It is amazing how a devout Muslim population has succeeded in living side by side with the representatives of Western materialism in the form of the US military corps without any conflict. While American marines are derided across the Muslim world as the harbingers of immorality, death and destruction , they are a popular group in this small principality. Djiboutians, an adventurous and hospitable community, learnt long ago how to find a balance between their own interests and the competing political and economic interests in their volatile neighbourhood.
Djibouti is home to thousands of American troops who form the African Command - the Rapid Deployment Force against terrorism - as well as the French Foreign Legion. Every evening , the soldiers leave their barracks to stroll in the dusty town streets where they sample the numerous night clubs set up specifically for their entertainment. These twilight forays start immediately after the Isha prayers when the faithful return to their homes.
Djibouti understands that providing these soldiers with places of entertainment, where they spend millions of dollars or French francs, will help the economy of a country that has no mineral resources or food crops and has to import virtually everything needed for domestic consumption. The relationship is, therefore, naturally beneficial. The moderate government of President Omar Guelleh, whose portrait adorns every square and business premises seems to have convinced his own people about the necessity of this compromise since virtually everyone I talked to exuded extreme confidence in him.
I have not seen that level of patriotism in other countries but maybe it arises from the economic boom that the small state is experiencing. One of the cornerstones of the boom is the port of Djibouti, which is so strategically placed that it has developed a hinterland market that makes it one of busiest ports in Africa per capita. The boom was fuelled by two factors .
First, when Ethiopia and Eritrea's hostilities led to war, Eritrea closed the ports of Massawa and Assab, which Ethiopia had always used, leaving the latter landlocked. This meant it had to find a route to the ocean for exports like coffee, livestock and flowers and for imports to fuel the large country's economy. The Port of Djibouti operations today are dominated by Ethiopia's imports and exports, which comprise over 90 per cent of the total throughput. Despite its numerous fronts of conflict from Eritrea to Mogadishu and Oromo, Ethiopia is undergoing an economic boom sustained by the easy flow of goods through Djibouti.
Secondly, to handle the vast amounts of cargo passing through the port of Djibouti destined for and from Ethiopia, the government privatised the port which is now managed by an international player - DP World - which has modernised its operations to match those of other countries in the region. Today, Djibouti has built one of the biggest oil storage and handling complexes in Africa at Doraleh a few kilometres out of the town, which can handle over 300,000 tonnes of oil (fuel and vegetable ) as well as liquefied gas for use by the two military forces and Ethiopia.
The harsh heat of Djibouti determines the daily pace of life. During the hot season, many offices open at 6 am and close business at 1pm. This arrangements plays havoc with visitors used to the normal Western schedules. Like other towns that hinge their fortunes on wealthy foreigners, Djibouti is an expensive town . During my first visit to the town with temperatures running at 49 degrees Celsius in the shade, I thought the town was empty until evening when I realised that all those drab buildings are actually places of fun and vigorous commerce and open in the evenings when the heat subsides.
Outdoor kitchens and souks are set up in the street corners where thousands of people in gaily coloured robes and gowns venture to buy snacks after an afternoon of chewing qat. A simple meal like Shawarme ( a meat or chicken sandwich) fetches the equivalent of $6 to $7. However, Djiboutians practise their faith seriously and most of them get their intoxication from qat (miraa). "Qat is good and unlike drugs or alcohol it gives us peace," said a local resident. "Even if you have quarrelled with someone in the morning, if you chew and meet him in the evening, the anger is over."
Now I can understand the image of an armed policeman chewing qat and holding his tasbih (prayer meditation beads) in the other hand quite oblivious of the world. The crime rate in Djibouti is extremely low and many use this as vindication of their way of life. Islam and the laid back desert life might claim credit for peace in the country, but watchers are questioning how long it can last with the Western influence eroding the moral fabric of the society. Djibouti lies at the crossroads of a volatile and at times violent region where terrorism occasionally rears its ugly head .
Across the Red Sea lies Yemen, to the north is Asmara now emerging as the capital of Somali fundamentalism while to the south is Mogadishu.