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How Eritrea's Assab port became a major UAE naval base

By Alex Mello and Michael Knights | War on the rocks

Britain militarily withdrew from areas “east of Suez” in 1971, triggering the Trucial States to form today’s United Arab Emirates. Now, 45 years later, this Arab country is increasingly focused on projecting military power “west of Suez.” Events such as the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s growing confidence and escape from nuclear sanctions, plus the rise of the Islamic State have convinced Emirati leaders to become more activist in managing the risks facing their federation. Most recently this has resulted in this tiny Gulf nation establishing its first power projection base outside of the Arabian Peninsula in the Eritrean port of Assab. Over the last year, this port was built up from empty desert into a modern airbase, deep-water port, and military training facility.

The progression of Emirati expeditionary operations is fascinating to retrace. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Emirates sent de-mining forces to Lebanon, peacekeepers to Somalia, and Apache attack helicopters to the NATO intervention in Kosovo. In the 2000s, the United Arab Emirates provided fully-armed attack helicopters to Lebanon and equipped Yemeni government forces with armored vehicles and weapons to fight the Houthi rebellions in the north of that country. An Emirati special forces and stabilization force spent 12 years in Afghanistan as part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

After the 2011 Arab Spring, the United Arab Emirates sent its troops alongside the Saudi military to stabilize the Bahraini capital of Manama. In parallel with a domestic crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood elements in the Emirates, their military intervened in Libya to support nationalist and tribal militias against the regime of Muammar Qadhafi, Salafi militants, and –most recently – the Tripoli-based Islamist coalition Libya Dawn. The United Arab Emirates welcomed the 2013 military coup that evicted the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and has since worked to tighten military relations with Cairo, including joint airstrikes within Libya from Egyptian airbases, naval exercises, and the provision of U.A.E.-owned IOMAX AT-802U counter-insurgency aircraft to Egypt’s campaign against the Islamic State in Sinai.

In the Red Sea: Djibouti’s loss, Eritrea’s gain

Next the Emirates turned towards the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean. This process was driven by their strident intervention in Yemen, which began when Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi was ousted from Aden by Houthi rebels and subsequently requested military intervention citing Article 51 (self-defense) of the Charter of the United Nations and also the Charter of the Arab League. On March 26, Saudi Arabia announced the beginning of Operation Decisive Storm, the pan-Arab military operation to halt the advance of Yemen’s Houthi militia.

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates initially sought to use Djibouti, just across the Gulf of Aden, to support the liberation of Aden, but a twist of fate intervened. In late April 2015, an altercation between the chief of the Djibouti Air Force and Emirati diplomats derailed relations between the two countries. There were actually fisticuffs after an Emirati aircraft taking part in the Gulf Coalition operations over Yemen landed without authorization at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Emirati Vice Consul Ali al-Shihi even took a punch, setting off a diplomatic spat. The dispute escalated quickly due to pre-existing tensions concerning a long-running legal dispute over the contract for the Doraleh Container Terminal, the largest container port in Africa, operated by Dubai Ports World, the Dubai-based Emirati port operator and one of the biggest U.A.E. soft-power assets. On May 4, 2015 the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti formally broke off diplomatic relations. Djibouti evicted Saudi and Emirati troops from a facility at Haramous adjacent to Camp Lemonnier. This former French Foreign Legion outpost (used by U.S. Africa Command and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa) also had been leased to the Gulf coalition in early April to support its operations in Yemen.

But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had an on-hand replacement: neighboring Eritrea, Djibouti’s regional rival, which boasts rudimentary ports on the Red Sea just 150 kilometers further north. On April 29, the very day that Djibouti evicted Gulf troops, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel Aziz and concluded a security and military partnership agreement with the Gulf states offering basing rights in Eritrea. High-level delegations from the Gulf Cooperation Council had already met Eritrean officials that year to discuss using Eritrea as potential base for operations. This insurance policy paid dividends: potentially crippling strategic risk in the anti-Houthi campaign – the loss of Djibouti – was overcome with ease and within days.

Build-up at Assab

As part of the partnership agreement, the United Arab Emirates concluded a 30-year lease agreement for military use of the mothballed deep-water port at Assab and the nearby hard-surface Assab airfield, with a 3,500-meter runway capable of landing large transport aircraft including the huge C-17 Globemaster transports flown by the Emirati air force. The Gulf states agreed to provide a financial aid package and undertook to modernize Asmara International Airport, build new infrastructure, and increase fuel supplies to Eritrea.

The early operations at Assab were hasty but effective. On April 13, a CH-47 Chinook carried an eight-man team of Emirati Presidential Guard special operators and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) into the Little Aden peninsula, the site of Aden’s refinery and oil storage tanks. These forces called in airstrikes and naval gunfire missions, enabling forces loyal to President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and local Aden popular resistance committees to hang onto two defensive pockets with their backs to the sea. Emirati landing ships dropped Saudi and Emirati security forces and U.A.E.-trained local militias mounted into the defensive pockets in May.

The naval lifeline sustained by Assab port and airbase allowed the pro-Hadi forces to retake Aden in August 2015’s Operation Golden Arrow. Emirati landing ships and chartered commercial vessels made repeated runs between the new Emirati naval base at Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman and the bare-bones Assab port. U.A.E. Air Force C-17s and C-130s were also seen at Asmara International Airport in the Eritrean capital. By late July 2015, the buildup at Assab airfield was complete, with the base serving as a logistics support area and staging hub for the brigade-sized Emirati armored battlegroup that would spearhead the Aden breakout. This was composed of two squadrons of Leclerc main battle tanks, a battalion of BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, and two batteries of G6 howitzers. The Emirates also shipped a 1,500-man strike force of U.A.E.-trained Yemeni troops mounted in U.A.E.-provided armored vehicles after they were trained and equipped at Assab.

In mid-July 2015, the Emirati battlegroup began landing at the Little Aden oil terminal. Emirati Al-Futaisi-class landing ships and other landing craft including the Swift, a former U.S. Navy vessel, made repeated runs between Assab port and Aden. In October and November 2015, Assab served as the logistics hub for the deployment of three 450-man Sudanese mechanized battalions to Aden. The two Sudanese battalions undertook a lengthy route movement from Kassala on the Sudan-Eritrea border to Assab port and were shuttled across to Aden by U.A.E. vessels. Assab port also served as the base for the Gulf naval blockade of the Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hodeida, with several Emirati navy vessels including new Baynunah-class corvettes and Rmah-class logistics vessels docking at the port through late 2015 and 2016. Since the offensive against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Hadhramout in April 2016, Assab has also served as a transshipment hub for Emirati vessels delivering humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials, including generators and fuel to Mukalla.

A major aerial hub and training base

Significant expansion of Assab airfield has turned the site from an austere forward operating location into a powerful expeditionary base, the first Emirati power projection site outside the federation’s homeland. Emirati forces doubled the airfield’s available tarmac space and built an air traffic control tower and new hangars.

By early 2016, the airfield was hosting several Apache attack helicopters of the Emirati Joint Aviation Command as well as Presidential Guards’ Special Operations Command Chinook, Black Hawk, and Bell 407MRH helicopters conducting operations over southwest Yemen. In November 2015, AT-802 ground attack turboprops of the UAE Special Operations Command’s Aviation Group 18 also began flying strike sorties across the Bab al-Mandeb Strait from Assab. New Yemeni air corps pilots trained on U.A.E.-donated helicopters at Assab prior to their transfer to Al-Anad Air Base to the north of Aden in October 2015.

A huge containerized housing and tent city were also built as the base was developed for Yemeni counterterrorism forces being trained and equipped by the United Arab Emirates to liberate southern Yemeni cities such as Mukalla held by AQAP. Units of the Aden counterterrorism force and Hadhramout Tribal Confederation mobile infantry were flown into Assab to be trained and equipped by the UAE. The scale and speed of the training effort is impressive: new units trained using UAE-provided tactical vehicles before being transported back into Aden for the anti-AQAP offensive that kicked off in May. A mixed battalion-sized U.A.E. battlegroup remained based at Assab throughout the spring and summer of 2016, allowing U.A.E. troops from the similarly-sized battlegroup engaged in operations against AQAP in Yemen to rotate to a nearby rest and recuperation site.

In late 2015, the United Arab Emirates also began constructing new deep-water port facilities on the coast directly adjacent to Assab airfield, removing the need for U.A.E. military convoys to transit through Assab city as they travelled from the airbase to the port ten kilometers to the south. The U.A.E. National Marine Dredging Company’s dredging vessels began work in late 2015. By May 2016, a 60,000 square meter square of coastline had been excavated and dredged, and a 700-meter pier built. Emirati forces also extended a security perimeter around the airfield and port facilities and re-routed the P-6 coastal highway between Assab and Massawa around the outer perimeter of the base.

The growing Horn of Africa footprint of the United Arab Emirates

Though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have cooperated in major security ventures such as the Manama intervention in 2011 and the Yemen war since 2015, the two leading Gulf Cooperation Council military powers are also competitors. In terms of population, oil production, and defense spending, Saudi Arabia is by a considerable margin the larger of the two, but the Emirates are determined to punch well above their weight. In Yemen, the objectives of the two Gulf States are slowly diverging, with the Saudis backing Islamist militias against the Houthis in the north, whilst the United Arab Emirates is focused on countering AQAP in the south of the country.

In the Horn of Africa region there are signs of competition as well. Saudi Arabia patched things up with Djibouti by October 2015, with Saudi access restored to the airfield at Camp Lemonier and with Djibouti receiving Saudi-donated patrol boats, helicopters, weapons, and ambulances. In March 2016, discussions were underway between Riyadh and Djibouti for the signing of comprehensive bilateral security agreement including the return of a long-term Saudi military base to Djibouti.

The Emirates appear to be adopting a broader-based approach to the Horn of Africa, East Africa, and Indian Ocean region. Abu Dhabi has long been a generous benefactor and investor in the Indian Ocean island-states such as the Seychelles, Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Comoros. In these areas the large Emirati investment banks and foundations have supported tourism, ports, and humanitarian projects. The United Arab Emirates is interested in East Africa also, with natural gas, ports, and food security in mind. To support the development of a broader Indian Ocean and East Africa policy the United Arab Emirates is getting drawn into security cooperation relationships with a range of Horn of Africa states, aiming to reduce instability and the growth of Islamist militias in the region.

Somalia is a case in point. In early May 2015, the United Arab Emirates expanded its long-running train and equip partnership with Somalia’s counterterrorism unit and National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), opening a new U.A.E.-funded training center in Mogadishu where Emirati special forces operators have trained several units of Somali commandos. In late May 2015, the Emirates supplied the Interim Jubba Administration at Kismayo with a batch of RG-31 Mk. V MRAPs and Toyota Land Cruisers. These were followed in June by a shipment of Reva Mk. III armored personnel carriers, water tanker trucks, and police motorcycles for the Somali federal government’s Ministry of Internal Security and Police. In October 2015, the United Arab Emirates pledged to pay the salaries of the Somali federal government security forces over a four-year period.

The United Arab Emirates has also wooed Somalia’s regional rival, the autonomous Somaliland region. In May 2016, Dubai Ports World won a 30-year contract to manage the port of Berbera and expand it into a regional logistics hub, breaking up Djibouti’s virtual monopoly on Ethiopian freight via the Doraleh Container Terminal through the joint development by Somaliland and Ethiopia of the Berbera Corridor as an alternative logistics route. The United Arab Emirates is also said to be seeking access to the Berbera port and airstrip to support its operations in Yemen, and may provide Somaliland with a financial aid package and an Emirati-built military training center.

In Puntland, an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia, the United Arab Emirates also paid for the Puntland Maritime Police Force to be established in 2010, with anti-piracy training provided by a succession of private security companies, a cause for some controversy. The PMPF operates bases in Bosaso, Puntland’s primary port on the Gulf of Aden coast, and Eyl on the Indian Ocean coast. The PMPF air wing operates three UAE-donated Ayers S2R Thrush aircraft and an Alouette III helicopter. The UAE also finances and trains the Puntland Intelligence Agency. When the Gulf Coalition naval blockade sought to interdict Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis, the Emirati investment in Puntland and Somaliland seems to have paid off, shutting off known Iranian transshipment points like Bosaso and Berbera.

The UAE’s “west of Suez” moment?

In combination with the development of a closer military relationship with Egypt and Sudan, the construction of a major decades-spanning power projection base in Eritrea will give the United Arab Emirates a leading role in the protection of the Suez and Bab el-Mandab sea-lanes. The United Arab Emirates could begin to emerge as a powerful actor in the Horn of Africa, East Africa, and western Indian Ocean. Like prior trading empires from the Portuguese to the Omanis, the United Arab Emirates is aiming to become an important player up and down Africa’s eastern seaboard, mixing hard military power with soft-power approaches.

The development of large and well-armed Yemeni forces at the Assab base also points to a second way that the United Arab Emirates could become a major influence on the local balance of power. Within just a few months the United Arab Emirates trained and equipped a few thousand mobile infantry mounted in MRAPs and armed with advanced anti-tank weaponry. In many regional conflicts, battles are regularly won by such compact and cohesive forces backed by external airpower and special forces. This could have implications for the struggle against local extremist groups like Al-Shabab, which the United Arab Emirates may turn its sights on in the future. Other regional conflicts and civil wars could be influenced by Emirati security cooperation, particularly the Emirates’ ability to gift significant numbers of modern vehicles and weapons to proxy forces. The United Arab Emirates could begin to play a kingmaker role across the region.

A final implication could be the strengthening of the Emirati deterrent posture against Iran. The Yemen intervention was indirectly aimed at Iran, an effort by the Gulf states to prevent what they view as an Iranian-backed Houthi movement from taking over Yemen. The Emirati naval and air base at Assab was critical in blockading the Houthi-held ports on the Red Sea and preventing Iran from resupplying the rebels. Over the last couple of years there has been a growing clamor regarding the potential for Iran to develop “blue water” naval capabilities that might allow Tehran to project military power into the western Indian Ocean and Red Sea. In fact, it is the UAE that has achieved this first, creating the base infrastructure to sustain operations by muscular surface combat platforms like the Baynunah-class corvettes.

In addition to contesting Iranian naval expansion, bases like Assab could contribute to the United Arab Emirates’ strategic depth in an eventual clash with Iran, threatened or actual. Whereas the entire Emirati homeland’s littoral is within the range of Iranian missiles, Assab provides depth that might allow a reserve force of Emirati surface combatants, aircraft, and even submarines to remain active and able to interdict Iran’s coastline and shipping during an extended war.

The Emirates’ track record of involvement in expeditionary operations has been rather formless in the past, pointing towards the federation’s keenness to simply “get involved” in different types of operations in many parts of the Islamic world without necessarily serving any broader strategic roadmap. Although evolved out of military necessity to support the Yemen war, the development of Assab might mark the beginning of a more purposeful, considered phase of Emirati military expansion.

Alex Mello is lead security analyst at Horizon Client Access, an advisory service working with the world’s leading energy companies.

Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in the Gulf States and Yemen as an advisor to local security forces and as an analyst of regional conflicts including Yemen’s wars against the Houthis, southern secessionists and AQAP.

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