Qatar crisis shakes East Africa, a home to Gulf militaries

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Though far-removed from the Gulf, East Africa has been shaken by the Arab diplomatic crisis gripping Qatar.

In recent years both Qatar and the other energy-rich nations arrayed against it have made inroads in the Horn of Africa by establishing military bases, managing ports and showering friendly nations with foreign aid.

As the rivalry heats up, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain seeking to isolate Qatar, East African nations stand to gain or lose from an increasingly fierce competition for influence. And with Saudi Arabia and its allies mired in a war just across the Red Sea in Yemen, the area has never had more strategic value.

“I think we’re seeing a game of geopolitical chess being played out,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

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MILITARY EXPANSION

The importance of the Horn of Africa to Gulf nations can be seen with just a glance at a map. The Horn’s shoreline comes as close as 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) to Yemen at the Bab el-Mandeb straight, a crucial chokepoint at sea for oil tankers heading from the Gulf to Europe.

For years, the shores of East Africa provided a crucial point for smugglers to reach Yemen, as well as a target-rich hunting ground for pirates. Securing the area has taken on new importance for Gulf countries since March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched its war against Shiite rebels and their allies who hold Yemen’s capital.

Since the conflict began, the United Arab Emirates and others have established military bases in East Africa. In Eritrea, the UAE has a base at the port in Assab. Another Emirati military base will be built in Somalia’s breakaway northern territory of Somaliland.

“The UAE is very keen to show that it’s a provider of security, not just a consumer of security,” Ulrichsen said.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile has discussed putting its own base in tiny Djibouti, already home to an under-construction Chinese military base and a U.S. base that launches drone missions over Somalia and Yemen.

Analysts believe all these Gulf military installations will become permanent features in East Africa.

“They are not only just momentarily engaging in the Horn and its countries, but they are becoming long-term strategic actors in the whole region,” said Umer…

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