Dahlak Kebir is a sunbaked and vaguely Y-shaped splotch of rock and dry vegetation sitting a few miles off the coast of Massawa, near the mouth of the Red Sea. The Dahlak archipelago, which is part of Eritrea, has been the subject of persistent rumor in recent years. During his 22 years in power, Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki hasn't been all that particular about choosing friends -- or enemies, for that matter.
Israel might have used one of the islands for signals intelligence aimed at intercepting Iranian weapons shipments ; in a reversal of sorts, the Iranians are now thought to be supplementing the Jewish state in their use of some of the most strategically-located real estate in the greater Middle East.
There isn't much going on in Dahlak Kebir, so long as you discount a Human Rights Watch report, and various corroborating evidence , about the island being home to a secret prison camp for political dissidents. Ignore that, and little else seems to be hidden away on Kebir, save for a few archeological sites, a dilapidating runway, some mostly-unpaved roads, and miles of untouched coastline. It is a remote place made all the more so by Eritrea's political isolation: the country has feuded or warred with most of its neighbors, most notably Ethiopia, which still has a close, cooperative relationship with Europe and the United States.
Eritrea, on the other hand, is still subject to U.N. sanctions stemming from its one-time support for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate fighting the Ethiopian military in Somalia. Dahlak Kebir is a distant corner of an opaque and unpredictable country, a place that remains mysterious even for U.S. policymakers and diplomats -- despite the fact that it borders a major global shipping lane , and sits between numerous political hotspots.
One would think that people wouldn't want to vacation there. But chances are you're not the emir of Qatar, whose state-owned real estate company spent $48 million building a resort on Kebir. Based on photographs circulated online, the Qatari-funded private resort is a glaring incongruity -- a strip of bungalows and private swimming pools amid an empty and dust-choked plane, with a broad promenade just feet away from a calm, unspoiled beach. There is nothing else nearby.
It is essentially the emir's Eritrean retreat: when reached by phone at his Beirut office, Jacques Shaheen of the construction firm Edessa said that his company had built a "private resort" on the island, although he would not tell me for whom. Considering the documented Qatari funding for the project, it's possible to speculate: The Qatari royal family has built one of the world's more expensive private residences on a virtually infrastructure-free island, in a country with media controls more strict than North Korea's, and a long and troublesome record of meddling in its neighbor's affairs. The resort testifies to the secretive yet consequential relationship between Qatar and Eritrea, which is itself a window into the fractious politics of both the Horn of Africa and the Middle East in general. It reveals Qatar's vast geopolitical ambitions, as well as the forces that are frustrating them. And it illustrates the problems that arise when strategically crucial countries like Eritrea maintain such a thick and deliberate veil of secrecy.
Construction on the Dahlak Kebir resort apparently ended in October of 2012. According to Shaheen, it was built with Eritrean labor and even includes a desalination plant -- the island is so remote and under-developed that building such a facility is the only alternative to shipping in fresh water. According to a Wikileaks cable, Kebir has a usable airstrip, left over from communist Ethiopia's period of control over Eritrea. But there isn't anything else there, and Shaheen says that his company's work on the island has finished. "We're not involved at this stage," he told me.
But a few years ago, Eritrean and Qatari plans for Kebir were far different. In 2007, long before Eritrea was slapped with U.N. sanctions, S.A. Miro, Inc. of Denver, Colorado was contracted by Qatar Diar, Qatar's state real estate firm, to perform a site assessment for a different resort complex -- one that was never actually built. Michael Miro, the company's director of project management, says the Qataris had him create a "front-end master plan study" so that they could "better understand what their options were in terms of size and programming, given the fact that they were totally off the grid there." Sewage and water supply would be particular challenges for a project that they tentatively estimated would cost over $100 million to complete. Miro said it was his understanding that their resort design would actually be part of a larger tourist development in the Dahlaks, a plan that would include multiple hotels, perhaps spread out over more than one island. Miro's company hasn't been involved in the project since 2008. But he said that given limited local construction resources and the islands' relative isolation, he would be surprised if his company's master plan had been realized over the following years. "It seems like they would have just barely enough time to build something even remotely like what we designed," he said.
That resort was never constructed, but it's important enough that Eritrea was considering major touristic development -- and that Qatar's state real estate firm was serious enough about the opportunity to perform a feasibility study and commission a design. Eritrea remains one of the more closed-off places in Africa: The country currently ranks 182nd out of 185 economies surveyed in the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business" survey, and its national airline was virtually bankrupt as of 2009; meanwhile, the state's control over information is so tight that high-ranking U.S. diplomats have wondered at who really controls the decision-making process in Asmara. The chaotic past couple of months have been a case in point: it is still unclear whether a widely-reported disturbance in the capital on January 21st was an attempted military coup, or merely a show of force by disgruntled members of the officer corps. But in 2008, Eritrea had a deep-pocketed and widely-respected patron willing to bankroll a project aimed at bringing outsiders into the country -- the sort of development that could open up a secretive and yet strategically-central place.
It is unclear why the other resort fell through. But photos provided by Miro taken on Dahlak Kebir in 2007 give a sense of just how rugged the island is, and how difficult it would have been to build there even under the most ideal circumstances. One photo shows a jagged red rock face streaking across the surface of the island; in another, a treeless plane stretches between a cluster of shipping containers and a distant group of temporary canvas warehouses. Along with its apparent lack of permanent structures, the island seems to have little vegetation or shade; in pictures taken from the air, the earth is dirt-brown and almost completely empty. The only sign of development appears in a single picture of what is clearly the construction site of the now-completed private resort. In 2007, only a small handful of half-finished bungalows, along with a retaining wall hugging one side of the future promenade, had been constructed. At the time, even this modest progress must have proven that the Qataris were committed to building something in an inhospitable place -- a commitment that would prove just as relevant, and as problematic, in the diplomatic realm as well.
Qatar's relationship with Eritrea mirrors the region's tumultuous politics. In the mid-2000s, stability-minded Qatar might have viewed the Eritrean government as a route into Somalia, a chronically war-torn place where a succession of Islamist militias had filled the vacuum left by the country's functionally non-existent government. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 in order to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from power, Afewerki viewed the country as yet another battleground in a long-running feud with his neighbor. Qatari and Eritrean interests aligned -- as they would for much of the rest of the decade.
But the relationship had deeper underpinnings than mutual convenience. Qatar aspires to be a regional power, and deftly identified the Red Sea's pariah state as a venue for advancing the emirate's broader interests. In some respects, the strategy has paid off.
"Qatar is the only country today that has the means and the will to influence Eritrea," says Leonard Vincent, a French journalist whose work focuses on Eritrea, and who broke the news that Eritrean information minister Ali Abdu defected in December 2012. "They want to use this for their own benefit in terms of their position in the international community, and to secure the Arab world's influence on the Red Sea. It's part of their political game."
Qatar saw Eritrea as an opportunity to act as a regional peacemaker -- a place where the emirate could score the kind of diplomatic victories that would bolster Doha's international prestige. At the same time, they could expand the country's ever-growing sphere of influence to the banks of the Red Sea.
They have had one notable success. Qatar mediated a border dispute between Eritrea and neighboring Djibouti, launching an effort that culminated in an agreement signed in June 2010 and initially held in place by a small detachment of Qatari peacekeepers. "The fact that they have managed to put Djibouti and Eritrea together at the same table to stop another border war...proves that Qatar can talk to Eritrea," says Vincent.
Yet Qatar's success in tempering the ever-recalcitrant Afewerki came at the expense of the country's relationship with Ethiopia, which cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar in April of 2008 on the suspicion that the emirate was aiding Eritrean meddling in Somalia. At the same time, the Djibouti agreement demonstrated the benefits of Qatari engagement. In essence, Qatar had achieved a western diplomatic objective -- namely, lowering the collective temperature in the Horn of Africa -- by fostering the kind of close relationship with Afewerki that a European country or the United States would have had difficulty getting away with.
This was especially true after the passage of U.N. sanctions against Eritrea in late 2009, which banned any state assistance for Afewerki's military, whose ranks are bloated through a policy of strict and open-ended forced conscription. Eritrea's foreign patrons would immediately be suspected of freeing up resources for the country's army, in potential violation of the sanctions regime. This didn't dissuade the Qataris, according to a 2011 report of the U.N.'s Somalia-Eritrea monitoring group:
Qatar is perhaps Eritrea's most important economic partner at the moment, and Qatari officials have acknowledged to numerous foreign diplomats that their Government has provided significant, direct financial support to the Government in Asmara. According to numerous interviews conducted by the Monitoring Group with diplomats, former Eritrean officials and businessmen, much of this support is provided in the form of cash.
Qatar got something in return for this risky investment: the advancement of its larger strategy of winning influence wherever it sees an opportunity to do so. As Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs for Stratfor, explained, Eritrea serves as an ideal staging area for a country looking for inroads into the Horn of Africa -- especially an Arab country, given Eritrea's cultural and historical ties to the Middle East. "They just want a prospective ground to stand on in a region where they haven't been playing," Bokhari says of Qatar, which, he adds, is guided by "a sort of generic-level strategic worldview of where they want to have influence."
Qatar bolstered this diplomatic push by investing inside of Eritrea, which is one of the hardest places in the world to do business. A 2007 Wikileaks cable described the range of projects the Qataris were undertaking at the time, including road construction and the refurbishment of two hotels in Massawa. Another cable from later that year says that Qatar was a "key financial backer of the Isaias regime," and that "Isaias frequently travels on aircraft provided by Qatar." More recently, Vincent says that Qatar has explored possible upgrades to the port and oil refinery in Assab, and has dedicated at least some resources to Eritrea's maritime sector. In the summer of 2011, the somewhat reclusive Afewerki evenvisited Doha twice in the space of three weeks.
But Qatar's enthusiasm for the relationship might be waning. Since late 2012, Qatar has been trying to bring Ethiopia and Eritrea back to the negotiating table . Just a month after the Dahlak Kebir resort opened, Qatar even restored diplomatic ties with Ethiopia. It's clear that Qatar wants a major diplomatic breakthrough in exchange for its support for Afewkeri's government. An end to the long-simmering Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute, which sparked a destructive war in 1998, would solve a conflict that has poisoned the region's politics -- a diplomatic feat that the Qataris are keenly interested in adding to the emirate's roster of accomplishments. But they're more interested in peace than Afewerki seems to be.
"The survival of the Eritrean regime depends on tension with its neighbors," says Vincent. Like other dictators, Afewerki uses external enemies as a justification for keep his army mobilized, as well as a means of keeping his polity united.
After the January 21 incident, Afewerki might be even less inclined to evince weakness in either the domestic or international sphere, regardless of what his patrons in Doha might be telling him. There is already evidence that Qatar has drawn down some its direct support for an Eritrean government whose sources of revenue are fairly opaque to begin with, and there are also signs of interpersonal tension between Qatari diplomats and Afewerki himself. It isn't hard to see why this would be the case: Qatar's once-close cooperation has hardly made Afewerki any more transparent, or any more predictable. This opacity and self-isolation helps Afewerki, who has remained in power, and spared his country the chaos that has engulfed neighbors like Somalia and Sudan, through a rigid system of social and political control. At the same time, even the U.N.'s monitoring group has found that Afewerki's government has drawn down its assistance to Al Shabaab, and Eritrea has reduced its once-energetic support for anti-Ethiopian militant groups -- the kinds of shifts in policy that could convince the U.N. Security Council to lift its sanctions against Afewerki's regime.
Yet Eritrea's reputation still suffers from the insularity of the decision-making process in Asmara, its widely-condemned human rights record, and the lurking instability revealed through events like the January 21st disturbance. The international community is understandably reluctant to believe that Afewkeri's approach to either his country or the larger region has changed.
The resort on Dahlak Kebir is a reminder of Qatar's ambition to succeed where the international community had failed -- to pacify and open up Eritrea, even if it meant subsidizing one of the most oppressive and arbitrary governments in Africa. But the rest of Dahlak Kebir serves as a reality check. The resort is an anomaly in an island chain more widely known for its prison camp and spy intrigues. It's a $50 million novelty, evidence of a strategically and even morally-misguided policy, rather than a testament to Qatar's newfound diplomatic or economic power. In a blistering rebuttal to Qatar's efforts at being a major player in the Horn of Africa, Dahlak Kebir won't be on anyone's vacation itinerary any time soon -- unless you're Qatari royalty, that is.