23 November 2018

The Gulf Scramble for Africa: GCC states’ foreign policy laboratory

The Issue 

Arab Gulf states are intervening more assertively in sub-Saharan Africa to capitalize on economic opportunities and protect their security interests. 

They view Africa as a relatively uncontested arena in which they can experiment with foreign interventions as part of their strategy to prove their rising status on the world stage. 

The impact of Gulf states’ rivalries in Africa is becoming increasingly damaging, as their zero-sum rivalry has provoked retaliations, which have dangerously destabilized vulnerable parts of Africa, such as during the fallout to the GCC crisis. 

When the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia descended into bloody conflict in 1998, few could have predicted where a peace agreement would be signed some 20 years later. On September 16, 2018, the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders at at desks facing one another in the middle of a lavish hall in the Peace Palace in Jeddah. A huge portrait of Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s first king, loomed over them. King Salman bin Abdulaziz sat underneath, with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the secretary general of the United Nations Antonio Guterres on either side. The optics were clear: It was under Saudi sponsorship that decades of conflict ended. The deal would be known as the “Jeddah Peace Agreement.”1 

The Jeddah Peace Agreement is the latest example of Arab Gulf states’ increasingly assertive interventions in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the Arabian Peninsula shares historic religious, economic, and linguistic links with parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have rapidly deepened their economic and security ties across the African continent in the last decade, and a growing diplomatic role has followed. Gulf states are seeking to demonstrate their status on the world stage by acting as powerbrokers in African conflicts, and they have also attempted to secure the backing of African states in their own disputes. As they prepare to play a more significant role on the world stage, GCC states have come to view sub-Saharan Africa as a laboratory in which they can test more assertive international interventions.

Africa’s Economic Promise 

Although Gulf Arabs have traded with Africans for centuries, the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2008 motivated GCC states to deepen their economic ties with Africa. With economies in the West slowing down, Africa’s fast-growing economies and expanding middle classes became an increasingly attractive prospect for investors across the world. But three other key factors prompted GCC states to turn to Africa. Building economic ties in Africa helped Gulf states capitalize on their geostrategic location, increase their food security, and enhance their reputation as benevolent Muslim actors. Expanding their economic influence in Africa has provided GCC states with their most important source of leverage to advance their security and diplomatic goals. 

GCC states have advanced their strategies of economic diversification and reduced reliance on oil by investing in African markets, which became even more critical when oil prices crashed in 2014. The UAE invested an estimated $11 billion in capital in Africa in 2016, overtaking Saudi Arabia to become the largest GCC investor and the second largest in the world after China.2 Gulf companies’ expertise in the energy sector makes them especially attractive to African states seeking to develop their energy industries, and Saudi Arabia recently announced a $10 billion investment in South Africa’s energy sector.3 Meanwhile, Gulf states’ ability to execute large-scale infrastructure projects is also appealing to rapidly-developing African states. Dubai’s DP World announced an initial $50 million investment in an inland logistics facility in Mali in July 2018, complementing larger infrastructure investments in West Africa such as the Dakar port and economic zone. Qatar also signed a $4 billion deal to manage a Red Sea port with Sudan in March 2018.4 

Building economic ties in Africa helped Gulf states capitalize on their geostrategic location, increase their food security, and enhance their reputation as benevolent Muslim actors. 

The Gulf’s geostrategic location also explains why Africa has been a focus of GCC states’ economic activity. By focusing on infrastructure development and trade, GCC states are able to benefit from Asian trade and investment flows to Africa, which dwarf their own figures. China pledged $60 billion in financing to Africa in 2018 alone and increased its total trade with Africa by 180 percent from 2010 to 2017.5 The UAE has leveraged its superior shipping and port infrastructure to plug into this potential, becoming the largest GCC trader with Africa. The UAE imported roughly $5 billion of goods from Africa each year from 2010 to 2015, before increasing its imports substantially to $23.9 billion in 2016.6Africa’s growing importance to Emirati trade is apparent from an examination of its imports. As a share of the UAE’s total imports, those from Africa quadrupled in the last six years.7 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman talks with the president of Senegal Macky Sall during the Future Investment Initiative conference, nicknamed “Davos in the desert,” in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images 

Gulf states also identified investing in Africa as a way to achieve food security. Saudi Arabia’s attempts to produce its own food stumbled a decade ago, and it has since embarked on a new food security strategy. Gulf states considered agricultural investments in Central Asia and Latin America but determined that Africa’s rich and underdeveloped agricultural lands held the greatest promise.8 Africa’s geographic proximity to the Gulf was an advantage; it contains 60 percent of the world’s total uncultivated arable lands; and its water shortages were deemed surmountable with appropriate investments.9 Saudi Arabia is the top investor in agriculture in Africa, conducting largescale investments such as its purchase of 500,000 hectares of land in Tanzania in 2009.10 For Qatar, the most dependent of Gulf states on food imports, the 2017 intra-GCC dispute added new urgency to its quest for food security as it relied heavily on food imports from its Gulf neighbors. The Qatari government announced plans in 2018 to invest half a billion dollars in Sudan’s agricultural and food sectors.11 However, Gulf states’ agricultural investments in Africa are not without controversy, as some of the states they leased land from struggle to produce enough food to feed their own populations. When Qatar entered into talks with Kenya in 2009 to lease 40,000 hectares of land in the Tana Delta, it was met with fierce local opposition.12 

GCC states have also strengthened aid ties with various African states, largely motivated by their shared religious heritage. As well as GCC states’ generous donations to humanitarian appeals in the Horn of Africa, numerous Gulf charities have operated throughout Africa since the 1980s.13 The Saudi International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) and the Kuwaiti African Muslims Agency (AMA) were among the first state-sponsored Islamic charities to work in Africa. As well as their humanitarian objectives, Gulf Islamic organizations also play a missionary role, and many of their activities are influenced by Islam.14 Gulf charities targeted sub-Saharan Africa’s many Sufi orders to “re-educate” them according to their salafi form of Islam, and they also attempted to convert non-Muslims.15Alarmed by the spread of Wahhabi Islam in Africa, Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi created the World Islamic Call Society to compete with Gulf charities in Africa and preach a Sufi-influenced version of Islam.16 

The global war on terror in the early twenty-first century forced many Islamic charities to curtail their activities abroad after being accused of supporting terrorism, and it was not until the global financial crisis in 2008 that new openings in Africa emerged.17 When economies slowed in the West, some African leaders approached GCC states for economic assistance because of their wealth and religious ties. President Wade of Senegal actively strengthened ties with GCC states when he was in power from 2000 to 2012, emphasizing Senegal’s shared religious heritage with Gulf states by playing a prominent role in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.18 Expanding charitable activities in Africa serves to bolster GCC states’ reputations among Muslims in Africa and elsewhere as they are able to present themselves as beneficent actors that pursue philanthropic goals as well as their own economic interests in Africa. 

The Qatari international NGO Qatar Charity distributes food to internally displaced people (IDPs) in Mogadishu, Somalia, on May 22, 2018. MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images 

Migrant labor networks are another important element of the economic relationship between GCC states and sub-Saharan Africa. Many migrant workers from the Horn of Africa provide GCC states with cheap, unskilled labor. Although GCC states do not release detailed data on the migrant communities they host, Sudanese, Ethiopians, and Eritreans are thought to be the largest communities. The United Nations estimated that 540,000 Sudanese lived in GCC states in 2015, roughly a third of the entire Sudanese diaspora.19Half a million Ethiopians and 100,000 Eritreans are believed to work in Saudi Arabia, while over 100,000 Ethiopians work in the UAE.20 Africans are not the largest migrant communities in GCC states, but their remittance flows are a critical source of income for countries in the Horn of Africa, meaning they represent an important source of GCC states’ economic influence in Africa.

Expanding Security Interests 

As their economic interests in Africa have grown, Gulf states have also expanded their security presence. As well as supporting anti-piracy efforts in waters off Somalia, Gulf states have enhanced their military projection capabilities by building their first overseas bases in the Horn of Africa. They have also increased their military cooperation with African states and play a more prominent role in international counterterrorism operations across Africa. The expansion of Gulf states’ security influence in Africa has been possible thanks to their ability to wield their growing economic power. 

Gulf states’ security interventions in Africa have been principally motivated by threats emanating from the Horn of Africa. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia joined Egypt, Morocco, Iran, and France to establish an informal intelligence alliance known as the “Safari Club” to counter the spread of communism in Africa.21 Saudi Arabia perceived communism as a potential military and ideological threat, being especially alarmed by Soviet and Cuban military intervention in Ethiopia and the spread of Marxist liberation movements more broadly. More recently, the UAE controversially provided an initial grant of $50 million to support mercenaries in Puntland, Somalia, to defend its trade routes and fight piracy in waters off the Horn of Africa in 2010.22 

The war in Yemen heightened Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s security interests in East Africa, shown by the fact that they built their first overseas military bases in the Horn of Africa to enhance their power projection capabilities. The two countries initially planned to use Djibouti as a base for their operations in Yemen, but a diplomatic spat in 2015 resulted in Djibouti evicting GCC troops from the base.23 The UAE then turned to the Eritrean deep-water port of Assab and built up its military infrastructure considerably in return for developing the port for Eritrea’s use. Assab now serves as the UAE’s main logistics hub for Yemen operations, hosting helicopters, jets, drones, and naval vessels. The UAE started to build a second base in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2017, adjacent to the port which DP World is developing as part of a $442 million deal.24 Saudi Arabia finalized a deal to build its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, similarly aiming to protect its strategic interests in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.25 

Gulf states have also worked to build military partnerships and intelligence sharing relationships with African countries, often offering economic incentives in return. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recruited African forces to support their operations in Yemen as part of this approach. Saudi Arabia deposited $1 billion in Sudan’s central bank shortly after it contributed more than a thousand troops to the fight in Yemen in 2015.26 In 2018, a week after Sudanese Defense Minister Ali Ahmed Salim reviewed Sudan’s participation in the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia and Sudan signed a number of defense and economic cooperation agreements, resulting in Saudi Arabia promising more investment.27 

Gulf states have increased their commitments to peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa in recent years. Qatar deployed peacekeepers to the border between Eritrea and Djibouti for almost a decade, starting in 2008, but Gulf states have shown the most consistent interest fighting extremism in Somalia. As part of an African Union military mission to defeat an Islamist insurgency, the UAE trained and equipped hundreds of Somali troops from 2014 to 2018.28 When Saudi Arabia launched the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in 2016, it announced it would provide Somalia with capacity-building support and training as one of its first steps.29 The IMCTC has enhanced military cooperation and intelligence sharing between GCC and sub-Saharan African states significantly, as all GCC states participate in the coalition and over half of its 41 member countries are sub-Saharan African states.30 

But GCC states have also contributed to counterterrorism efforts in areas of significantly less strategic importance than the Horn of Africa. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $118 million and $35.4 million respectively to a counterterrorism force in West Africa’s Sahel region. Playing a more prominent role in counterterrorism in West Africa appears largely motivated by Gulf states’ desire to enhance their international reputation as serious partners in the fight against extremism, a policy repeatedly advocated by President Trump.31 As such, GCC states’ security interventions in Africa have been motivated by a desire to protect economic interests, enhance their power projection capabilities, and also to improve their international reputation. 

Playing a more prominent role in counterterrorism in West Africa appears largely motivated by Gulf states’ desire to enhance their international reputation as serious partners in the fight against extremism. 

Bolstering Diplomatic Credentials 

GCC states have expanded their diplomatic ties with sub-Saharan African states to bolster their growing economic and security interests, while also advancing their ambitions to play a more prominent role in international foreign policy. Gulf states have opened dozens of new embassies across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years and have made assertive diplomatic interventions in African conflicts. The perception of the United States’ withdrawal from the region has partially motivated these interventions. Mediating conflicts is a key element of GCC states’ aim to increase their international prestige, and their perceived neutrality and ability to deploy substantial economic incentives to bolster peace agreements has afforded them some notable successes where others have failed. 

In recent years, Qatar has opened the largest number of embassies in sub-Saharan Africa of any state other than Turkey. Qatar built 11 new embassies between 2013 and 2015 while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait opened nine, six, and two respectively between 2010 and 2018.32 The UAE has announced plans to open embassies in Cote d’Ivoire and Mauritius in 2019, while Qatar also plans to open more embassies in sub-Saharan Africa in the near future.33 As well as the benefits of upgraded diplomatic relations, establishing embassies allows Gulf states to better protect their economic and security interests and coordinate policy more effectively. Prominent Gulf officials have also made an increasing number of official visits to sub-Saharan Africa and GCC states have hosted African dignitaries in recent times. Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir recently conducted 18 shuttle visits to Africa.34 

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan receives Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (R) at the presidential palace in Abu Dhabi on July 24, 2018. 

The 2018 Jeddah Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is Gulf states’ most recent mediation success, but they have facilitated peace negotiations in sub-Saharan Africa for more than a decade. As well as aiming to end bloodshed and instability, GCC states have engaged in peace negotiations to bolster their international prestige (as states have done throughout history), to gain influence in strategic locations, and to create new economic opportunities.35 Shortly after Qatar negotiated a ceasefire between the Sudanese government and the largest opposition group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, it bought swathes of agricultural land in Sudan to improve its food security.36 

Part of GCC states’ success in mediation is a result of their ability to offer significant economic incentives. When Sudan and Chad signed a reconciliation deal to stabilize Darfur and neighboring areas of Chad in Saudi Arabia in 2007, the Sudanese minister of state for foreign relations said that Saudi Arabia had promised to “help Sudan and Muslims everywhere,” hinting at promises of financial assistance without providing details.37 Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently pledged large aid and investment packages to Ethiopia and Eritrea while mediating an end to the 20-year conflict. The UAE announced it would provide a total of $3 billion in aid and investment to Ethiopia in June 2018 and unveiled plans to build an oil pipeline between Ethiopia and Eritrea shortly thereafter.38 

The perception that Gulf states are relatively neutral in African conflicts has bolstered their success in mediation. They do not carry the weight of the legacy of European colonialism, for example. The UAE maintained ties with Eritrea when it was isolated by the international community, bolstering its image as a balanced negotiator between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Qatar has strived to develop a reputation as an honest and reliable powerbroker by mediating various conflicts across the Middle East and Africa and has played a prominent role in negotiations between Eritrea and Sudan, Chad and Sudan, and Eritrea and Djibouti. However, some of these mediation attempts have failed to achieve lasting peace resolutions because of its limited power projection capabilities, a lack of professional personnel on the ground, and a broader lack of experience of mediating highly complex conflicts.39 

The perception that Gulf states are relatively neutral in African conflicts has bolstered their success in mediation. 

The Opportunities, Risks, and Limits of GCC influence 

Gulf states have leveraged their growing economic, security, and diplomatic influence in sub-Saharan Africa to push back on their rivals’ influence and gain international backing in their own disputes. They have promised aid and investment, offered to enhance security cooperation, and even agreed to improve African migrants’ rights in GCC states to encourage sub-Saharan African states to give them diplomatic support. Gulf states successfully used these tools of influence to convince African states to downgrade their ties with Iran, thereby containing Iran’s presence in the Horn of Africa. But African states have been most significantly affected by the fallout of the 2017 intra-GCC dispute, as it highlighted the risks and opportunities created by Gulf states’ zero-sum rivalry. The Gulf crisis also revealed limits to GCC states’ influence, showing that they have not yet managed to achieve the loyalty of most African states. 

Saudi Arabia has long sought to contain Iran’s in

No comments: