business climate in Djibouti, or if you do , you didn’t bother to publish your findings. I find it sad that National Geographic would allow this artical pasts the editorial desk. No facts, no real investigation, no numbers to back up your claims, no study of politics, people or the real business climate in Djibouti… just some empty words and one photograph. No mention of the fact that the French and the Japanese also have military bases in Djibouti. There were no reference to the physical changes the real development that has taken place in Djibouti over the past 10 years, instead just a bunch of empty, undeducated words. This is very disappointing National Geographic.

  • D. McCurry

    I used to teach in Djibouti, so I think I know a bit about it. You mentioned the development of Dubai being catalyzed by the airport. What you failed to mention was the presence of oil in Dubai and the rest of the UAE. Yes, foreign investment came into Dubai but they also possessed substantial sums of money to invest in themselves as well. Djibouti lacks the means and possibly the political will to to do the things you propose.

    Also, were you aware of the presence of the French & Japanese military in Djibouti? Why must the US alone bear the costs of your proposed home improvement project.

    Also, I must take issue with your comments about drones at the airport. While it is well known that drones are deployed from Djibouti, I lived there for 9 months and made several trips through the airport and never once saw a drone. Perhaps you got lucky in spotting a drone on the tarmac?

  • @S. Parker. The information on drone traffics overwhelming civilian traffic is taken from the Washington Post article linked which is based on incident reports recorded by the US government. Indeed the drones are visible taking off and I saw them myself as have most locals who live near that part of the city. My issue is not with the drones being there — it’s just that we should use US presence also as a positive force for development. I have worked all over Africa and this article is based on comparisons from what I have observed. It is an oped piece and not a research article.

    If you think $38 million is a lot, keep in mind an average shopping mall in America costs $100 million to build. You are also missing the point about scale and impact of aid. What I have argued is that instead of spreading aid thinly in large countries with minimal overall impacts, if we can make a major difference nationally in a country which is hosting our troops so visibly, that could have much greater public diplomacy benefit at minimal cost.

    @D McCurry – on Dubai – they actually have limited oil (Abu Dhabi has most of the UAE”s oil). Also, Dubai was a backwater for 30 years after oil was harnessed in UAE and only gained momentum with development in the 1990s when Sheikh Makhdoom focused on the creation of the infrastructure hub focused on the airport and the development of Emirates airlines.

    The article was written in a spirit of constructive criticism to help America improve its image abroad but the kind of response received from you gives me an indication of why we are still stuck in the situation we are in. A knee-jerk defensive approach to quash constructive criticism will not help us. Indeed, other international donors should also help but America has a particular responsibility given the scale of US military expansion there. Furthermore, as an American myself, my goal is to try and help US foreign policy achieve our common goals of peace and security and hence the emphasis on what the US can do in leading development rather than following the French or the Japanese or other donors.

  • Eric

    Since the US base there is the #2 employer in the entire country, (only behind the port), I’d say they are sufficiently investing in the country.
    I’ve lived here a year and work with many locals. They are wonderfully appreciative people.

  • Eric

    Since the US base there is the #2 employer in the entire country, (only behind the port), I’d say they are sufficiently investing in the country.
    I’ve lived here a year and work with many locals. They are wonderfully appreciative people.

  • Merhawie

    Addis Ababa was also captured by the Italians in 1936 and this lasted until 1940/1.

  • Gabriel

    “Talking to locals, there was little resentment towards American presence” That is because they harbor resentment of the French due to their colonial history.Wrong place to assume they hate Americans and on the investing note China is taking care of that.I don’t think America has the money to just throw at that country but like S Parker said (who i agree with) it is not like the government of the US has not put a alot of money into Djibouti.They have and have done literally(both military and USAID combined) 1,000s of humanitarian projects and Japan has too.
    Look it up.

  • @Gabriel – Issue is not just to have citizen diplomacy with Djiboutians who have good relations with US. Rather this is an opportunity to make a far bigger splash with relations more broadly with the Muslim world. International investment could be encouraged far more directly than lots of small projects. The expansion of the US base will cost approximately $200 million — most of which will go back to US contractors. Imagine if the same amount could also be spent on development projects directly. Building the airport, encouraging American companies to invest (for their own benefit as well). For example, the overseas development assistance per capita given to the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica in 2012 was around $479. The Net ODA received per capita (US dollar) in Djibouti was last reported at $148 to a World Bank report published in 2012. Refer to: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/DT.ODA.ODAT.PC.ZS

    All I am saying is we are missing an opportunity to make a huge development difference in a strategically far more vital country than many other places where we are sending aid. Let’s not become defensive about well-intentioned constructive critiques.

  • Mohamed

    i appreciate your point of view saleem. as a poor country with very limited ressources, foreign investments is vital and America can do that. With all military staff they have here americans can almost feel more safier than we (local) feel !
    @Eric. US Base seems to be #2 employer in djibouti. but time that everyone in djibouti wanted to work in Camp Lemonier (for salary & work condition) is finished.
    now local people working in this us base are really abused by so called “employement agencies” ruled by corrupted people with the benediction of us military chiefs. so be quit, this is not honouring USA.
    for their own interest americans should treat directly with local worker to make difference in the country and not help “powerful” people to be more and more rich.
    we expect a lot from USA, which is the #1 ? …
    so act like a number one, for democracy, justice, investment etc…
    sorry for my english, i am better in french…
    thanks for reading.

  • Tristan Smith

    As a non-military person who has spent a lot of time in Djibouti, I think this opinion post is very poorly thought out. You simply cannot understand Djibouti without considering the French military which has always had major bases there (e.g., Camp Lemonnier, which the Americans are now using) … something the author fails to mention. He also overlooks the issue of sovereignty. The government of Djibouti is in charge of developing the country. Next in line are the French. Neither would react well if the US followed the author’s proposed approach, which is essentially neocolonialist. Even overlooking that, US dollars are not as easily translated into solutions in the 3rd world as the author implies. It doesn’t sound like the author spoke with a single French person in Djibouti about development – if he had, this might have been an opinion worth considering.

  • @Tristan – The French have had no problem with the US base being there and there is absolutely no reason why they would object to concomitant US Aid. Indeed, much of the concern the Europeans often raise is that on a per capita basis the US does not keep up with many other international donors in terms of its aid (also our aid is terribly asymmetric at present with huge commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq where the impact on a national level could never be as much as it could be in Djibouti)

  • ibmeuru

    So there i was, pontificating upon the vast knowledge gained from reading the Washington Post during my whistlestop Kempinski tour of Djibouti!

  • Vincent Chan

    Apart from the French, Japanese and the Americans the Germans and the Spanish military also operate from Djibouti. I am not sure whether the Russians operate from there though I had seen a very large group staying in the same hotel I was staying in for a short while.

  • Mahamed Jama Barraley

    This article is very typical of a Western journalists bias and ignorance about Africa. Well duhh! sir the people of Djibouti live under the worst dictatorship for 36 years, supported by the West. Yes the Europeans and Americans are training and supporting the brutal dictatorship of Ismael Omar Guelleh who loots the meager ressources and oppresses the people.. They support unconditionally this tyran in power thus sabotaging any attempt to better their lives of Djiboutian. Not a single sentence in this article mention the fact the current president there is the second president Djibouti had since independence 36 years ago after his uncle retired due to old age.. Djibouti is a rich country sir in geo-political context. Mineral ressources are not the only economic indicators of a country. Djibouti is the gateway to the sea for landlocked 100 million Ethiopians, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy which is stolen and amassed in Western bank accounts by the dictator. When the people resist and demand accountability they are tortured killed and raped by the same militias the West has trained not just in Djibouti but also in the US and Europe. For hundreds of years the people have lived in this harsh landscape and became well known as seafarers and shrewd entrepreneurs and traders of livestock all the way to India. Contrary to to this author assumption that Djiboutians need a hand out from America, the obstacle for developing Djibouti are western countries support of the dictatorship. End the dictatorship and rampant corruption and you end the misery which lead to chaos. The younger generation(67% of the pop.) see the hypocrisy and what’s happening in their country and are silently organizing to get rid of not only the dictatorship but also Western countries presence there. President Obama went to Djibouti as a junior Senator and saw in his own eyes the misery and corruption and did nothing whatsoever. The United States missed an opportunity here to present itself positively not just in the Muslim world but also in ressource rich Sub-Saharan Africa by supporting this tyran.

  • @Mahamed Indeed the government of Djibouti is not ideal and I noted that it is essentially a “nominal democracy” – however, providing assistance to develop infrastructure and encouraging foreign investment with specific conditions is really the only path out of this situation. As you know there is a history of civil conflict in the country and a completely hands-off approach from the international community is also a recipe for disaster as we have seen in neighboring Somalia where there is hardly any Western intervention and even in Somaliland (which is relatively peaceful development is stalled because of minimal foreign aid). We should all focus on common elements of humanity – East or West, North or South, in approaching African development.

    Yes, Africans need trade more than aid but in order for trade to occur, they first need to be able to develop basic infrastructure and the base for investment in their countries. As colonizers, the West has a responsibility in that regard and it should be considered in that constructive spirit rather than labeling any assistance as interference. I have noted also how the West should encourage investment from Arabia which they have thus far also prevented. So there is enough blame to go around on this matter.

    @ibmeuru — I didt’t even go inside Kempinsky compound since – which seemed grotesque to me – considering the destitution outside. So this was very much a grassroots visit.

  • abdi hamid

    i am against the US presence in our country. the drone attack on neighboring countries like Yemen and Somalia have caused the deaths of civilians respectively and the CIA runs secret detention facilities to keep and torture suspected terrorists without trail. what do we have to loose ? $38 million is little anyway.

  • Al Dorman

    On October 25, Washington Post writer Craig Whitlock headlined “Remote US base at core of secret operations,” saying:
    “Around the clock, about 16 times a day, drones take off or land at” America’s Djibouti-based Camp Lemonnier. It’s “the combat hub for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.”
    Lemonnier is home to around 3,200 military, civilian and private contractor personnel. Most know little about highly classified counterterrorism work. The select 300 handle it. Their mandate also includes intelligence gathering. Killing, however, is prioritized.

  • Mahmoud

    For once this article touched some really points facing the republic of Djibouti: underdevelopment, poverty, lack of democracy, and above all: corruption.
    Many issues that affect the country is engineered by the man on the top ( Ismael Omar Guelleh) as long he remains the head of the state nothing will improve in Djibouti. Since coming to power the people of Djibouti saw their standard of living degrading fast and the little freedom they had under Gouled vanishing. OIG has made fear as a governing tool , destitution and deprivation as a way to silent his political opponents. The greediness and shameless of his wife are well documented to everyone in the country. From the state bank to the power company this family has his hands on every major financial and industrial institutions of the country. They rob every penny belonging to the state treasure and embezzled each commercial transaction that takes place in the country, and now in chaotic Somalia.

  • Susan

    If you really want to know what is going on in Djibouti you should read “Djibouti, The Last Domino To Fall in the Horn of Africa” by Paul Reynolds. Then you will understand why I find you to be so mis-informed

  • Hassan

    The USA needs to stop giving money to the corrupt regime and stop training their assassin. Stop giving them intel or technology to oppress its citizen. Hello the american suppose to be the global force for good. At least that’s what ad was lol. A when it come to money and aid the DJiboutian don t need any hand out. Because the port fees can support the nation payroll. Hahahah. Obama regime need to be on the right of history. Help the people or the terrorist regime of ismael Omar. Lololol

  • Abdul husein

    Well when a such thinks come to coment there ‘s lot of people who doesn’t born for those country who get inside of the topic.
    The write such a derties thinks to show the world the faults thinks.
    Then I ask those peolpe to be shem for them selfs

  • bohemia 13th 15th century

    Radical! New update! You�ve clearly been working on your writing skills. Bravo 🙂 Thank you so much for the creativity of well�you!

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