The recent Qatari Emir visit of Sub-Saharan African countries has been analyzed differently by foreign policy commentators. In his first visit to Africa, since he came to power in 2013, Emir Sheik Tamam Bin Hamad al Thani went to Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. These countries are known for their fastest growing economies and diplomatic capability in Sub-Saharan Africa. Qatar and other Gulf countries have had a long-lived social, economic and political relation with Sub-Saharan African countries.
Nevertheless, however, the ongoing political dynamism in the Arabian Peninsula has resulted in the provision of various explanations for the recent visit of the Qatari Emir. For Egyptian foreign policy analysts, for instance, the Emir’s visit of Sub-Saharan African countries, especially Ethiopia, is against the former’s national interest. They regarded Qataris diplomatic ties with Ethiopia as support to the Renaissance Dam which the latter is building on the Blue Nile. Ethiopia and Egypt are indifferent because of the ongoing Great Renaissance Dam Project (GRDP) on the Nile river.
Other foreign policy analysts, on the other hand, have different out looks towards the recent visit of the Emir. On their views, Qatar and other Gulf countries can successfully promote their national interests by further strengthening strategic partnership with Sub-Saharan African countries including Ethiopia. They have noted the historical relationship between the Arabs and Africa, especially the Ethiopian region and Horn. This special relation goes back to the early days of Islam, when Prophet Mohammed sent his companions to the then Abyssinia (the land which encompassed the current Ethiopia and Eritrea).
In spite of this, however, such valuable ties between Arabs and Africa do not get enough attention, as analysts argue. On the other hand, countries like Iran has been working aggressively to expand its influence on the various corners of the African continent. The various high level visits done by Iranian ministers and presidents during the past decades are regarded as manifestations for these aggressive moves. Together with this, the active role of Iranian cultural centers to promote Shia doctrine on various parts of Africa and the subsequent significant rise of Shia Muslims are also worth to mention. Nowadays, it is not strange to see Shia spiritual rooms and religious practices in almost all countries of the continent. In some places the Iranian government, using its cultural attaché, work to lobby local officials to get permission to impose Shia Islam upon the Sunni communities.
Furthermore, Iran’s effort to maintain its military presence on the strategic ground as well as sea bases in Africa is also another important engagement during the past several decades. In this regard, Iran’s persistent diplomatic engagements to maintain a naval base in the strategic location of the Red Sea region is worth to mention.
As part of its diplomatic engagements, Iran systematically approaches and influences those regional powers such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria. Iranian diplomats have realized the influence of the aforementioned regional powers upon other African governments. Here, Iran’s success to get the support of South Africa on key international votes in relation to its peaceful civilian nuclear program is an important illustration.
Foreign policy analysts compare contrasts these strategic and aggressive involvements of İran with the Arabs. For them the Arab governments move was and/or is so gradual and lack consistency. During the past several decades the Arabs have detached themselves from Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa in their social, economic and political undertakings.
The long-survived passive bilateral and multilateral relation between Africa and Gulf countries, however, has started to diminish due to regional as well as international dynamics. The recent high level visits of the Qatari Emir and other economic and political engagements are also regarded as manifestations of this new revival, according to analysts. The new moves create an opportunity to discuss on important socio-economic and political cooperation. As reports highlight, currently the Gulf countries economic partnerships in Africa are broadening to include telecommunication, construction, agriculture and energy projects. A South Africa-Saudi Arabia Holding (SaSah), for instance, has reported as a potential of creating 1.5 billion US Dollars of business between the two countries.
In addition, Saudi Arabia also remains the main energy suppliers to southern African countries. This business cooperation further strengthened when Iran has remained under Western economic sanctions. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been also taking measures to contain Iran’s influence following the US-brokered nuclear deal.
Together with the above mentioned economic cooperation, Gulf countries also engage on various activities aiming to promote cultural ties among Africans. Here it is essential to highlight the role of the organization known as Rabitat al-Alem al Islami, also called the Muslim World League (MWL). Although it lacks institutional competency and strategic engagements, as some comments, MWL has had important achievements in the construction of mosque, schools, health centers and distribution of religious books. These services help a lot to boost the soft power of Gulf countries, particularly of Saudi Arabia.
The other remarkable move of Gulf countries in their relation with Sub-Saharan Africa is in balancing the naval and ground force presence of Iran. This measure becomes especially important following the Yemen crises and Iran’s active involvement in providing arms and financial assistances to the Houthi rebels. The formation of the Saudi-led coalition (comprised of Middle Eastern, North and Horn of African countries) to contain Iran and Shia dominance further strengthened this move. Among the various measures which have been taken under this framework is establishing military bases on strategic areas of the African continent, especially in areas which are near to the Arabian Peninsula.
The 2015 meeting of King Salman of Saudi Arabia with President Isayas Afeworki of Eritrea, for instance, has resulted in the latter’s permission of the use of its military bases by the Saudi-led coalition force. This diplomatic achievement soon followed by the U.A.Es opening of its first military base abroad at Asab in Eritrea. The military base encompasses an air base, a deep-water port and a facility for military training.
Although neighboring countries have opposed, the U.A.E has also obtained a permission from the self-declared Somali land to establish a military base in the port of Berbera. Here the duration of the contract attracts attention. The Eritrean government, for instance, has granted the base for a 30-year contract. This enables the U.A.E. and other Gulf countries to promote their economic as well as security interests for an extended period.
Hand in hand with the effort to balance Iran’s physical presence in Africa, Gulf countries are also undertaking diplomatic efforts to contain the spread of Iran’s influence in Africa. In this respect, the success of Gulf diplomats to detach countries like Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea from Iran is worth to mention. Furthermore, Gulf countries have also succeeded to approach Nigeria, which is highly affected by Iranian influence. As reports highlight, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), one of the most prominent Shia movement in the country is a good illustration of the aforementioned impact. With the formation of the Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism in 2015 and the subsequent diplomatic engagements, Nigeria also joined the coalition.
In general, local socio-economic and political demands on the one hand and regional instabilities on the other drive Gulf countries to revitalize their cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa. Although it is too early to evaluate the implications of the ongoing bilateral and multilateral relations in balancing Iran’s influence, initial successes have been manifesting. With proper planning and genuine efforts, the Arabs can consolidate their strategic ties with Africa.