The Washington Diplomat / May 2008
By Larry Luxner
When Roble Olhaye took over as Djibouti's ambassador to the United States on Mar. 22, 1988, the Soviet Union was a superpower, Dubai was a sleepy little sheikhdom on the Persian Gulf, and barely anyone knew where Djibouti was.
Today, 20 years later, the USSR is history, Dubai has become a glittering symbol of prosperity, and most Americans still have no idea where — or what — Djibouti is. Yet the country Olhaye represents — one of the tiniest, hottest, driest and poorest on the African continent — could soon be lifted from obscurity, thanks to more than a billion dollars in investment from the oil-rich emirate of Dubai and its risk-taking enterpreneurs.
Thanks to its strategic location, Djibouti is also promoting itself as a staunch Arab ally of the United States in the war against al-Qaeda terrorists, says Olhaye, who was Djibouti's man in Washington long before al-Qaeda was a household name here.
"It's true. Twenty years is a long time to be ambassador," the 64-year-old diplomat reflected. "In that time, we have witnessed the demise of the Cold War, the emergence of a unipolar world, the unfortunate invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the aftermath, and of course a number of administrations here in Washington."
In fact, ever since the 2005 departure of Saudi Arabia's former ambassador, Prince Bandar, Olhaye has been the dean of Washington's diplomatic corps. Nobody else even close to Olhaye's term of office here; after all, how many current ambassadors in this town can boast of having presented their credentials to the late President Reagan?
"Americans had never heard of Djibouti when I first arrived," said Olhaye, who was initially appointed to New York as his country's envoy to the United Nations. "It was through my own initiative that this embassy was established, mainly because I felt we could not be next to the biggest power in the world and not have an embassy here. I convinced my president that it was crucial."
Olhaye remains Djibouti's ambassador to the UN, which is why he spends half of every week in New York; he's also dean of the Arab and African diplomatic corps here, given his unusual longevity in Washington. Only eight foreign ambassadors besides Olhaye have served in the nation's capital for more than 10 years: those of Cameroon, Marshall Islands, Grenada, Singapore, Brunei-Darussalam, Yemen, El Salvador and Palau.
"When we opened, a lot of people in this country were writing to us for information, addressing letters 'Dear Mr. Djibouti,'" Olhaye told The Washington Diplomat. "This just shows you the level of ignorance people had at that time. Since then, we've developed extensive and far-reaching relationships across the U.S. Every week, we mail at least 20 packages of information to high schools and elementary schools asking for information for their projects. It has been a great experience making the American public aware of Djibouti and its history."
Wedged among Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, the Republic of Djibouti has around 800,000 inhabitants. They include the majority Issa, the country's dominant Somali clan, as well as the less-numerous Afars, some 8,000 citizens of France (including 3,000 French soldiers), between 1,500 and 1,800 U.S. troops and a 200-man German contingent. There are also 10,000 Somali refugees living in squatter camps — down from about 40,000 a decade ago.
Since the end of a three-year guerrilla war between the Afars and the Issas in the early 1990s, Djibouti has been a relative oasis of calm on the Horn of Africa, and the few tourists who pass through appear to be warmly welcomed.
"We are one of the smallest and, by far, one of the best-governed countries in Africa, with a good record on democracy and human rights, exceptionally respecting the rule of law in a turbulent region which has never known peace," said the ambassador proudly. "We've been lucky that in this corner of the world, we have not only survived but thrived, and have maintained good relations with all countries in the region."
Djibouti is ruled by Ismail Omar Guelleh, who was inaugurated in April 1999 for a six-year term and re-elected in 2005 with 100% of the vote, after opposition parties boycotted the electtion. Guelleh's People's Rally for Progress party controls all levels of government in this desert country two-thirds the size of Maryland.
"We offer free education from elementary school all the way to university," said Olhaye, in defending Guelleh's record. "I don't think many people know that Djibouti is the only country with free education and free health-care for everybody."
Yet in its 2008 assessment, the conservative Heritage Foundation said Djibouti's economy is only 52.3% free, ranking it 131st out of 162 nations surveyed. Among the 40 sub-Saharan countries included in the index, Djibouti ranked a lowly 30th.
And in 2007, Washington-based Freedom House gave Djibouti an unimpressive score of "5" in both political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 being the most free and 7 being the least free.
"Efforts to curb the country's rampant corruption have met with little success," according to Washington-based Freedom House, a nonprofit organization. "Despite constitutional protection, freedom of speech is not guaranteed. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as RTD, which operates the national radio and TV. Journalists generally have to avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the [opposition party] FRUD, relations with Ethiopia, and French financial aid."
The report adds: "Freedom of assembly and association are nominally protected under the constitution, but the government has demonstrated little tolerance for political protest. There are complaints of harassment of political opponents and union leaders, and local human rights groups do not operate freely."
The Place du 27 Juin 1977, a shady square commemorating the day France gave Djibouti its independence, is the focus of life in downtown Djiboutiville, home to half the country's population. Restaurants, hotels, clothing shops and shoeshine men cluster around the plaza, where taxi drivers honk their horns and peasant women sell qat — a semi-narcotic, addictive leaf chewed by nearly everybody.
About two blocks from the plaza, young Djiboutians check their e-mail at NubiaNet, while at night, Ethiopian prostitutes in miniskirts look for clients in front of half a dozen seedy discotheques.
On Friday afternoons, loudspeakers atop mosques call the faithful to prayer. Devoutly Islamic Djibouti belongs not only to the Organization for African Unity but also to the Arab League, though some observers suggest this is economically rather than ideologically motivated.
"We are Arab-African or African-Arab, whichever way you want to put it," said Olhaye. "From Day One, we were a member of the Arab League, and almost 100% of our people are Muslim. Other religions don't account for even 1%."
There's no question Djibouti is poor. The World Bank estimates the country's annual per-capita income at $950, though Olhaye, an accountant and banker by profession, says "a lot of the money coming into Djibouti is for the foreigners and soldiers, which distorts our per-capita income." The real number is closer to $500, he suggests.
Aside from salt mined from Lac Assal — one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth — Djibouti has almost no natural resources to speak of, and certainly no petroleum. And unlike many other African countries like Senegal or Cote d'Ivoire, with large overseas populations sending remittances home from the U.S. and elsewhere, very few Djiboutians live in the United States — not even 1,000.
So the country is capitalizing on its strategic location to attract investment from Dubai. That relationship began in June 2001, when the former French colony signed an agreement with Dubai Ports International (now DP World). Under the 20-year concession, DPI agreed to vastly expand container-handling operations at the existing port, which accounts for 75% of Djibouti's economy.
One of the first things the new port managers did was ban the chewing of qat leaves, which may have contributed to a dramatic jump in worker efficiency.
Ever since Ethiopia's war with Eritrea blocked off Ethiopian access to the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, Ethiopia — a nation of 75 million people — has become totally dependent on Djibouti for everything from weapons to wheat. Djibouti appears well on its way to becoming a transshipment hub for all of East Africa.
"I think we have done very well, and thanks to the conviction of the government of Dubai and its understanding of the importance of our location, they have undertaken huge investments in our country," he said. "The core of this investment is the development of a new port, which thanks to its depth of 20 meters will be able to accommodate the latest generation of containerships."
This new port, called Dorale, is being built about 11 miles south of the existing one, and when finished will include an oil terminal, a mile-long container terminal and a free zone for manufacturing and distribution throughout Africa. The existing port will be refurbished and modernized.
Total investment in the project — which also includes the five-star Djibouti Palace Kempinski — is likely to exceed $1.5 billion between now and the next three years, said Olhaye.
"They say this will be one of the most luxurious hotels in Africa," says Olhaye of the 177-room Kempinski, where room rates start at $350 per night (one night in the presidential suite costs $7,820 — more money than the average Djiboutian earns in a decade). "There are also investments now underway in seaside real-estate, villas and a shopping mall on reclaimed land. The market is primarily Gulf Arabs. This country is deficient in all amenities."
Djibouti's economic link with Dubai has become so strong that one of Olhaye's five sons (all of which grew up in the Washington area) is now working in the emirate as a consultant for various Dubai companies investing in Djibouti.
Yet economic ties with the United States are quite limited.
"We don't have any significant trade with the U.S. That's why we're eligible for AGOA [the African Growth and Opportunity Act]," said Olhaye, who as dean of the African diplomatic corps in Washington helped push AGOA's passage in Congress. "We have never really implemented it, because there isn't much we could take advantage of. Our preoccupation at the moment is how to bring investment into the country, to build the infrastructure and to gear our country to income-generating activities."
One such possibility centers around Lac Assal, where an American emerging fund is investing $15 million to harvest the salt and export it in bulk.
Despite its long years of involvement in its former colony, France is not a major investor in Djibouti, except perhaps for a smattering of Total gas stations around the capital.
"We had a fallout with France in the 1990s, when we were invaded by some armed groups. France had a different take on that issue, and we finally overcame that aggression and re-established law and order," he said. "After some time, our relations with France have improved, and now they are optimal."
The largest of Djibouti's dozen or so embassies is in Paris. In Washington, Olhaye directs a staff of 10 people, including five diplomats.
With the United States, he said, relations have always been good, even before independence in 1977, "mainly because we're in a very strategic location at the entrance to the mouth of the Red Sea."
That's especially true since 9/11, said the ambassador.
"The American soldiers stationed in Djibouti cover the whole Horn of Africa and beyond, starting with Yemen. From these headquarters, they have been actively involved in thwarting terrorism and doing all kinds of things," he said, suggesting that perhaps 800 Djiboutians work at the U.S. naval base in his country.
"A year ago, there was an intervention by Ethiopia in Somalia with American support; the U.S. believes some terrorists involved in the embassy attacks in Nairobi are being harbored in Somalia," he said, adding that "the situation in Somalia is so bad, we don't even like to talk about it."
Things are not much better in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, with ethnic strife tearing apart Sudan, Congo and most recently Kenya — and economic desperation fueling unrest in Zimbabwe.
"We have to get out of this mess," said Olhaye, who played a key role in organizing the Somalia National Reconciliation Conference in Djibouti. That meeting in 2000 formed the first all-inclusive, civil society-based transitional government since the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991. "Whatever we're seeing is solvable. It requires the right leadership temperament, attitude and cooperation — not just for our immediate neighbors but for all of Africa."
He added that President Bush has confounded his skeptics by taking a much more active approach than anyone expected on African issues, particularly health-care.
"The Bush administration has done a lot for Africa, but that wasn't the way it was perceived when he was first elected. Everybody was doubtful whether he would really keep the momentum that Clinton generated as a friend of Africa. But they've invested heavily in a lot of programs, including the President's Initiative on HIV/AIDS."
Olhaye points out that 70% of the aid money from Bush's Millennium Challenge Account is being channeled to African countries. He said $2.5 billion is already in the pipeline for Africa, "over and above the traditional U.S. aid disbursements."
As an Arab country on the fringes of the Middle East, Djibouti isn't directly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Olhaye says it's in his country's interests that the two sides achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.
"Even though we don't have diplomatic relations with Israel, there's a lot of indirect trade going on," he said, noting that that the Israeli shipping line Zim calls on the Port of Djibouti regularly. "Our aim is to get an honorable settlement with the Palestinians and for the occupation to end, and for Israel to live side-by-side in peace and security. We have nothing against them as a country."
Given that he's already served 20 years as ambassador, it seems pointless to ask when Olhaye's term of office will expire. Besides, it's not clear that Olhaye wants to quit yet.
"Every day, I juggle the competing demands on my time between New York and Washington, always trying to make sense of these conflicting schedules," he said. "I really want to accomplish much in both places, so that makes me on the move practically every week. New York is our outpost for international diplomacy and relations. Since we don't maintain many embassies in the world, so we do a lot of our diplomatic activities through the UN."
Olhaye's No. 1 challenge?
"How to build our country's image in the United States, to make Djibouti recognized for being a stabilizer and shock absorber for all the things happening in our region, for being a calm and peaceful partner, and for being a good friend of the United States."
By the way, wiping out qat in Djibouti is definitely not on Olhaye's priority list.
"People might be chewing qat leaves every day, but the moment they have to travel, they don't keep qat in their pockets, nor are they going somewhere else to look for it. So it's not a drug, it's a plant which people like," said the ambassador. "This is what brings our people together."