Not that long ago Djibouti was known for little more than French legionnaires' disease, atrocious heat and a small ramshackle port. Nowadays, however, this tiny republic of only about 900,000 people on the Horn of Africa coast has big plans, including turning its capital into the Dubai of Africa.
Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has steadily carved out a regional role through its strategic and commercial relevance at the junction of Africa and the Middle East, and at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, overlooking a passage of water used by 30% of the world's shipping, transiting to and from the Suez Canal.
Recently-acquired Chinese investment totalling $12bn is funding the building of six new ports, two new airports, and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone (FTZ) in Africa, potentially giving the capital, Djibouti City, an edge over its rivals.
"About two million African customers travel to Dubai each year," says Dawjt Gebre-ab, a senior director with the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, responsible for overseeing the city's commercial infrastructure development. "We know what is on their shopping lists, and they could be coming here instead." Helping secure such ambitions is the fact that Djibouti is perceived as offering some of the most prime military real-estate in the world. Security is needed to both counter piracy threatening that key shipping lane (since peaking . in 2011, when 151 vessels were attacked and 25 hijacked, piracy has steeply declined) and to shore up regional stability. One diplomat has referred to Djibouti as "an oasis in a bad neighbourhood". Foreign military personnel stationed in Djibouti from the US, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Japan number around 25,000, according to some estimates.
In 2014, the US military agreed a 10-year extension to its presence (with an option to extend for another 10 years) centred on Camp Lemonnier, its African headquarters. US president Barack Obama described the camp as "extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region."
A similar perspective happens to be held by China. Having invested huge amounts in the rest of East Africa--especially in neighbouring Ethiopia, one of the world's fastest-growing economies--it wants to secure its interests and to be able to protect further investments throughout sub-Saharan Africa.