Djibouti is all about location. One of the most trafficked shipping lanes in the world is right off the country's coast.
A police car appears in a cloud of red dust on the dirt road between the boulders. A young man in uniform opens the window and starts grousing in French. The Chinese men he is rebuking don't understand any of it, but slowly realise where the anger is coming from. They had forgotten to register with the sentry guarding the entrance to the large construction site above the coast.
When the police officer turns away, Nicholas Li says, "Unbelievable, this is my company here!" The company, under the leadership of the China Merchants Group, is building Africa's largest free-trade zone in Djibouti.
Li, the company's 37-year-old head, kicks rocks from the dirt road. Rules are rules, he says, OK. Then the tour in the SUV over the field of boulders continues. Li has left his driver back at headquarters down in the city, and is driving himself. He likes to have things under control.
Soon the site, where bulldozers with specialised tools are breaking up the rocky ground, will be home to factories, warehouses, office buildings and hotels – a city built from scratch, reaching down to the sea, a 48-square-kilometre invitation to investors from around the world.
A laboratory for the new world order
Djibouti is one of the smallest countries in Africa, but for several years now, people here have been thinking big. Many are dreaming of creating, with Chinese help, something similar to Singapore and the Gulf States. It may not be easy to make something of this parched land, but there is a true feeling of ambition here, a willingness to take risks and move forward. The Djiboutians are searching for a better life and for a bigger role for themselves in a global society that is in the process of reordering itself.
The country practically serves as a laboratory setting for the global shift in power from the West to the East, and many vivid examples can be seen. Djibouti is more open and willing to experiment than other African countries. And even though Europe and the United States continue to be important for the people here, when they think about their future, it's China that they look to.
The country has witnessed first hand just how quick the Chinese are at turning plans into reality. A new port has already been built on the coast, and the gigantic cranes in Doraleh have become Djibouti landmarks. Meanwhile, the free-trade zone Nicholas Li is building up in the rocky land is meant to deliver jobs and prosperity.
In the evening, Li turns on a couple of switches in the entry hall of his headquarters, and tiny lights illuminate a model showing the first construction phase of the free-trade zone. Li points to a high-rise next to the eight-lane access road. "A hotel is going in here," he says. The adjacent building is to become the new company headquarters of the consortium. "We are moving in this July," he says The timeline is tight.
Li has only been in Djibouti for six months. After completing his BA in finance, he moved from China to the Welsh city of Cardiff to complete his master's degree. "There were so many Chinese people in my courses, I didn't like it," he says. He attended other seminars to meet international students. He speaks English with a British accent.
The planned free-trade zone that Li is overseeing is important for Djibouti, because its aim is to create jobs for locals. "In a place where 50 foreigners work, 50 of our people should also be able to find jobs," says Mohamed Abdullahi Wais, the secretary-general of the presidency and an influential person in the government.
Wais, who studied in France, knows how sceptical Europeans are of large Chinese projects, but he doesn't share their concerns. "We have set up the zone so that it will be modelled after Jabal Ali in Dubai," he says.
In the Gulf, the sheiks' riches literally bubble out of the earth, but Djibouti has neither oil nor any other valuable mineral resources. The land is hot and dry. And up until one or two generations ago, the people here lived as nomads. Goats and camels can still be seen today walking through the capital city.
Location, Location, Location
But Djibouti does have one major commodity. In the real estate industry, they have a mantra for it, too: location, location, location. One of the most trafficked shipping lanes in the world is right off the country's coast. Dozens of oil tankers and container ships head to the Red Sea every day, bound for the Suez Canal and the ports of Europe.
This strategic location is one of the reasons the Chinese are here with their project managers, bankers and engineers and, most recently, with their army. And although they may only be the latest in a long line of foreign powers to set up quarters in Djibouti, they do think in bigger terms than the others. The tiny country serves as their gateway to Africa.
Those who were here before the Chinese came have also stayed, mostly with their militaries. Countries from three continents have bases south of the capital, including the United States, Japan, Italy and, of course, Djibouti's former colonial rulers, the French. Spanish and German forces are also stationed at the French military's Base Aérienne 188. French still happens to be the most important language in Djibouti.
Almost a million people live here, in a country a little larger in size than the German state of Hesse. They come from different cultures, speak Arabic or the languages of the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Two large population groups were long embroiled in conflict with one another, the Afar from the north and the Issa from the south, but things have been relatively peaceful since the civil war ended in 1994.
Authoritarian President Ismail Omar Guelleh has proven successful in keeping the country at peace. Guelleh finds the notion of political freedom for all too risky, and he has instead emphasised strictness and stability. In a conflict-filled region, stability is the other resource that Djibouti has to offer. The third is a certain amount of openness to the world. Islam may be the state's official religion, but faith is generally a private matter in Djibouti. Services regularly take place in its Christian churches, and if a woman wants to walk through the streets in jeans and without wearing a headscarf, nobody takes offence to it.
President Guelleh can also afford to distance himself from the Western powers. Although they pay a lot of money for the right to station soldiers, aircraft and drones on Djiboutian soil, they are dependent on Guelleh because of their desire to stay. In an interview last spring with the news magazine Jeune Afrique, he said that "the Americans constantly tell us that the Chinese presence is hindering their operations, and the Japanese are even more worried." But he says those concerns are unnecessary.
His dealings with the Chinese tend to be a lot more pleasant. Chinese President Xi Jinping gave Guelleh the highest honour in November, welcoming him to Beijing with all of the pomp of a state visit. Both presidents agreed to a "strategic partnership," although this sounds a little bit odd given that one of the men governs 1,400 times as many people as the other.
Economic aid or exploitation?
Still, the use of the term "partnership" sends a political message. When a much bigger state treats a smaller one as a peer, it can be interpreted as a bow – a bow towards Africa.
The Chinese have faced a lot of criticism since they began securing access to the continent's mineral resources and financing ports, train lines and dams with billions in loans. In Africa, they are often viewed as neo-colonialists, as ruthless business fanatics who think only of themselves.
Alternately, could one instead view these Chinese investments as a particularly efficient form of development aid? The conflict over this question – carried out between China and the West, but also within Africa itself – is a heated one. Critics are riled over the conditions under which Chinese loans are often provided – with little or no interest early on, followed by high interest for many years – a financial model they argue creates dependency.
Ge Hua is familiar with the accusations. Ge is the Chinese counsellor on trade in Djibouti, an important representative of her country. All civil projects that China is involved in cross her desk. She is there when the contracts are negotiated, she explains Djiboutian positions to officials in Beijing and oversees the implementation of the finalised plans in the country.
Like most foreigners here, she struggles with the heat. The windows of her office are totally darkened. But there's a sincerity when she talks about her fondness for Djibouti. "I told my friends that they need to come here this year," she says. "It is a very beautiful and unique country. Tourism is going to become very important."
Even more important, of course, are the construction projects. In addition to the free-trade zone and the port of Doraleh, three cross-border facilities backed by lots of money are also in the works. They will bring Djibouti and Ethiopia, which carries out its international trade almost entirely via the ports of its seaside neighbour, even closer together. The Chinese are handling the development of that infrastructure.
The new Silk Road
The electrified train line connecting the two capitals has been finished for some time now, though there isn't enough electricity for regular operation over the entire line. The water pipeline from Ethiopia is already functioning, with its final completion approaching, and a gas pipeline is also in the planning stages. From the Chinese perspective, this is all meant to fit into a larger whole: the new Silk Road.
Beijing has been investing in the construction of port facilities, roads, train lines and trade centres in Asia, Africa and Europe under the cumbersome English name, "One Belt, One Road". The goal is to create a tightly interwoven economic zone under Chinese control. One Belt, One Road is, above all else, a geopolitical project.
Djibouti also happens to be located along this new Silk Road. Nicholas Li's headquarters are situated right next to the building of the Silk Road International Bank, founded in 2016. Ge Hua works nearby.
The economic expert emphasises that "the Chinese government has many financing projects in Djibouti, mainly concessional loan projects". She adds that her country is also making sure that all people involved profit. "It is important that the Djiboutians make good income from the projects so that they will have a better life and are able to repay their debts," she says.
And – and this absolutely must be mentioned, she says – there is also a long list of aid projects, including schools, hospitals and sports facilities, that have been financed by China, without any loans. A few days later, an opportunity arises to view the biggest project: 60 Chinese and 150 Djiboutian workers are building a national archive that will include a public library. A red-and-white sign points out that the construction site has been free of accidents for 355 days. In July 2019, the building is to be handed over to the Djibouti state, including furniture and stacks.
You can talk with Ge about any of these things, just not the military. "That's not part of my job," she says.
Protecting strategic interests
Chinese soldiers are very present in the country, despite having holed themselves up behind cement walls. West of the port, the army opened a naval base last summer. It has been the subject of many rumours. It's the first Chinese military facility to be located outside of Asia, and that alone makes it interesting. Officially, it's a logistical support base for the Chinese fleet.
Western military people like to call the imposing facility "Jabba the Hutt's palace", a reference to Star Wars. The building reportedly has three underground floors and can accommodate up to 10,000 soldiers.
Chinese media regularly report about the new military base. In November, the soldiers marched out for weapon practice, which they held on a drill ground in the middle of the country. Afterward, Beijing's state-run Global Times newspaper reported on the strategic purpose of those drills. "It's natural," the paper stated, "that the Chinese troops stationed in Djibouti must be always prepared for combat." It pointed out that the country had already invested more than $100 billion in Africa and that, for this reason, the military was duty-bound to "safeguard China's interests in the continent".
With military displays like the ones in Djibouti, China wants to send a double message: one of strength and one of peace. The army is showing what it is capable of. At the same time, the Chinese politicians emphasise at every opportunity that this is merely a question of defence.
Despite these efforts to placate the situation, the Americans are suspicious. They worry that China will soon be an equal not only on an economic, but also on a military level. One of the noteworthy qualities of Djibouti is that the old and the new superpower are closer to one another here than anywhere else on the planet.
Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US military base on African soil, is located only a few kilometres away from the Chinese fortress. From here, special forces head out on their secretive commando missions, and drones take off to chase terrorists in Somalia or Yemen.
The approximately 4000 American soldiers live in their camp in ways reminiscent of life on an aircraft carrier, viewing the land around them as an ocean filled with perils. They are only allowed to leave their base with special permission. And, even then, the capital is mostly classified as a "no-go area".
A 'key region'
Originally a French base, the US military took over Camp Lemonnier in 2002, following the 9/11 attacks, after Paris determined it no longer needed the facility. The current French base north of the airport is still expansive. It's a place where you can see soldiers in shorts cycling to stay fit and children on their way to school. The engines of the Mirage fighter jets can regularly be heard as they control the airspace above the capital. Thierry Duquenoÿ, the head of the French armed forces in the country, explains why Djibouti is so important. "For Asia, Africa and Europe, this is a key region," he says. "The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea don't separate the Arab and Africa sphere so much as they connect them like a zipper."
Even if the size of the personnel has gone down in recent years, he explains, Paris is still convinced of the site's importance. General Duquenoÿ emphasises that point with a special detail: "I'm the only French commander outside of the country with three stars," he says. He explains that his most important task is to fight terrorism, although he is unable to discuss that issue any further.
It's not only three different nations that come together in tiny Djibouti – the country also ties together three different eras. They include the period of European hegemony, embodied by the French, its former colonial rulers. Then, secondly, the still powerful American world order, supported by the military. And, thirdly, the future, which has already begun – the era of the Chinese.
The Germans also have a presence in Djibouti, at least at the periphery. Together with a contingent of the Spanish armed forces, they are stationed at Base Aérienne 188. They are there as part of the European Union's Atalanta mission to protect shipping traffic in the region from pirates. Using a P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, the soldiers observe whether anything suspicious is happening along the Somalian coast. Any conspicuous activity gets reported back to Atalanta headquarters.
When the German-owned turboprop aircraft rolls to its takeoff position, one can hear German, English and French on the radio traffic. French jets and American aircraft can be seen to the left and right of the runway.
As the aircraft returns to Djibouti from the north-east, one gets a view of everything beneath – the Chinese-built port, next to it the country's secretive naval base, the future free-trade zone a bit further inland and then the American and French military bases.
Everything here seems so close together, and yet so far apart.
©Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate