From Egypt to Mozambique, the United Arab Emirates conquering the ports of East Africa

The port of Mombasa, Kenya, in October 2019.

Dubai Ports World (DP World) continues its journey south. After criss-crossing part of the Red Sea and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, from Egypt to Somalia, one of the biggest port operators in the world is now attacking Kenya. The Dubai giant is about to sign an agreement to develop the Dongo Kundu industrial zone, near the port of Mombasa, for 300 million dollars (275 million euros).

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The Emirati firm has worked for years, with varying degrees of success, to set foot in Kenya. Initially, DP World negotiated an ambitious contract grouping together four concessions: the ports of Mombasa, Lamu and Kisumu, as well as the dry port of Naivasha. The tacit agreement made with the administration of ex-president Uhuru Kenyatta (2013-2022) first fell apart following the election of William Ruto, before the new head of state dictated his own terms. .

The upcoming entry of DP World into the Kenyan market would enable the United Arab Emirates to strengthen its grip on the region’s ports and trade routes. Like China along the “new silk roads”, Abu Dhabi weaves a necklace of pearls in East Africa, from Egypt to Mozambique. Apart from Djibouti, where a dispute opposes it to the authorities, and Eritrea, from where it recently withdrew, the port power extends over the entire eastern seaboard of the continent thanks to its two financial arms, DP World and Abu Dhabi Ports, and enterprising diplomacy.

A military and commercial force

The Emirati establishment in the region began in 2006 in Djibouti. “The Emirates see themselves both as a new Venice, a cultural and commercial power turned outward, and as a new Sparta, an emirate very focused on military ‘hard power'”assures Sébastien Boussois, author of the book United Arab Emirates: conquering the world. The fourth busiest strait in the world, Bab-el-Mandeb sees 40% of the world’s maritime trade and more than 6 million barrels of crude oil pass through it per day. Securing it is vital for an export power like Abu Dhabi.

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The presence of the Emirates in the Horn of Africa was first considered in the light of the conflicts within the Gulf. “The strong militarization of the Horn is primarily linked to the war in Yemen: the Emirates were looking for bases along the coast to serve as logistical support for military operations”, assures Jean-Loup Samaan, researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). The base of Assab, in Eritrea, thus enabled the Emirati navy to hold its blockade on Yemen, to launch its drones there, and served as a transit point for mercenaries from Mauritania and Sudan on behalf of from the Emirates to Yemen.

“To serve his ambitions, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ, Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates) combines military force with commercial force”, assures Sébastien Boussois. In the Horn of Africa, DP World acts as a support to the Emirati military-industrial complex. Whether in Berbera (Somaliland) or Bosaso (Somalia), DP World’s two port concessions have been accompanied by agreements for cooperation, modernization of military bases and financing of local navies to fight against piracy in the Gulf. from Aden.

Central Africa is rich in minerals and rare earths, which Abu Dhabi is seeking to get its hands on

However, the truce in Yemen and the end of the blockade against Qatar mark a gradual withdrawal of the Emirati army. Assab was abandoned last year. “We are now returning to an economic imperative in DP World’s strategy”, notes Jean-Loup Samaan. The Emirati interest in Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa, is a manifestation of this. This premier logistics hub on the continent acts as a gateway to several Central African markets: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Uganda. The area is rich in minerals and rare earths, which Abu Dhabi is seeking to get its hands on.

“All-round investments”

“MBZ is preparing for the post-oil era and is pursuing a strategy of diversification through all-out investments”, indicates Sébastien Boussois, underlining in particular the constant concern of the Emirates in terms of food security. Abu Dhabi imports 85% of its food needs. “The Emirates seek to control both the sources and the routes of supply”, assures Jean-Loup Samaan. “DP World’s acquisitions reflect the Emirates’ ambition to own most of the value chain – infrastructure, roads, ports – to make the most of it”adds Benjamin Hunter, of Verisk Maplecroft.


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Indeed, DP World no longer invests only along the seafront. In South Africa and Rwanda, the world’s third largest operator operates dry ports. Another example: the port of Berbera, in Somaliland, was designed to be directly connected to the fertile lands of Ethiopia via a long road corridor of 1,000 km.

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For fear of food shortages, the Emirates are appropriating land in the region. They acquired 400,000 hectares in Sudan. Last year, the transitional government in Khartoum signed a $6 billion concession agreement with Abu Dhabi Ports for a new port terminal 200 km north of Port Sudan. It will include a special economic zone, an airport and an agricultural area of ​​168,000 hectares.

“The trend of the last ten years shows an increase in acquisitions of DP World and Abu Dhabi Ports, which follow a greater involvement of the Emirates in the affairs of the Horn of Africa”, according to Benjamin Hunter. Abu Dhabi, for example, became a mediator for Ethio-Eritrean peace in 2018. Using their influence, the Emirates did not hesitate to intervene more decisively to support their allies. MBZ made drones available to Eritrea during the war in Tigray and operated an impressive airlift to Addis Ababa to support Abiy Ahmed’s federal army during the civil war in the summer of 2021. Support which can only be accompanied by a few counterparties.

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