Djibouti: A Small Country with Big Importance

By Tyler Jiang

At first glance, Djibouti may not seem like a country that would be relevant to global politics. A small nation in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti has a population of under one million and lacks resources, so how can such a nation have an impact on geopolitics? Located along the Gulf of Aden, its proximity to the Mandeb Strait, the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, and Yemen gives the small African nation a strategic location along one of the world’s busiest trade routes. 10 percent of the world’s oil exports and 20 percent of all commercial goods traverse through the Suez Canal, passing close to Djibouti.[1]

Djibouti was formerly a French colony known as French Somaliland. Established in 1859, the colony’s importance never rose above coaling station for French vessels traveling from French Indochina to Europe.[2] Djibouti’s importance to France began after the Suez Crisis in 1956. The colony met all of France’s basing needs for the operation and allowed the French Navy to dominate the Mandeb Strait.[3] As France began to decolonize, independence movements in Djibouti began to gain traction, leading to an independence vote in 1977 that passed, creating the nation of Djibouti.[4]

Since its independence in 1977, Djibouti has housed foreign troops on its soil, including the United States. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States required bases throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa in order to carry out President Bush’s “War on Terror.” In 2003 Camp Lemonnier, housed at Djibouti City’s airport, was officially opened. Today, the base serves as the command post for US AFRICOM and is the only official American military base in Africa. The 4000 personnel stationed in Djibouti include special forces, intelligence units, and Air Force squadrons.[5] As American forces continue to combat terrorism in the Middle East, the base’s importance only grows, and President Obama pledged $1.4 billion to modernize the installation, indicating a permanent American presence.[6]

Since 2016, the United States is no longer the only power in Djibouti. On January 21, 2016, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced China’s intentions to establish its first overseas base in Djibouti.[7] The base is rumored to house up to 10,000 Chinese servicemen. The scale of the base and its close proximity to Camp Lemonnier could pose challenges to the United States, but on the surface, the base will serve to protect Chinese interests in Africa, particularly oil investments and Chinese trade passing through the Suez Canal. The base will also support China’s efforts, and investments, in completing the One Belt, One Road initiative, a project that aims to strengthen Chinese exports to Europe and the Middle East.  

As China seeks to expand its trade and the United States continues to combat terrorism, Djibouti’s importance only grows. Its geographical location allows military forces to reach the Arabian Peninsula and large swaths of Africa. Therefore, Djibouti is key in allowing countries to project power as well as secure their own interests in the region. Though it is a small country, Djibouti’s location elevates its status in geopolitics, and it is only logical to assume that its importance will continue to grow as nations turn their attentions to Africa and the Middle East.


Tyler Jiang is the blogger for African Affairs. He is a senior at Rowan University where he studies International Studies and History


Ben Ho Wan Beng, “The Strategic Attractions of Djibouti,” The National Interest, March 18, 2016.

[2] Charles W. Koburger, Naval Strategy East of Suez – The Role of Djibouti, New York: Praeger (1992), pp 1.

[3] Ibid, pp57.

[4] Barrington, Lowell, After Independence: Making and Protecting the Nation in Postcolonial and Postcommunist States, (University of Michigan Press: 2006), p.115

[5] Nick Turse, “The US military's best-kept secret,” The Nation, November 17, 2015.

[6] Josh Wood, "Djibouti, a Safe Harbour in the Troubled Horn of Africa," The National, June 2, 2015.

[7] Hong Lei, "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei's Regular Press Conference on January 21, 2016," January

21, 2016.