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Tiny African country a friend of Western world
The Washington Times / January 25, 2001

By Larry Luxner

DJIBOUTI -- President Ismail Omar Guelleh, 52, was born in the Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa. A lawyer by profession, he became active in the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progres (RPP) party in the 1970s. In 1977, the year of Djibouti's independence from France, Guelleh was named chief of cabinet of the presidency in charge of internal and external security -- a post he held for 22 years. In April 1999, he was inaugurated for a five-year term as president of Djibouti.

Here are excerpts from our interview with President Guelleh:

Q: How would you characterize relations between the United States and Djibouti?

A: "Since our independence in 1977, we've been the only country in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to be a friend of the Western world. Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia were all part of the Soviet bloc. Everybody knew Djibouti and gave us some small assistance because American naval ships used to refuel here. When there's a need, everybody knows us, but when Ethiopia became a friend of the U.S., we were literally forgotten. Reagan and Bush needed us. But since Clinton came into office, the U.S. hasn't done anything for us."

Q: Most people outside the region have never heard of Djibouti. Do you feel your country is large enough to make an impact on East African politics?

A: "Some members of the UN have populations of as little as 9,000. But we think our smallness is useful in this part of Africa, because of our discreet policy of free markets and friendship with neighboring countries."

Q: The Port of Djibouti is clearly the country's most important source of foreign exchange, but isn't it completely dependent on Ethiopia?

A: "Before 1998, the port handled only 7% of Ethiopian imports and exports. At that time, the Port of Djibouti developed very quickly because of transshipment activities. Even if Ethiopian traffic goes back to Assab someday, the port will continue to develop anyway."

Q: Besides the container port, what else is your government doing to diversify the economy of Djibouti?

A: "We have all the laws and regulations open for foreign investment. We have a U.S. company, Geothermal Development Associates, which has just finished a feasibility study, and we shall give them a concession in the Lac Assal area. We have very good potential for offshore oil and gas. Banking will also be developed, and I think that'll be enough to feed our 700,000 people."

Q: Although Djibouti is a member of the Arab League, would you consider Djibouti to be a genuinely Arab country?

A: "Yes. Djibouti is an Arab country. It is the point of linkage between Africa and the Arab world, even though we have a melting-pot society."

Q: How do you view the current strife between Israel and the Palestinians?

A: "It's a question of liberation, of independence. Palestine is a brotherly Muslim country which is a victim of misunderstanding between the two peoples. In 1967, the Israeli troops took over the West Bank and Gaza, and are now implementing settlements in that area. Even so, we have some business with Israel. An Israeli company is putting grass in the Hassan Guelleh Stadium. We also have Zim [an Israeli shipping conglomerate] here. We should continue to reinforce these relations, but we don't agree with the attitude of the Israeli government."

"Under [the government of Shimon] Peres, we were thinking about establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, but now everything has collapsed. We hope this attitude will change, so that the two peoples can live in peace and cooperation."

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