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Berbera’s history is telling of its importance

Somaliland’s Berbera Port has had a historical significance in trade and this continues today

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After the recent agreement between the Somaliland government and Dubai Ports World to expand and flourish the economy, we can examine how this area became instrumental for regional trade (‘Berbera’s revival is underway’, Gulf News, September 19). The historical context of Somaliland proves the significance of the port of Berbera, Somaliland throughout time and supports the claim that Berbera has been part of a sophisticated commercial network for centuries.

Ancient Greek history reveals that Berbera was most probably the port of Malao mentioned in the first century AD in a document ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’. The author, an anonymous Greek merchant, described the shipping routes and items that were traded at that time between Africa, Asia and Europe. In later centuries, Chinese explorers from the Tang dynasty described the Bobali Kingdom, which scholars believed to be Berbera.

Distinguished 19th century British explorer Sir Richard Burton detailed his adventures in his book, ‘First Footsteps in Africa’. He wrote: “The occupation of the port of Berbera has been advised for many reasons. In the first place, Berbera is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of East African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the Western Erythroean shore, from Suez to Guardafui.”

Years later, Lieutenant C. J. Cruttenden described various aspects of the annual fair season in Berbera, which took place over several centuries from November to April each year in his manuscript, ‘Memoir on the Western or Edoor Tribes, inhabiting the Somali Coast of N.-E. Africa’. He wrote of the diversity of traders: “The annual fair is one of the most interesting sights on the coast, if only from the fact of many different and distant tribes being drawn together for a short time, to be again scattered in all directions. ... During the height of the fair, Berbera is a perfect Babel, in confusion as in languages: no chief is acknowledged, and the customs of bygone days are the laws of the place. ... Small crafts from the ports of Yemen, anxious to have an opportunity of purchasing before vessels from the gulf could arrive, hastened across, followed about a fortnight to three weeks later by their larger brethren from Muscat, Sur, and Ras Al Khaimah, and the valuably freighted Bagalas from Bahrain, Bussorah, and Graen. Lastly, the fat and wealthy Banian traders from Porebunder, Mandavie, and Bombay ….”

Apart from the British influence, proof that Berbera’s geographical location was coveted by foreign powers can be seen by the occupation by the Ottoman Empire, Egypt after opening the Suez Canal and Italy in the early 20th century. Furthermore, following Somaliland/Somalia’s independence, the Soviet Union developed Berbera’s air and naval facilities to support its geo-political agenda during the Cold War. In the 1980s, the US arranged with the Somali government for Nasa to rent Berbera’s airport runway as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.

This extraordinary history reinforces the claim that, geographically, Berbera and its environs are strategically important and accessible. We pray that Berbera will once again reach its full potential as a gateway to the Horn of Africa and deliver prosperity. Having been marginalised for such a long time by the international community, this is a golden opportunity to pave the way.

- The reader is working for a university based in Dubai.