Does little Djibouti have what it takes?

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

THE African nation of Djibouti and its president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, have problems. But these problems are also Djibouti's advantages, if they are played right.

Location, as in real estate, is in a sense everything for Djibouti. That and its relatively peaceful, stable state in a region noted for volatility and even violence are what counts most for Djibouti's present and future.

I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Guelleh and discuss his country's situation at length in Djibouti City, its capital, during a visit there earlier this month. I went to Djibouti with an old friend of mine, American businessman and investor Mehrdad Radseresht, whose company, Samico, is the only U.S. company active in Djibouti.

The conversation with Mr. Guelleh ranged widely over Djibouti's problems as well as its assets, and the possibilities those assets offer for the future of the country.

On the geopolitical side of the ledger, Djibouti is the only legitimate recognized state on 2,068 miles of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, from the southern border of Eritrea to the northern border of Kenya, no more, no less. It borders on Ethiopia and Eritrea, two states that have been at war with each other intermittently for decades. To the south of Djibouti lies Somalia, which has had no government since January, 1991.

That is Djibouti's regional setting. It is small, the size of Massachusetts, mostly uninhabitable desert, and has a population of around half a million.

Mr. Guelleh, a savvy political veteran in his second term, understands his country's situation very well. His political maneuvering in Djibouti is affected by the fact that as many as 60 percent of his country's population are Issas - in effect, ethnic Somalis. The rest are Afars, an ethnic group largely found in Ethiopia, another sometimes turbulent country.

Now, here's the really hard part. Because of Djibouti's excellent port and strategic location - the eye of the storm between the Middle East across the Red Sea and the troubled Horn of Africa - it has attracted some 1,800 U.S. troops. They are stationed mostly at Camp Lemonier, under the command of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Richard W. Hunt, with 2,300 French Foreign Legionnaires. There is also a joint international naval task force, including U.S. assets, in the Indian Ocean waters that include Djibouti.

All of that helps. But Djibouti also has plans for the future.

Dubai, in the Persian Gulf, started with little more than an excellent port. It has some oil, but that accounts for only 6 percent of its income. The rest is financial services, trade, and investment. Djibouti could do likewise, with a bit of enterprise, gumption, and foreign help.

Promising areas include fishing, environmental tourism, a role as an east coast depot for trade across Africa, and related financial services. Fish would be caught in the extensive waters off Djibouti and Somalia, brought to Djibouti for processing and storage, then exported across the world.

Eco-tourism - any kind of tourism - may seem hard to imagine at this point. Djibouti has killer heat, only one dubious major hotel, and generally forbidding desert terrain. But that is a misleading impression. The country has countless beautiful, colorful fish to dive for off the coast, a wide variety of interesting and unusual birds in the interior, and for those - unlike me - who like such things, a wide variety of nasty snakes and other reptiles to see and study. There is also a lovely, isolated lake, and cool mountains. A new world-class hotel is scheduled to open in October.

All of Djibouti's development possibilities require secure seas offshore. Somali pirates could wreck the whole show. Thus, naval security becomes essential. International naval assets are a temporary solution, but they are inadequate now, particularly for fishing and heavier cruise ship volume, and who knows how long they will be there. This becomes an issue of long-term concern to Djibouti, and to its president.

I found Mr. Guelleh to be a wise and experienced veteran of developments in this part of the world. We talked as the foreign ministers of the region were meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to address the latest Somalia political drama: The Islamic Courts group, ostensibly in charge, has routed the warlords and is in a position to ignore the provisional "government" in Baidoa.

Mr. Guelleh told me that it was his view that the United States must talk to the Courts group; that international parties should try to ensure communication between the Courts group and the theoretical Baidoa government, and that Ethiopia's role in supporting some of the warlords should be kept in mind as discussions proceed. But it is hard to be optimistic about the future of peace and security in Somalia, no matter what anyone does.

Given that fact, Djibouti would seem to offer the United States and other countries interested in the future of the Horn of Africa a potential solid pillar from which to work. I don't see a better alternative at this point.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.