UAE Building its First Naval Base in Eritrea?

UAE new Naval Base in Assab Port
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is constructing a new port next to Assab International Airport in Eritrea. Imagery of Assab airfield in Eritrea shows large vehicle park, new construction, Saudi or UAE C-130 military aircraft on the tarmac. (credit: @Alex_de_M)

By Jeremy Binnie / for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly,

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears to be constructing a new port next to Assab International Airport in Eritrea, which could become its first permanent military base in a foreign country.

Satellite imagery shows rapid progress has been made since work began sometime after September 2015. A square of coastline measuring about 250×250 m has already been excavated and dredged, while a pier and/or breakwater is being constructed and already extends over 700 m from the original coastline.

IHS Maritime & Trade data show that two vessels are currently working at the site. While neither have IMO numbers, one that has been at the site since 16 February is using the MMSI number 470331100 and the name Al Khatem .

MMSI numbers that begin with the digits 470 are assigned to UAE-flagged vessels and the UAE’s National Marine Dredging Company says on its website that it operates a heavy duty cutter suction dredger called Al Khatem .

Eritrea has little need of a new port in the Assab area, given that the existing one 12 km to the southeast of the construction site was rarely visited until the UAE’s navy began to use it last year to support the country’s military operation in Yemen.

IHS Jane’s has published satellite imagery showing most of the naval vessels at the existing port since 21 September 2015 have been Emirati landing ships. IHS Maritime & Trade data show that many of the commercial vessels that docked there over the same period came from the UAE’s naval base at Fujairah. This indicated that the UAE is using Assab as a logistics hub where supplies are transferred from commercial to naval vessels for onward shipment to Yemen.

But satellite imagery from 4 March shows one of the UAE navy’s Baynunah-class corvettes docked at Assab, suggesting it is also supporting warships involved in enforcing the blockade on Yemen.

Eritrean foreign minister Osman Saleh Mohammed confirmed in an interview published by Reuters on 29 February that his country is allowing the UAE to use “logistical facilities” that included Assab port. He said Asmara is also “building up the relationship” with Saudi Arabia, which is leading the coalition of Arab countries that intervened militarily to re-install Yemen’s ousted president in March 2015.

The assessment that the new port will be a naval facility is supported by the appearance of a military camp between the construction site and the southeast end of the runway. A C-130 Hercules transport aircraft painted in the desert camouflage used by the Saudi – but not the Emirati – air force could be seen on the parking area next to the camp in the 4 March satellite imagery.

At the same time, a new security barrier is being constructed around the airport that controls access to both the military camp and the port construction site.

The construction of a naval base next to Assab airport would allow the UAE to build dedicated facilities to support its vessels, provide more privacy than the commercial port, and simplify transfers of supplies and personnel from aircraft to naval vessels. It is also possible that the UAE will construct a permanent air base that uses the airport’s runway.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which already has a major Red Sea naval base at Jiddah, is apparently looking to establish a military facility on the other side of the Bab al-Mandab strait. On 8 March, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat cited Djibouti’s ambassador in Riyadh, Ziauddin Bamakhrama, as saying that his country is looking forward to signing an agreement that will allow the kingdom to establish a military base in Djibouti.

This article, first published on 15 April 2016, is subject to a correction and has been amended.

UAE Assab Military Base
Satellite imagery (right) showing the new military camp and the construction of a new port facility at Assab airport in Eritrea on 4 March. Al Khatem, a dredger operated by the UAE’s National Marine Dredging Company, can be seen operating at the site. The image on the left shows the same area in 2013, before the development began. (2016 CNES/Astrium/GoogleEarth/IHS)