Why so many su­per­pow­ers are drop­ping bil­lions in Dji­bouti

How a for­got­ten sand­lot of a coun­try be­came a hub of in­ter­na­tional power games

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Monte Reel Pho­to­graphs by Guillaume Bonn

he bar­tender mea­sures a shot of John­nie Walker Red La­bel in a steel jig­ger and dumps it over ice. A wait­ress sets the glass on a tray and steers it through the din­ing room, where Abouye Wang, the restau­rant owner, com­mands a booth in the back cor­ner, el­bows on the ta­ble, sur­vey­ing the din­ner crowd. The buz­z­cuts perched around the high ta­ble in the middle of the room are Amer­i­cans, he guesses. The two women lost in con­ver­sa­tion be­hind them are French. He rec­og­nizes the men in the ad­ja­cent booth as Ger­man. He spots an Ital­ian port ex­ec­u­tive and a Pales­tinian diplo­mat from the newly opened em­bassy.

The restau­rant, La Chau­mière, sits on a cor­ner of the cen­tral square in Dji­bouti, the cap­i­tal city in the tiny African coun­try of the same name, which un­til re­cently was of lit­tle con­se­quence to any­one who didn’t live there. La Chau­mière’s menu pushes the outer lim­its of fu­sion as Wang caters to his evolv­ing clien­tele. East African seafood dishes, Asian stir fries, French stews, Amer­i­can sand­wiches, they’re all here. “If we don’t have what you want,” Wang tells me, “we’ll make it for you.”

It’s my first night in Dji­bouti, and I’ve come to La Chau­mière be­cause I was told it would be full of sol­diers, spec­u­la­tors, di­plo­mats, spies, aid work­ers, con­trac­tors—all the out­siders who are turn­ing Dji­bouti into an un­likely epi­cen­ter of 21st cen­tury geopol­i­tics. Thomas Kelly, the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador here, likes to say that Dji­bouti to­day feels like what Casablanca must have felt like in 1940. “All the dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties el­bow­ing into each other,” he says. “All the in­trigue.” Wang stands in the cen­ter of the mix, walk­ing from ta­ble to ta­ble, slip­ping from lan­guage to lan­guage, wit­ness­ing Dji­bouti’s trans­for­ma­tion at close range. Born to an Ethiopian mother and a Chi­nese father, he roamed East Africa with his fam­ily be­fore set­tling here in 1977, the year Dji­bouti de­clared in­de­pen­dence from France. He was 7 years old, an ex­otic im­port in a place no one ever vis­ited, where noth­ing ever hap­pened.

Back then, Dji­bouti, a coun­try about the size of New Jersey, had one paved road and less than a square mile of arable land. The As­so­ci­ated Press deemed it per­fectly de­void of re­sources, “ex­cept for sand, salt, and 20,000 camels.” The New York Times guessed the new na­tion might get swal­lowed up by one of its

neigh­bors—Ethiopia or So­ma­lia, maybe— be­cause it was “so im­pov­er­ished that it can­not stand on its own.”

Years passed, and those neigh­bors were too pre­oc­cu­pied with wars, famine, and civil an­ar­chy to pay much at­ten­tion to it. Such upheavals, and al­most ev­ery­thing else, skirted Dji­bouti. Then the new cen­tury rolled around and, seem­ingly overnight, the coun­try’s sleepi­ness be­came a valu­able com­mod­ity.

Af­ter Sept. 11, the U.S. mil­i­tary rushed to es­tab­lish its first base ded­i­cated to coun­tert­er­ror­ism, and Dji­bouti was about the only coun­try in the neigh­bor­hood that wasn’t on fire. Sit­ting be­side the nar­row Bab el-Man­deb strait—a gate­way to the Suez Canal at the mouth of the Red Sea, and one of the most traf­ficked ship­ping lanes in the world—it pro­vided easy ac­cess to hot spots in both Africa and the Middle East. A few years later, when So­mali pi­rates started threat­en­ing the global ship­ping in­dus­try, the mil­i­taries of Ger­many, Italy, and Spain joined France, which has main­tained a base since colo­nial times, by mov­ing troops to Dji­bouti. Ja­pan ar­rived in 2011, open­ing its first mil­i­tary base on for­eign soil since World War II. Last year, refugees dis­placed by war in Ye­men— just 13 miles across the strait—be­gan ar­riv­ing by the thou­sands, at­tract­ing aid work­ers and NGOs look­ing for a sta­ble re­gional base.

They even­tu­ally come to La Chau­mière to gos­sip, to eaves­drop, to see who’s new in town. Wang is a cen­tral branch on the lo­cal grapevine. When I ask peo­ple here how Dji­bouti has man­aged to avoid the tur­moil that has plagued the other coun­tries in the re­gion, a stock an­swer comes back to me from nearly ev­ery­one, both lo­cal and for­eign. “No coun­try is com­pletely safe, but ev­ery­body knows ev­ery­one here, and they all talk,” Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, the coun­try’s min­is­ter of fi­nance, tells me. “Ev­ery time a new cam­era comes into the coun­try, for ex­am­ple, we know whose it is.” The grapevine, in other words, dou­bles as a safety net.

Wang knows bet­ter than most that the in­flux of out­siders can stretch the net thin. One evening in 2014, planted in his cor­ner booth, he spot­ted an un­fa­mil­iar fig­ure: a veiled woman walk­ing to­ward one of the high ta­bles in the middle of the floor. Be­fore he could ap­proach her, she ex­ploded, fill­ing the room with fire, noise, and con­fu­sion. A mo­ment later, a se­cond sui­cide bomber blew him­self up just out­side the front door. More than a dozen peo­ple were wounded, and three died. Al-Shabaab, the So­mali-based ter­ror­ist group, took credit for the at­tack, say­ing it was tar­get­ing French com­man­dos for their role in bat­tling Is­lamic mil­i­tants in So­ma­lia and the Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic.

Wang, un­in­jured, de­cided to re­build. The Dji­bouti govern­ment, rec­og­niz­ing the sym­bolic power of the de­ci­sion, helped him pay for it. The place looks al­most ex­actly the same as it did be­fore, but the clien­tele

amp Le­mon­nier, the Amer­i­can base, presses against the side of Dji­bouti’s only com­mer­cial air­port, hid­den be­hind a maze of con­crete bar­ri­ers and ra­zor wire. In­side, it’s a wilder­ness of con­tainer­ized liv­ing units, or CLUs, stacked atop one an­other. The laun­dry build­ing looks like the movie the­ater, which looks like the credit union. It’s as if some­one built a city from Le­gos and spray-painted the whole works tan.

For years the Amer­i­cans in­sisted it was a tem­po­rary, or “ex­pe­di­tionary,” camp. But a $1.4 bil­lion upgrade launched in 2013 has turned it into a clan­gor­ous con­struc­tion site. Back in 2002, when the Amer­i­cans took the camp over from the French, it sprawled across 97 acres. Now it’s push­ing 600 and the CLUs are slowly be­ing re­placed by mul­ti­story, apart­ment-style bar­racks.

About 4,000 sol­diers and con­trac­tors live here, and they in­clude com­man­dos from Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand,

the team that un­der­takes the mil­i­tary’s most sen­si­tive coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. Af­ter the 2012 at­tack on the diplo­matic mis­sion in Beng­hazi, Libya, a 150-mem­ber rapid re­sponse team was es­tab­lished at Camp Le­mon­nier, as­signed to han­dle fu­ture threats to diplo­matic per­son­nel abroad. Dji­bouti is also the U.S. mil­i­tary’s re­gional hub for drones, and it sends thou­sands of Preda­tors and Reapers across the re­gion each year.

All those se­cre­tive air­craft buzzing around

“No coun­try is com­pletely safe, but ev­ery­body knows ev­ery­one here, and they all talk”

keeps evolv­ing. “I’m notic­ing more Chi­nese,” Wang tells me.

Three days later, on Feb. 25, China an­nounces it has be­gun con­struc­tion on its first-ever mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion abroad, about four miles from the Amer­i­can and Ja­panese bases. A week af­ter that, Saudi Ara­bian of­fi­cials say that they, too, plan to move sol­diers to Dji­bouti and es­tab­lish the coun­try’s first mil­i­tary sta­tion in Africa.

an ac­tive in­ter­na­tional air­port cre­ated se­ri­ous air traf­fic prob­lems, which in­jected some ten­sion be­tween the Amer­i­cans and their lo­cal hosts. In 2011 a Preda­tor drone crashed into a res­i­den­tial area less than three miles from the air­port. The fol­low­ing year, a U-28A sur­veil­lance plane crashed five miles from the camp, killing its four-man crew. Some of the Dji­boutian air traf­fic con­trollers at the air­port re­sented the drones, on both prac­ti­cal and moral grounds, and oc­ca­sion­ally they would refuse to al­low them to take off or land. The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that a $7 mil­lion pro­gram to re­train the lo­cal con­trollers was a com­plete fail­ure. Of­ten the con­trollers failed to show up for class; once, they even locked their Amer­i­can train­ers out of the tower. To­day most of the drones take off from a more iso­lated airstrip, about six miles from Camp Le­mon­nier.

Af­ter a cou­ple days in Dji­bouti, I no­ticed that of all the for­eign mil­i­taries sta­tioned here, the Amer­i­can sol­diers were the least con­spic­u­ous, rarely spot­ted at La Chau­mière or in any of the places lo­cals and out­siders mixed. At Camp Le­mon­nier, the sol­diers said that since the restau­rant bomb­ing, they can’t leave the base with­out spe­cial ap­proval. (“They call it ‘lib­erty,’ and we don’t have it any­more,” one of­fi­cer ex­plained to me.) Those who do get to go out­side the se­cu­rity gates are of­ten mem­bers of the Army’s Civil Affairs Bat­tal­ion, re­servists who ro­tate through for sev­eral months at a time. For Dji­boutians, they’re the face of the U.S. mil­i­tary.

On a morn­ing in Fe­bru­ary, a con­voy of a half-dozen white Toy­ota SUVs ex­its Camp Le­mon­nier and heads west to­ward the vil­lage of Arta, a lit­tle more than an hour out­side the city. The Civil Affairs unit is head­ing for a lo­cal clinic, where an Army den­tist will of­fer free care to any­one who wants it.

It’s pub­lic re­la­tions, an at­tempt to show the lo­cals that the Amer­i­cans have more to of­fer than crash­ing drones. The Dji­boutian in­ter­preter as­signed to the ex­cur­sion, Hersi Aden, tells me he thinks the trip might also show the Amer­i­cans that the vast ma­jor­ity of lo­cals aren’t the sort that go around blow­ing them­selves up in crowded restau­rants. Aden says most Dji­boutians, the air traf­fic con­trollers not­with­stand­ing, value the pres­ence of all that Amer­i­can mil­i­tary mus­cle, fig­ur­ing it might de­ter rad­i­cal Is­lamists from storm­ing in and tak­ing over the coun­try. But Aden says the Amer­i­cans’ ap­proach to se­cu­rity—the bar­ri­ers, the lock­downs, the se­crecy—is some­times in­ter­preted as mis­trust. “Dji­boutians are peace­ful peo­ple, and they don’t un­der­stand this,” he says. “They say, ‘Why are th­ese Amer­i­cans so scared of us?’ ”

The clinic in Arta is a cin­der-block rec­tan­gle with a cou­ple rooms full of med­i­cal sup­plies. In the middle of one, the sol­diers place a por­ta­ble, light­weight den­tal re­cliner. A ta­ble be­hind it holds a box of la­tex gloves, gauze, sy­ringes, dis­pos­able den­tal mir­rors, and a pair of pli­ers. The Amer­i­cans have pro­vided the clinic with $6,000 worth of med­i­cal sup­plies.

While they set up, an Army sur­geon who has come to as­sess the fa­cil­ity tells me this isn’t where res­i­dents come when there’s an emer­gency. “There’s a new hos­pi­tal down the road,” he says, “and it’s sup­pos­edly pretty im­pres­sive. Sup­pos­edly has lasers and all sorts of state-of-the-art equip­ment. I’d like to check that one out. The Chi­nese built it.”

The U.S. sol­diers can’t go any­where with­out be­ing re­minded of the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic. On the drive to the clinic, I’d no­ticed lengths of black tub­ing ly­ing by the side of the road. “That’s a new wa­ter pipe­line to Ethiopia,” the driver said, “built by the Chi­nese.” No­body knows how the new Chi­nese base will change things, mostly be­cause its scale isn’t yet known, but traces of an­tic­i­pa­tory ten­sion are pal­pa­ble. Sev­eral diplo­matic of­fi­cials and mem­bers of U.S. Congress have pub­licly fret­ted over China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Dji­bouti, spec­u­lat­ing that it might sig­nal an era of in­creased Chi­nese mil­i­tary en­gage­ment around the world. Kelly, the U.S. am­bas­sador, told me that “snoop­ing,” elec­tronic or oth­er­wise, will be an ob­vi­ous con­cern around Camp Le­mon­nier.

The Amer­i­cans still have the largest for­eign mil­i­tary pres­ence in the coun­try, but China’s in­ten­si­fy­ing in­ter­est in Dji­bouti is shift­ing the bal­ance of in­flu­ence. That brings us back to com­mu­nity re­la­tions. At the tiny clinic in Arta, about 50 peo­ple wait out­side, the men dressed in but­ton-down shirts and macawiis—a loose gar­ment that wraps around the legs like a sarong—and the women draped in colorful head­scarves and light shawls. In­side, an Army den­tist straps a head­lamp to his fore­head and stares into the

mouth of an un­em­ployed, 29-year-old mother of four. He jabs her gum with a sy­ringe and pries out a tooth.

ohamed Khaireh Robleh’s truck rum­bles over a set of rail­road tracks that run through the cen­ter of the city, to­ward the port. There are no trains in sight, and the cross­ing lights don’t work. The tracks are bro­ken. “I grew up with that rail­road,” says Khaireh, 67. “It was my life. It was our life.” In the be­gin­ning, Dji­bouti was a rail­road town. Al­most a cen­tury ago, a nar­row-gauge line linked the Ethiopian cap­i­tal of Ad­dis Ababa to a small, shal­low-wa­ter port es­tab­lished by the French on the Red Sea. The trains rat­tled over a hot and tree­less moon­scape to carry the food, wa­ter, and la­bor needed to trans­form the port into a mod­est colo­nial out­post.

Khaireh worked those tracks for 40 years, ris­ing into man­age­ment po­si­tions, un­til the trains stopped run­ning in the early 2000s. The nar­row tracks couldn’t han­dle big pay­loads, and de­rail­ments were com­mon. “We thought the Euro­pean Union might help us re­build and mod­ern­ize it, but they didn’t be­lieve in the pro­ject,” he says. “I felt like cry­ing.”

Along came China. For decades it has in­vested heav­ily in African in­fra­struc­ture, bankrolling projects from An­gola to Zim­babwe, in ex­change for ac­cess to nat­u­ral re­sources. To move those re­sources from the heart of the con­ti­nent to Asia, it needed a ter­mi­nus, a re­li­able out­let to the east. Dji­bouti was per­fectly po­si­tioned. China is fi­nanc­ing a rail­road, as well as an ex­pan­sion of port ter­mi­nals, fuel and wa­ter pipe­lines, a nat­u­ral gas liq­ue­fac­tion plant, high­way up­grades, two pro­posed air­ports, and sev­eral govern­ment build­ings. The new mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion will be a sort of in­sur­ance pol­icy, a se­cu­rity sta­tion to pro­tect its in­vest­ments and ex­tend its eco­nomic reach.

When the Chi­nese be­gan con­struc­tion on the rail­road in 2013, Khaireh was called out of re­tire­ment, and now he’s driv­ing me to one of the projects he’s over­see­ing: a pas­sen­ger sta­tion ris­ing on the out­skirts of town. The tracks link­ing that con­struc­tion site to Ad­dis Ababa are fin­ished. The first freight train be­gan run­ning last Novem­ber; it’s pow­ered by a diesel en­gine be­cause the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion sys­tem isn’t fin­ished. The first pas­sen­ger trains will run when the sta­tion is com­pleted and the elec­tric­ity works.

Khaireh drives along a dusty frontage road to see how con­struc­tion is com­ing. Hun­dreds of new Chi­nese freight wag­ons, tankers, and air-con­di­tioned pas­sen­ger cars sit be­side the tracks, and dozens of lo­co­mo­tives are hid­den un­der blue plas­tic tarps. The sta­tion it­self is en­cased in scaf­fold­ing. Work­ers with whirring cir­cu­lar saws bal­ance high on the beams. Show­ers of sparks fall to the ground, where a Chi­nese worker cuts slabs of mar­ble and plas­ters them to the build­ing’s fa­cade.

“Some­day,” Khaireh says, “the rail­road will ex­tend to South Su­dan, and then all the way to the At­lantic.” He’s push­ing the work­ers, a mix of Chi­nese and Dji­boutians, to fin­ish the sta­tion by April. Dji­bouti’s va­ca­tion sea­son be­gins in May, when lots of peo­ple flee the hu­mid, 100F-plus tem­per­a­tures for the more tol­er­a­ble hills of Ethiopia. But that’s not the only thing driv­ing con­struc­tion. He re­minds me, with a smile, that Dji­bouti has a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in April. “We want to be able to have the pres­i­dent come out here and cel­e­brate by rid­ing on one of the first trains,” he says. “We will get it done.” The cer­tainty of that state­ment—not that they’ll com­plete the pro­ject, but that the pres­i­dent will win the elec­tion—is a near-uni­ver­sal as­sump­tion

here, and it casts a re­veal­ing light on ev­ery­thing that’s un­fold­ing in this coun­try.

he pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is just six weeks away, but I don’t see a soul hang­ing cam­paign ban­ners or mak­ing speeches. The elec­tion sea­son, by law, is lim­ited to the two weeks be­fore votes are cast.

Dji­bouti’s pres­i­dent is Is­mail Omar Guelleh, who in 1999 re­placed his un­cle to be­come the se­cond pres­i­dent since in­de­pen­dence. When term lim­its got in the way of a third term for him in 2011, he changed the con­sti­tu­tion. That elec­tion was boy­cotted by op­po­si­tion lead­ers. This time they say they’ll field a chal­lenger, but it’s not yet clear who it will be.

“The op­po­si­tion is very un­or­ga­nized,” says Mo­hamed Os­man Farah, an editor with La Na­tion, the coun­try’s prin­ci­pal news­pa­per, which is aligned with Guelleh’s govern­ment. “Most of them live abroad. The peo­ple don’t trust some­one who moves his fam­ily to Europe, be­cause he doesn’t be­lieve in the de­vel­op­ment of our coun­try.”

That’s one way of look­ing at it, but what if the op­po­si­tion lead­ers didn’t choose to move abroad so much as they were forced to flee? The most vis­i­ble leader of the op­po­si­tion, Ab­dourah­man Boreh, lives in Lon­don. He once was one of Guelleh’s clos­est con­fi­dants and over­saw the coun­try’s free-trade zone and port, which is by far the big­gest driver of the econ­omy. In 2008 the govern­ment ac­cused Boreh of tak­ing kick­backs when he ne­go­ti­ated on Dji­bouti’s be­half for the con­struc­tion of a con­tainer ter­mi­nal, man­aged by

the Dubai-based com­pany DP World. Boreh says the ac­cu­sa­tion was in re­tal­i­a­tion for his op­po­si­tion to Guelleh’s plan to seek a third term.

Threat­ened with ar­rest, Boreh fled to Lon­don. Dji­bouti soon seized all of Boreh’s as­sets in­side the coun­try, and in 2010 its courts con­victed him in ab­sen­tia on ter­ror­ism charges: He was the mas­ter­mind, the govern­ment al­leged, of a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated grenade at­tack on a lo­cal gro­cery store. The con­vic­tion al­lowed Guelleh’s govern­ment to freeze Boreh’s as­sets world­wide and to try to ex­tra­dite him to Dji­bouti to face a 15-year prison sen­tence.

The key ev­i­dence in the ter­ror­ism case was a tapped cell phone call. “Last night the act was com­pleted,” Boreh was recorded say­ing. “The peo­ple heard it, and it had a deep res­o­nance.”

The call, how­ever, wasn’t made af­ter the su­per­mar­ket blast; it was recorded the day be­fore.

The cor­rup­tion charges against Boreh were tried in a Lon­don court, which had ju­ris­dic­tion over the case be­cause ex­tra­di­tion hadn’t yet been granted. Dji­bouti’s lawyer, from the Amer­i­can­based firm of Gib­son, Dunn & Crutcher, hid the tim­ing of the in­ter­cepted call from the Bri­tish courts. Af­ter the dis­crep­ancy was dis­cov­ered, a Bri­tish judge last year rep­ri­manded Dji­bouti and its lawyer for “rep­re­hen­si­ble” con­duct. Early this March, the judge dis­missed ev­ery one of the govern­ment’s claims, con­clud­ing that Guelleh him­self had been aware of the terms of the deals with DP World. The court or­dered Dji­bouti to pay Boreh £9.3 mil­lion, or about $13.1 mil­lion, for his le­gal fees.

A cou­ple weeks be­fore my visit, sup­port­ers of the Dji­bouti op­po­si­tion based in Paris is­sued a let­ter urg­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity—“es­pe­cially those coun­tries with a mil­i­tary base or who are part­ners in de­vel­op­ment”—to hold Guelleh to demo­cratic stan­dards. The state­ment re­ferred to an in­ci­dent in De­cem­ber when govern­ment se­cu­rity forces killed 19 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a 6-year-old girl, at a meet­ing or­ga­nized in part by op­po­si­tion mem­bers. I asked the U.S. am­bas­sador if Guelleh’s rep­u­ta­tion as a crusher of dis­sent was some­thing the U.S. would sim­ply have to live with, given the im­por­tance of Camp Le­mon­nier.

“We don’t want to have to ‘live with it,’ ” he said. “For our pres­ence here to be sus­tain­able in the long term, this place has to be gov­erned with trans­parency.”

But the U.S. has al­ready signed on for the long term. In 2014 it ex­tended its lease on the base for at least 20 more years. In ne­go­ti­at­ing the terms of that deal, Guelleh nearly dou­bled Amer­ica’s rent, to about $64 mil­lion per year. efore I ar­rived in Dji­bouti, I car­ried a pic­ture in my mind of what un­tapped African eco­nomic po­ten­tial, in the tra­di­tion­ally ex­ploita­tive sense, was sup­posed to look like: The dirt was red, the leaves were green, and the hills sparkled on the in­side. But the min­is­ters in Pres­i­dent Guelleh’s cab­i­net all tried to paint me a much dif­fer­ent pic­ture of mod­ern op­por­tu­nity. Imag­ine a track­less desert, a re­lent­less sun, and a near-com­plete ab­sence of fresh wa­ter. With that lineup of nat­u­ral re­sources—along with a port on one of the most geopo­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant straits in the world—they be­lieve that in the next 20 years or so, Dji­bouti will be­come the next Dubai, a mag­net for cap­i­tal and free trade. To hear them talk, mak­ing bil­lions by sell­ing the world’s mil­i­taries on the coun­try’s lack of in­ci­dent was just the first step. “And why not?” asks For­eign Min­is­ter Ma­hamoud Ali Yous­souf. “We have some as­sets that Dubai never had.”

First, there’s that ship­ping lane. It’s busier than Dubai’s. Se­cond, there are all those land­locked African coun­tries stacked up be­hind it; they’re des­per­ate for a por­tal to the wider world. Third, there’s the in­fra­struc­ture. Not tra­di­tional in­fra­struc­ture, which, China not­with­stand­ing, is still in short sup­ply, but rather dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture. Seven sub­ma­rine fiber-op­tic cables, the kind that carry the vast ma­jor­ity of the world’s dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion, come ashore in Dji­bouti, mak­ing it the most im­por­tant hub of con­nec­tiv­ity in East Africa. “For­get gi­ga­bytes,” says Fi­nance Min­is­ter Dawaleh. “We of­fer ter­abytes.”

In­stead of a boun­ti­ful fresh­wa­ter reser­voir, Dji­bouti has Lac As­sal, which is 10 times saltier than the ocean and where the only sign of aqua­ma­rine life is an abun­dance of com­mon bac­te­ria; it’s also beau­ti­ful, in an ex­tra­plan­e­tary sort of way, and the cen­ter­piece of the govern­ment’s tourism plan.

The scour­ing Kham­sin winds, which blow through the coun­try from June to Au­gust, are be­ing har­nessed to power a 60-megawatt wind farm, and the pi­ti­less sun, which beats down with near-ki­netic force, will power so­lar en­ergy de­vel­op­ments and more than quadru­ple the coun­try’s to­tal do­mes­tic en­ergy out­put. Within a decade, the govern­ment hopes to be the first coun­try in Africa to be pow­ered solely by re­new­able en­ergy.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing,” says Ali Ya­coub Ma­hamoud, the min­is­ter of en­ergy and nat­u­ral re­sources. “In the colo­nial pe­riod, ev­ery­thing in Dji­bouti was viewed neg­a­tively. They all said we only had a hot sun, dry winds, and a lot of rocks. Noth­ing valu­able. Even the no­mads felt that way. But now the neg­a­tives are pos­i­tives.” W hen the din­ner crowd leaves La Chau­mière each night, the lobby of the Sher­a­ton fills up. For con­trac­tors and for­eign mil­i­taries, the ho­tel is a quasi-per­ma­nent sup­ple­men­tary bar­racks. One floor is oc­cu­pied al­most solely by Ger­man sol­diers. When I try to con­nect to the ho­tel Wi-Fi, I’m given two net­work op­tions: one for guests, one for “Ger­mans.” I can’t find a sin­gle tourist here. At night in the lobby bar, six Ger­man sol­diers are play­ing cards, lean­ing into the game over a low ta­ble. Along the far wall, 14 Ja­panese sailors stare at 13 cell phones (two of them share one, watch­ing a video). Two Amer­i­can con­trac­tors, tech work­ers, are snack­ing on fruit, eye­ing it sus­pi­ciously, and slan­der­ing their bosses. One starts punch­ing num­bers into the cal­cu­la­tor on his phone, tab­u­lat­ing hours worked, un­claimable ex­penses, to­tal wages. He puts the phone down and leans back in his chair. “A thou­sand dol­lars a week,” he says. “A thou­sand? Hell, we can make that at home.” “That’s what I’m say­ing.” He tastes a wedge of or­ange and makes a face. “Why are we here?” They don’t come up with an an­swer, as if they’re un­will­ing to be­lieve his­tory could have de­posited them in this re­mote, for­lorn cor­ner of the world. But the coun­try where noth­ing hap­pens no longer ex­ists. <BW>

*~� “Dji­boutians are peace­ful

peo­ple, and they don’t un­der­stand this. They say, ‘Why are the Amer­i­cans so

scared of us?’ ”

Pres­i­dent Guelleh wel­comes


The pres­i­dent, many govern­ment min­is­ters, and other wealthy Dji­boutians live in the

still-de­vel­op­ing neigh­bor­hood of Hara­mous

The Port of Dji­bouti sits on one of the world’s busiest ship­ping lanes. And it’s

well-si­t­u­ated for chas­ing pi­rates

A Chi­nese-made rail­road is be­ing built par­al­lel to the de­funct French rail­road.

Below: the road to the new, Chi­nese-built Do­raleh Con­tainer Ter­mi­nal

Mene­lik Square, in cen­tral Dji­bouti City

Ethiopia sits land­locked be­hind Dji­bouti, deeply de­pen­dent on the port. The Middle East is just 13 miles across the wa­ter

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