In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, most notably its interventions in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, has reflected the kingdom’s increasing weight on the international stage and its desire to expand its spheres of influence. A case in point is its involvement in Africa in a variety of domains. Through its commercial, political and military ties with a number of African states, Saudi Arabia aims to increase the visibility of its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia in Africa: tackling structural issues in foreign policy
Saudi Arabia has used the African continent to escape some of its fundamental weaknesses, most notably its difficulty to access food supplies. Given its inability to produce the necessary amount of food domestically, and the strategic weakness implied by its dependence on distant suppliers, Saudi Arabia has purchased African lands for its own agricultural production. The King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad, launched in 2008 to urge Saudis to buy lands abroad, illustrates this strategy and has significantly increased the presence of Saudi investors in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Moreover, for Saudi Arabia, influence in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa, represents a major security asset. Through an agreement on the construction of a military base in Djibouti in 2017, but also thanks to similar military agreements signed between African states and Saudi Arabia’s main Gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom has been able to extend its “security belt” in its immediate environment. It has also pledged to provide $100 million euros to the G5 Sahel force fighting terrorism in the Sahel. By getting involved beyond its regional environment, Saudi Arabia is deploying a more assertive foreign policy in Africa.
Saudi Arabia and soft power
The Saudi kingdom has been able to use its abundant oil and gas resources to obtain allies and achieve its strategic objectives, as demonstrated by its commitment to sell $20 million in cheap oil to Zambia. Such an approach enables the monarchy to ensure diplomatic support from these countries. Moreover, in a continent with nearly 650 million Muslims, most of them Sunnis, Saudi Arabia has employed its religious identity as a leverage to extend its influence. Its interference in Nigeria’s domestic affairs, notably by backing the Sunni Izala society, illustrates Saudi attempts to consolidate a strategic and ideological foothold among Africa’s Muslim population. If Saudi Arabia’s presence in Africa has been partly driven by the imperative to secure its environment and its access to food supplies, its soft power strategy, reflected in the development of religious and political ties, has mainly sought to counter its Iranian rival.
Africa and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Indeed, in West Africa, Iran and Saudi Arabia have both tried to use sectarian tensions as a leverage in order to extend their own influence. They have used similar strategies, i.e. funding mosques and Islamic schools, thus establishing their own networks in Africa, in the name of which they are then able to justify their interferences. For instance, in Nigeria, where, as described above, Saudi Arabia has been very active, Riyadh and Tehran have financially and politically supported the domestic Sunni and Shiite domestic groups, thereby deepening the country’s sectarian divide.
Moreover, prior to 2015 and the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran was eager to use Africa to break out of its isolation on the international stage. Its efforts focused on the Horn of Africa, where some states were facing similar diplomatic confinement. The relationship between Iran and Sudan, based on military and intelligence cooperation, illustrates this approach. Sudan thus became strategically significant for Tehran by enabling it to supply arms to its proxies. Likewise, Iran established similar strategic cooperation with Somalia and Eritrea. Therefore, Iran’s desire to establish a foothold in the region, which would notably have enhanced its influence on the international stage by granting it control of two straits vital for international trade – Bab al-Mandeb and Hormuz – soon emerged as a direct threat to Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia thus responded by using financial carrots and diplomatic pressures to make these countries break off relations with Iran – and it succeeded. Likewise, Riyadh has used this same strategy, namely financial inducements to keep states away from Iran and bring them under its control, in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Iran is not the only state with which Saudi Arabia has been rivaling in Africa. Two major Middle Eastern powers, Egypt and Turkey, have been competing with Riyadh’s influence. Indeed, by intervening in East Africa, the Saudi kingdom has stepped in Cairo’s backyard. Saudi attempts to develop a military presence in Djibouti, but also their interest in Ethiopia’s sources of energy, have fuelled Egypt’s suspicion about its partners’ intentions. Likewise, Riyadh’s activities in Africa will likely clash with Turkish interests. Apart from its many economic enterprises, Ankara, through its schools and foundations, has emerged as a significant rival regarding Sunni leadership in the region. Yet, it should also be highlighted that competition for influence in Africa is raising tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The dispute with Qatar has been extended onto the African continent, where the Qatari emir’s visits to Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and Ivory Coast were translated as a direct challenge to Saudi economic and political influence. Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti have similarly been drawn into the tensions and have downgraded their relations with Qatar. As a response, Qatar has withdrawn its peacekeepers from Eritrea and Djibouti.
Therefore, although Saudi investments offer significant potential for the development of the African continent, the transfer into Africa of pre-existing religious or political tensions, with Iran as well as with other Arab countries, might greatly disrupt the regional order.