Over the past 15 months, the United Arab Emirates has been building up its military infrastructure in Eritrea. As a member of the Saudi-led coalition engaged in the Yemeni conflict, the United Arab Emirates has conducted operations from the Eritrean port of Assab. The Emirati military is currently working to complete a military facility northwest of the city, the size of which is clearly evident in satellite photos Stratfor has obtained from AllSource Analysis. Beyond supporting ongoing activities in Yemen, the establishment of bases outside Emirati borders reveals the ambitions of Abu Dhabi and its Gulf allies to step up their military presence in the region.
As construction on the base progresses, UAE vessels such as the HSV-2 Swift, which was damaged in an Oct. 1 attack off Yemen’s coast, have continued to use the Assab port. Since the base’s development started around September 2015, extensive work has been done on the site.
The new facility, centered on the runway of a disused Eritrean airport, now features aircraft shelters and housing for personnel. A naval docking facility is also being built next to the runway on the coastline, where dredging ships are cutting a new channel. The scale of the undertaking suggests that the UAE military is in Eritrea for more than just a short-term logistical mission supporting operations across the Red Sea.
Instead, the base is part of Abu Dhabi’s longer-term strategy, which also includes military assets stationed at a base in eastern Libya, near Egypt. The bases not only enable the United Arab Emirates to operate effectively on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa, but they also play a role in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s effort to forge diplomatic alliances. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have approached Djibouti, Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea over the past few years, offering them financial perks in the hope of drawing on their resources within the context of a military alliance. Sudanese troops, for example, have taken part in Riyadh’s Yemeni operations. Gaining permission to establish bases in those countries, such as the Saudi base in Djibouti, shows the immediate benefit of those relationships. The bases themselves then bolster longer-term connections with the nations hosting them while allowing Gulf powers to support those states’ military capabilities.
In addition to the air assets the United Arab Emirates has stationed at the Assab base, there is also a large ground contingent that includes what seems to be at least a battalion-sized armored element equipped with French-built Leclerc main battle tanks. The air assets are the most rapidly deployable, however, and the French-built Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft at the base give Abu Dhabi the ability not only to conduct operations over Yemen with ease but also to project power elsewhere around the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden.
The United Arab Emirates will probably continue to strengthen its military ties to countries throughout the region, but its own capacity to project power will grow along with them. The base near Assab marks a significant shift in the United Arab Emirates’ military policy as it becomes part of the small group of countries that maintain bases abroad.