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Djibouti’s diplomacy in the international arena

Tuesday May 14, 2024
By Théo du Couëdic


Djibouti’s ability to place its geographic location at the heart of its economic strategy has been well documented. Its position on the approaches to the Red Sea gives it access to some of the most important shipping lanes in the world and has resulted in the development of one of Africa’s most modern ports. But the government has also made the most of its location in its diplomatic strategy, building ties with countries in the West, Africa and the Middle East, as well as with China through a multipolar approach.

Djibouti’s diplomatic visibility has strengthened since June 2023, when the country’s President, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, assumed the rotating presidency of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has sought to mediate on the war in Sudan, among other conflicts. In March, the EU and IGAD launched their first comprehensive partnership dialogue in Djibouti to address peace and security challenges in the Horn of Africa. 

As a result of President Guelleh’s IGAD role, the leaders of the two sides seeking to control Sudan – the Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council Army Commander, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – met in Djibouti in December 2023 for talks aimed at helping to resolve the conflict that had affected Sudan for eight months by that point. 

Djibouti was also involved in mediation between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland in 2020, and has now also served as a member of the African Union Peace and Security Council three times.

Given that it is something of a haven of peace in a troubled region, Djibouti’s desire to position itself as a mediator is understandable. Somalia’s long civil war continues with no end in sight, while Ethiopia has had to deal with its own internal conflicts as well as fluctuating relations with Eritrea. Both Sudan and South Sudan have been blighted by terrible civil wars. 

One conflict threatens Djibouti’s own economy more directly, with many vessels avoiding the Bab el-Mandeb and Red Sea to avoid attacks by Houthi fighters based in Yemen on the opposite coast. Djibouti has used its IGAD presidency to try to influence events in Yemen, again making use of its location just 20km from the Arabian Peninsula at the narrowest point. Given that Yemeni refugees have fled to Djibouti among other countries, it is understandable that the government is keen to reach a resolution on humanitarian as well as economic grounds.

Overseas military bases

Djibouti’s population is mainly urbanised because about 90% of its territory is thus far uninhabitable. But the government has turned this negative into an advantage by leasing land for overseas military bases to some of the most powerful countries in the world. In a unique global situation, the US, Chinese, French, Japanese, UK, Saudi Arabian and Italian militaries all make use of Djibouti’s strategic location, national stability and proximity to more unstable areas, including shipping lanes that have been badly affected by piracy in the recent past.

The country offers easy access to the Middle East without actually being based there and the opportunity to protect the volumes of crude oil and refined petroleum products that pass by Djibouti on their way to the Suez Canal every day. Indeed, Camp Lemonnier, which was built following President George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, is the biggest US military base anywhere on the African continent and now home to the US Africa Command, or AFRICOM. Japan is constitutionally banned from having a military. But its Djibouti centre was the first overseas base for its self-defence forces since the end of the Second World War.

As well as generating hundreds of millions of US dollars a year in revenue, the bases give Djibouti a voice with a range of Western and Asian powers out of scale with the size of its territory, population or economy. Moreover, the presence of so many foreign militaries in such a small country surely makes any foreign powers less likely to attack Djibouti in the future, providing a great deal of protection. Finally, having so many foreign powers on its soil should reduce the risk of a single country exerting undue influence on a future Djibouti government.


Djibouti also contributes to African peacekeeping operations in Africa, providing police to the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Many of its police officers have been trained by Italian instructors based in Djibouti itself.

In addition to deepening its relations with key regional and global players, Djibouti is also widening the pool of its international relationships by establishing diplomatic relations with more countries. Most recently, this included the establishment of diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan in early May, while last September Iran and Djibouti announced that they would resume diplomatic ties.

Despite the presence of the military bases, perhaps Djibouti’s most important international relations are with Ethiopia. Strong Ethio-Djibouti relations are important for both countries, with landlocked Ethiopia relying on the Port of Djibouti for 95% of its trade in goods. A new railway was built between the port and Addis Ababa in 2015 that acts as a conduit for

Ethiopian cargo that should generate increased revenue for Djibouti as the Ethiopian economy continues to grow strongly. The two governments help manage the line and are now assessing plans to double its capacity.

In addition, Djibouti relies on Ethiopia for much of its water supply. CGC Overseas Construction Group of China built a pipeline to transport water 258km from underground reserves in Ethiopia, which is known as the Water Tower of Africa, into arid Djibouti. The latter currently also relies on power imports from Ethiopia via an interconnector that was completed in 2011. There has been some tension recently over Addis Ababa’s desire to secure direct access to the sea but it is clear that maintaining positive relations is a key priority for both countries.


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