Chinese President Xi Jinping and a substantial delegation of ministers which included State Councilor/Foreign Minister Wang Yi, have just completed a state visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). During the meeting, the UAE expressed interest in working cooperatively with China in fields as diverse as hi-technology development, energy and goods and services, all within the framework of the One Belt–One Road initiative.
This positive meeting between Chinese and Emirati officials looks not only to help revitalise the long term sustainable economic options that China can offer to the wider Arab world but can also help to harmonise development and multilateral cooperation in the Horn of Africa.
The Emirati company DP World has been rapidly working towards the development of modern port facilities throughout the Horn of Africa. At present DP World is working on a project in Berbera in the disputed territory of “Somaliland”, Puntland in Somalia and Barawe in Somalia. Simultaneous to DP World’s projects in the region, the UAE has opened up military support bases at Assab in Eritrea, Mogadishu in Somalia as well as on two Yemeni islands – Perim and Socotra.
In spite of the progress that the UAE has made in consolidating its presence in the Horn of Africa and cross-strait de-facto holdings in the former South Yemen, Abu Dhabi received something of a geopolitical short, sharp shock when in 2015, the government of Djibouti seized the DP World constructed and owned Doraleh Container Terminal amid a series of wider political disputes.
While this led to the UAE intensifying relations with Djibouti’s rivals, it also made clear that while the UAE has a great deal of investment capital at its disposal, when it comes to securing its assets in the Horn of Africa, further military might and more important geopolitical clout is required. While some speculated that Djibouti would simply “hand” the port from DP World to Chinese investors, in reality China’s good relations with Djibouti are not directly related to Djibouti’s disputes with the UAE. Thus, if anything China could end up being a long-term peace maker working for the benefit of both the UAE and Djibouti rather than a rival to the regionally dominant UAE in the Horn of Africa.
This has been a substantial factor in motivating the UAE to develop more intensified relations with China with the latter opening its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017. Furthermore, as UAE/Saudi rivals Qatar and Turkey are now looking to establish a wider presence in both the Horn of Africa and Sudan, the UAE is aware that as a country with excellent relations throughout the Arab world and with Turkey, China can act as a kind of guarantor of balance in the region by exerting its own leverage against the rival partnerships of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other.
But while Sino-Emirati cooperation can help to create stability in the Horn of Africa, for the wider Arab world itself, China’s move is equally significant, not least because it comes just after Xi Jinping hosted a variety of Arab leaders in Beijing at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. On July the 10th in Bejing, Xi told Arab leaders that “Sino-Arab future-oriented strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and common development” remains a clear priority for China. He further stressed a commitment to upholding Middle East peace through the prospect of increased prosperity before saying that the Arab world is a vital element of the One Belt–One Road global trading initiative.
In an era where pessimism, economic stagnation, security threats and internal divides threaten the prosperity and safety of the Arab world, One Belt–One Road and other connectivity projects derived in China provide the last best chance for the much needed revitalisation of a region filled with great potential but one that remains plagued by political instability.
While the Arab world is not likely to politically reunite in the near future, New Silk Road connectivity could insure stability where there is now chaos, sustainability where there is inequality and economic diversity where there is stagnation.