On Valentine Day , you should offer the one you love a testimony of your special appreciation and this is exactly what the United Arab Emirates did on February 14th with the unrecognized State of Somaliland . But the gift-wrapped box exploded upon opening it and we don’t know yet what the consequences are going to be .

In fact it had all started back in April last year , when the U.A.E. had signed some kind of document supposed to lead to the overhaul and improvement of the harbor of Berbera on the Red Sea Coast of Somaliland . For the last few years Berbera had become a spare tire for Ethiopian commerce which had switched to Djibouti , after geographically land-locked Ethiopia had become politically land-locked as well after the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war had ended in a political , diplomatic , military and perhaps even existential stalemate . Berbera had been a sideshow , handling 40,000 containers per year versus 900,000 for Djibouti but the massive growth of Ethiopian commercial exchanges over the last ten years had eventually pushed up the desirability of improving that quiet backwater . For a while the French harbor-and-handling company Bolloré had ineffectually hovered around Berbera . But it was used to the politically protected West African space of former French colonies and it could never adapt to the rough-and-tumble Horn environment . Chinese operators had also sneaked sideways glances but had never made a serious offer . In both cases , the pretenders were put off by the unrecognized status of the Somaliland State and were wary of a long term large financial commitment .

And then last April , Dubaï Port Authority (D.P.A.) , which had also showed some interest in the sleepy former colonial harbor , finally came out in the open and signed what was described as a contract for harbor improvement and future commercial management . The investment amount mentioned – $440m – was equal to about 120% of Somaliland’s modest yearly budget . Since the announcement coincided with the 25th anniversary of the country’s self-proclaimed independence , the euphoria was immediate . After living for years in the diplomatic darkness , the self-proclaimed country suddenly thought it was seeing a light at the end of the tunnel . But life is complex and the DPA offer soon proved problematic . Why ? Because Dubaï is part of the UAE , the UAE are at war in Yemen as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition and Berbera is not only a commercial harbor but a past (and future) military base . The base goes back to the days when Siad Barre’s Somalia was a key ally of the USSR . Moscow built there a large air base – the biggest it had outside of any Warsaw Pact country – large enough to accommodate Tupolev Tu-114 nuclear bombers . The ground installations were made for a large military garrison .

After the 1978 break between Siad Barre and the Soviet Union the base was abandoned and later briefly overhauled by the Americans at the time of the first Gulf War . And then again re-abandoned when it served no purpose . What has Dubaï Port Authority to do with a military base large enough for nuclear bombers ? In theory nothing . In practice , given the UAE input in the Yemen conflict , it is a little bit more difficult . Because the UAE has already discreetly opened , fixed and expanded another military base in the region , in Assab (Eritrea) . Because that base is now used by both U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia to pound Yemen with bombing raids . Because Abu Dhabi is now talking about a military base in Berbera as well. Because the Egyptian government has also jumped in , both in Eritrea and in Berbera and is showing interest for other sites in the region . And because Djibouti now has more foreign soldiers sitting within its borders than it has troops in its own national army . Not everybody is at ease with this and the Somaliland Parliament was on the 15th entered by policemen who physically grabbed and threw out protesting MPs who opposed the whole harbor-cum-military-base idea . They were there to approve the so-far unseen “treaty”. But no “treaty” was supplied to the parliamentarians , only vague outlines saying the project was “good for the country” and asking them to vote in support of the undisclosed text . The Minister of Foreign Affairs Said Ali threatened to resigned if the project was adopted , people shouted and shoved , MPs were pushed out and at least one well-known journalist , Abdi Malik Oldon , was arrested . But it was because of another – related – problem which had just occurred in Mogadiscio . Do you want to know how all these computer strands of wire are enmeshed ? Do you want to understand what some of the actor themselves are not sure of understanding ? Do you want to see how a war in Arabia is in the process of destabilizing the not-very-stable Horn of Africa ? Then stay tuned in . The show has an unseen cast of thousands today and could have a cast of millions tomorrow , when the unseen goes public . February 16th 2017

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