Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P5)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
By contrast to the U.S. and its Japanese and Western allies, for which the establishment of a base in Djibouti is a matter of paying rent on a discrete strip of land, Saudis view their own barrack walls as permeable. Djibouti is an Arab League member state, bound to its brethren by ties of blood, culture, and faith. It has also joined the 34-member, Saudi-led “Islamic coalition” against Iran-sponsored terror announced by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in December. Thus from Riyadh’s perspective, all of Djibouti is a kind of “base”—and the Kingdom feels it has a right to weigh in on any of the country’s non-Arab military installations. It was hardly a coincidence when the Djiboutian government recently rejected a Russian proposal to establish its own base in the country: Moscow, a staunch ally to the Iran-backed Assad regime in Damascus, would have been at best unhelpful to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.
Saudi soft power activity in the country serves to intensify this bond. One of the state-backed organizations spearheading it is the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The group historically served as a primary exporter of Islamist preaching across the globe—a mission that enabled both Salafi jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood to politicize and radicalize Muslim communities. But the Kingdom more recently purged the organization of jihadist preachers, and streamlined WAMY’s religious line to follow “Salafi traditionalism,” which holds that only the head of state has the right to declare “jihad.” Moreover, clerical elites who traditionally controlled the group now share authority with stalwarts of the government—call them “lay leaders”—who have their own direct line to the royal family. In Djibouti, WAMY funds and staffs health and human services for the indigenous population, and tends to the needs of Yemeni refugees. Other goals determined by the state appear to take precedence over preaching: provide disaster and poverty relief; back the government of President Isma’il Omar Guelleh; instill an ethos of Djiboutian nationalism that insulates the population from trans-state ideologies; build person-to-person relationships between Saudis and Djiboutians; engineer support for the Kingdom’s specific regional objectives. Some of these goals are subtly on display in the following excerpt from a March 21, 2016 report by WAMY on its Djibouti bureau:
To be sure, the positive aspects of WAMY’s programs should not diminish the concern that Salafi missionary activity may still promote a profoundly sectarian worldview in Djibouti, casting the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in existential, rather than political, terms.
As to the presence of 30,000-and-counting Yemeni refugees in Djibouti, Saudis view it as both a humanitarian concern and a strategic opportunity. Twenty-five years ago, in the aftermath of the “Gulf War” to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia established a refugee camp in the northern town of Rafha to host 33,000 Iraqis fleeing persecution by Saddam. The installation served Riyadh and some of its international allies as an intelligence listening post—hundreds of Iraqis were debriefed about the situation inside the country—and as a platform for cultivating Iraqi assets. Though the Yemeni and gulf wars are far from analogous, the presence of a substantial number of newly departed Yemeni civilians in a safe environment far from the battlefield presents the opportunity to tap a similar wealth of information and human networks.