St Tropez in the Horn?
Mar 19th 2008 | DJIBOUTI
From The Economist print edition
A tiny country makes the best of a bad neighbourhood
IN THE centre of the blazing whiteness, four Afar herdsmen chip away at the salt with pickaxes. The milk-green waters beyond the salt pans look almost glacial, but the burning hot wind, the camels and dizzying mirages dispel the illusion. This is Lake Assal. At 155 metres (509 feet) below sea-level, it is Africa's lowest point—and one of its hottest. The Afars (sometimes known as the Danakil) gather the salt into sacks. They used to carry the salt on camels west into the Ethiopian highlands but times have changed. These Afars sell it for $7 a sack in Djibouti town, a couple of hours' drive away.
The road there winds across black lava fields and moonscapes, past a hilltop garrison of the French Foreign Legion, down dry river beds to the azure Gulf of Tadjoura. The capital's outskirts look unpromising but as you get closer to Djibouti Ville—the city itself—an unexpected order asserts itself. Even locals admit that, until recently, the tiny country, with a mere 800,000 people, was asleep. Now, against the odds, it is stirring.
Until recently, it relied almost entirely on French largesse. When independence came, in 1977, the founding president, Hassan Gouled, fretted about what would happen if the colonialists left. But Djibouti (formerly called the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas) is still France's largest foreign base, hosting a force 2,600-strong. It deters the statelet's much bigger, predatory neighbours from even thinking of invading. (Earlier this year, France and the United Arab Emirates signed a deal to let France set up a military base in Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates.)
After independence, Djibouti's two ethnic groups, the Issas (who are ethnic Somalis) and the Afars drifted into Djibouti city. Most swapped a nomadic life of herding goats and cattle for long heat-haze afternoons chewing qat, a narcotic leaf flown in from Ethiopia. But things began to change when Eritrean independence cut Ethiopia off from the sea. Since then, almost all Ethiopia's trade has been shipped through Djibouti, some of it on a rickety railway linking it to Addis Ababa. The bullish—some say bullying—thinking of Djibouti's current president, Ismail Guelleh, a protégé and nephew of Mr Gouled first elected in 1999, has also helped pep things up. His slogan on billboards throughout the town is “Nous croyons” (We believe).
In what? Well, in Dubai. He wants Djibouti to follow the example of the booming gulf emirate or perhaps even of Malaysia, a Muslim model where many children of Djibouti's elite head for university. Dubai Ports now runs Djibouti's upgraded port. The economy may grow by nearly 6% this year, though unemployment is high and the IMF is unhappy with the government's shoddy fiscal management. Businessmen say the port's improvements make it hard to imagine that Eritrea's Massawa, Somaliland's Berbera or Somalia's Bossaso will catch up soon. Some talk of turning the city's scorching seafront into “St Tropez in the Horn”.
There is also a spectacular plan said to have the backing of Tarek bin Laden, a half-brother of Osama bin Laden, to build the world's longest bridge, across the Bab al-Mandib (Gate of Sorrows), the strait between Djibouti and Yemen. Even for ambitious Djibouti, this may be a bridge too far, judging by local scepticism and the developers' evasiveness.
But the country may profit from its new strategic importance. Mr Guelleh let America set up a large military base, from which it conducts anti-terrorist operations across east Africa. Ruthless policing and foreign troops have so far stopped Islamist militants from getting a foothold there, although there are complaints that Mr Guelleh is increasingly undemocratic.
Mr Guelleh's main aim is not to annoy any government in the region. Relations with Ethiopia are tense but practical. Mr Guelleh opposed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in late 2006 but avoids the topic when meeting Ethiopian officials. Djibouti's people resent the advertisements along their roads in Amharic, Ethiopia's main language. But grumbling is quickly silenced by Ethiopian threats to cut off qat imports. Djibouti is similarly cautious with Somalia. Mr Guelleh is disappointed by the feebleness of Somalia's transitional government but does not endorse neighbouring Somaliland's bid for independence. In sum, Djibouti is surviving cannily in a tough neighbourhood.