Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) chats with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 2, 2017 - Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) chats with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 2, 2017 - Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Opinion: The wherefore of the Saudi-Emirati cooperation to empower the African Sahel

Wed, Dec. 27, 2017
CAIRO – 27 December 2017: The Saudi-Emirati cooperation for activating the power of the G5 Sahel – composed of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger – raises a number of questions for observers about the motives behind such alliance, especially since the two Gulf countries, in the recent Paris Summit dated December 13, 2017, vowed to contribute to financing this emerging power with €130 million (100 million from Riyadh and 30 from Abu Dhabi).

(L-R) Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Chad's President Idriss Deby and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou pose during G5 Sahel Summit at the Koulouba Presidential Palace in Bamako, Mali, July 2, 2017 - REUTERS/Luc Gnago

This means that the contributions of Saudi Arabia and Emirates constitute more than a quarter of the preliminary amount allotted for financing the G5 Sahel power, the amount that was initially estimated to be $500 million, to be used for launching the operations by mid-2018. The contributions of the two Gulf countries also exceed the amounts given by Western countries, whose power infiltrates the region deeper. These include, for instance, the European Union (€50 million), the United States ($60 million) and France (€8 million).

However, a broader outlook on the nature of interests and alliances of both Saudi Arabia and Emirates in Africa in general, and in the G5 Sahel in particular, explains the attempts of the two countries at promptly responding to international pressures, especially that of France, to accelerate the empowerment of G5 Sahel as a tool to fight terrorism and curb organized crime in the region. The emerging power of the G5 Sahel gained support from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which passed a resolution earlier this month that allowed MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) to offer logistical support to the African Sahel.

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The goals of the Saudi-Emirati movements in the African Sahel take three patterns of interlacing motives, which are shared between the two countries owing to their mutual regional alliance, whether inside the Gulf region or outside of it. The first of these motives pertains to the issue of fighting terrorism and to guaranteeing that the security and economic interests of the two countries in the region remain unharmed. The second rather pertains to confronting the antagonistic powers in the region, especially Iran and Qatar. The third moves in the opposite direction, i.e. aims at establishing influences that are supportive of the international and regional alliances, whose objectives are in accords with the foreign policy of the two Gulf countries in the region, specifically speaking those alliances with France, Morocco and Egypt.

A qualitative change in the Gulf:

At first glance, the fight against terrorism seems to occupy a central place in the motives behind the support provided by Saudi Arabia and Emirates to the G5 Sahel. Yet, the two countries do not present their role in this affair as that of fundamental financers of the G5 Sahel power, as requested by French President Emmanuel Macron to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman during their meeting in Riyadh last month.

The Saudi-Emirati moves this time, moreover, took the form of a qualitative step added to the fight against terrorism, a step that is mainly manifested in the Saudi-Emirati operational partnership in empowering the G5 Sahel in reality. This was evident in Saudi Prime Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s statement to France 24 channel a few days ago in which he said that the Islamic military coalition led by Riyadh, which is composed of 41 Arab and Islamic countries, will provide the African Sahel with logistical and instructional assistance, and that a meeting is soon to be held in Riyadh to arrange such assistance.

This dual financial and logistic activity discloses the Gulf’s realization that the fight against terrorism is now taking the pattern of preemptive offensive strategies in remote regions, rather than merely defensive strategies in closer ones (either regions sharing the same borders with the Gulf, those in the immediate neighboring regions of the Gulf, or those in the distant neighboring regions of the Middle East). Such a pattern developed because terrorism has become much more complex and dynamic in its movement across different geographical regions, the matter which makes the recent terrorist events in the north of Mali, in Burkina Faso or in the Niger have an impact on anti-ISIL activities in Syria and Iraq, and are impacted by them at the same time; the same goes with chasing individual terrorists whose operations have recently spread through some European countries, such as Germany and France.

Members of the Iraqi Army fire towards Islamic State militant positions at the south of

This change pours into the awareness of the Gulf that, as a strategy adopted by its states, fighting terrorism recreates mental images about the Gulf, especially Riyadh, and presents it as a regional power that endorses stability in the African Sahel, the matter which mitigates the Western accounts that accuse Riyadh of providing extremists with intellectual nourishment. More importantly still, fighting terrorism drains the sources from which terrorist groups spring and the shelters to which they seek refuge. Besides, it blocks terrorist fighters who are facing regression in the Middle East from infiltrating Sub-Saharan Africa. With the Islamic State’s power diminishing in Syria and Iraq, international voices warned against the consequences of the organization’s fighters moving to more vulnerable geographical regions that are more susceptible to terror’s growth , especially the African Sahel which includes states that suffer from political, economic and security issues on the borders, and which are also permeated with extremist trans-border organizations, such as Almoravids and Al-Qaeda in countries of the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Din Macina Brigades and Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin that are predominantly active in Mali, and finally, the new branch of ISIS in the Sahara.

A number of countries in the region, such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, have witnessed a rise in terror attacks during the past two years, suggesting that the French military intervention in the north of Mali in 2013 and Operation Barkhane in 2014 failed to drain the sources of terrorism in the region. Consequently, terrorism in the region expanded and launched strikes that caused damage to the United States interests in the region, as was the case when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger and four others in Mali last October.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C) poses for a picture with French and Malian army officers at the French military base at the airport in Gao, April 26, 2013 - REUTERS/Francois Rihouay

The increasing terrorist surges in Africa’s Sahel region represent a threat of instability that mainly takes its toll on Saudi and Emirati growing investments in Africa, and this is due to the fact that the latter has become a fundamental part of the two Gulf countries strategy to diversify their non-oil-related economic sectors, especially mining, agriculture and ports sections. In addition, food security market is extremely important for the economic power of the Gulf in Africa. This may be the reason why KSA and the UAE are on top of the Middle Eastern countries that buy agricultural lands in African countries. Likewise, both Mali and Niger were among the African countries which formed a main target for the initiative of late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz for agricultural investments outside the Kingdom.

What reinforces this view of the joint Saudi-Emirati pursuit for the stability of Africa is a report issued this year by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The report indicated that the UAE holds second place in global investments in Africa with investments estimated by $11 billion in 2016, whereas Saudi Arabia holds fifth place with investments estimated by $3.8 billion, which means that the two countries have immediate interests in keeping the stability of the African continent’s regions, including Sahel.

Confronting Iran and Qatar:

The objectives of the Saudi-Emirati activity in Sahel extend further to include combating Iranian power in two geographical regions: the first is West Africa, an essential part of which the Sahel region is one; and the second is the Middle East. The activity of the two Gulf countries in Africa procures the possession of negotiation privileges with international powers such as France and the U.S., which, in turn, possess tools for curbing the Iranian role in the two previously-mentioned regions, besides, of course, other common interests with the Gulf in the Middle East.

The significance of this Saudi-Emirati pursuit stems from the view that Iran possesses powerful tools for penetrating the Sahel region and the whole of West Africa. Such tools take the forms of attracting religious agents to propagate the Shiite sect, of taking advantage of Lebanese economic networks active in those countries, or of exploiting the raw materials in those countries and opening up markets for them as a means of counteracting the international sanctions imposed on Iran. For example, the Niger, one of the G5 Sahel countries, is an attraction for Iran in the region. Tehran constantly seeks to employ its relations with Niger to procure its needs of Uranium necessary for completing its nuclear project, the matter which reflects in Iran’s fervent pursuits to solidify the relations between the two countries. Thus, Niger was a fundamental stop in the African tour of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister, last October which also comprised South Africa and Uganda.

Confronting the Qatari role in the Sahel comes out as yet another objective for the Saudi-Emirati activity in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Quartet’s boycott of Doha, which mainly aims at cutting out the latter’s funds to terrorist groups and at curbing Doha’s influence on the affairs of other states. The Saudi-Emirati activity in the Sahel region serves this objective in two ways. First, it undermines Qatar’s influence in stirring instability in the region, especially that Doha had formerly been accused by Western powers, most notably France, of being involved in financing Jihadist movements in northern Mali, such as Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad Group in West Africa in 2012; it was said that Doha used humanitarian aid provided by the Qatar Red Crescent Society to the people of Mali as a cover to fund terrorism. The second way by which the Saudi-Emirati pursuits in Sahel serve to undermine Qatar’s influence in the region relates to the efforts that the two countries are exerting to thwart Qatar’s attempts to change the stand of the Sahel countries regarding the boycott, especially after Mauritania had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, Chad had closed Qatar’s embassy in the capital N'Djamena, and Niger had withdrawn its ambassador from Doha.

These efforts on part of the Gulf for protecting the Sahel’s stand against Qatar are particularly important because of Doha’s pressure points against some of the Sahel’s countries regimes. For example, Doha supports Chadian opposition of Idriss Déby. It also has strong ties to the National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul), which is the MB arm in Mauritania. This party had disapproved of cutting Mauritanian ties with Doha in support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and accused the Mauritanian regime back then of following foreign agendas.

Closer Ties between Egypt and Morocco:

Moreover, Saudi-Emirati cooperation on the African Sahel level is a strong indication of fostering regional partnerships, especially in Morocco and Egypt. However, it also widens the gap between these countries and Algeria, which refused to join the Sahel power. This could be seen when French President, Emmanuel Macron, visited the country this month especially that Algeria is against any foreign military interventions in the region. It is also worth noting that Algerian Constitution prohibits the army from leaving Algerian borders.

As for Morocco, Saudi-Emirati support of the Sahel power could foster potential partnership with it when it comes to fighting terrorism based on a number of key reasons. First, Morocco is a member of the Islamic-Military Alliance, founded two years ago in Riyadh. This Alliance will contribute to logistical support and training of the African Sahel power.

Second, Morocco enjoys a high economic, political and cultural status in West African countries, including the African Sahel. This status has been on the rise this year, either due to Rabat’s return to the African Union last month, or initial approval of its joining the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Giving final approval of Moroccan membership was postponed to Spring 2018.

Third, Morocco had previously indicated its willingness to support the Sahel power in terms of training forces and border security, as it became relatively open to French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiatives in the Sahel. This is part of its conflict with Algeria over power in Africa.

Similarly, Saudi-Emirati cooperation could positively contribute to supporting and expanding the regional alliance with Egypt from the Middle East to Africa. Other than the fact that Cairo is a member of the Islamic Military Alliance, Cairo has a powerful role in fighting terrorism in Libya. Libya is an important “backyard” for terrorist organizations in Sahel, especially those in Chad, Niger, and Mali.

On the other hand, we cannot overlook the fact that African Sahel power operations fall within the Sahel and the desert area. The power founded an anti-terrorism center in Africa, approved by the countries’ Ministers of Defense in March 2016. In the future, this has the potential of turning into a quad-cooperation in Sahel, between Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, given that Cairo and Rabat are both members in the Community of Sahel-Saharan States.

We conclude that the motives and mutual interests of the Saudi-Emirati alliance’s support of the Sahel demonstrate fighting terrorism will pave the way for building or empowering regional and international alliances between countries of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. However, the question remains about whether the Gulf support of the Sahel will be fruitful. This will be known in the next few months, knowing that the aspect of security needs the support of other political, economic and social aspects for the anti-terrorism strategy in Africa to be more dynamic.

Prof. Khaled Hanafy is a professor of Economics and International Business at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology. Currently he is the dean of College of International Transport and Logistics. He is also the executive director of the Arab Institute for Trade and Commodity Exchange. Prof. Hanafy is an advisor for the Federation Egyptian Chamber of Commerce. He is also a consultant for the Egyptian government, for different ministries. Moreover, he is the representative of Egypt in the International Chamber of Commerce (Paris) in the Logistics Committee. Prof. Hanafy is also a free-lance consultant and trainer to national and multinational organizations in different areas such as Economics, Business, Logistics and Transportation. In addition to that, Prof. Hanafy has worked and lead many projects with the IMF, World Bank, UNDP and IL.O, WHO, WTO, Bloomberg and league of Arab States. He has presented many research papers in international conferences and published his work in various academic periodicals and journals. Recently, he has served as a chief editor for the proposed economic constitution for Egypt.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Siyassa.
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