Tourism: Why the Arab Gulf States are involved in the New Scramble for Africa
Africa’s cultural and trade links to the modern Middle East run deep, thanks largely to their geographic proximity. Adjacent to the continent and separated from it by only the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula has a particularly strong influence in Africa, which many countries in the region are hoping to expand.
The wealthy states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have increased their economic and political ties across the continent over the past decade. For the bloc’s members — and especially the three most powerful GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — Africa is a key component in an initiative to adopt a more visible foreign policy.
Increasing their sway on the continent will enable the Gulf states to achieve prominence on the international stage and to gain trade partners, while also establishing them as the gatekeepers of Africa’s up and coming economies.
Of course, they’re not the only ones with that idea. As a developing market, Africa is rife with competition, not only from other regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran, but also among the GCC states themselves.
A Land of Opportunity
The foundation of the GCC’s relationship with Africa today lies in trade. Member states poured about $30 billion into African companies between 2007 and 2017, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. The United Arab Emirates alone is now home to more than 10,000 African companies, and its fellow GCC states — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain — also have established trade ties with the continent. African trading firms have profited from the superior shipping and port infrastructure in the GCC states to send their wares to markets abroad.
The Gulf countries, likewise, have taken advantage of the high demand in Africa for consumer goods that they can easily ship from the Arabian Peninsula’s many ports. In their efforts to diversify their energy-dependent economies, the African market has been a boon for GCC members.
And as their various activities on the continent exemplify, each of the Gulf states has taken a different approach to the African market. Saudi Arabia has built out telecommunications contracts with sub-Saharan African countries, sometimes in collaboration with Chinese companies. Though Qatar also has a telecommunications company active in Africa — the industry facilitates mobile banking and finance, a high-priority sector for the GCC — it has found some of its greatest economic triumphs on the continent in cultural and tourism projects in countries such as Sudan.
Oman has seized on its historical links with East Africa to boost its investment in and trade with Tanzania, hoping to use the investments to support important sectors such as tourism and air travel. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, has used its port development prowess and its reputation as a re-export hub to build valuable relationships with governments in African states eager to ship more of their own goods. Rwanda, Eritrea, Djibouti and Senegal all have jumped at the chance to boost their infrastructure with Emirati assistance and to bolster their economies.
Along with the promise of a new market for the goods they import and export, access to agricultural goods is another factor driving the GCC states to Africa. What the countries that make up the Gulf bloc have in oil and natural gas, they lack in water and arable land. Achieving food security is a top priority for each of the GCC states, which import between 80 and 90 percent of the food their rapidly growing populations consume. Since 2008, GCC members have struck numerous strategic agreements with African states such as Sudan, Morocco, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and Mauritania. These countries provide the GCC with crops in exchange for funding. An Emirati company, for example, is currently trying to buy close to 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of cropland in Sudan to add to the roughly 160,000 hectares it already owns there.
As they work to expand their economic connections to Africa, the Gulf states will run into some competition on the continent, mainly from Turkey. The country has steadily enlarged its own web of projects in Africa, using its expertise in construction, development funding and education. (It also has invested in Sudanese agriculture.) Turkish-funded schools and foundations active across the continent have given Ankara a valuable tool of soft power, though its crackdown on organizations affiliated with Fethullah Gulen and his religious and social movement could change the situation.
Regional Rivalries Play Out Abroad
Because of the inroads it has made through education, moreover, Turkey is a contender in the race for political influence in Africa. Most African Muslims are Sunni, giving Sunni powers in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, an opening to forge ties with African countries and to present themselves as allies and leaders. As the home of Islam’s most sacred sites and the host of the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia in particular has a natural basis for building relationships with African states that have a Muslim population. That is, if it can catch up with Turkey. With so many projects and institutions on the continent, Ankara rivals Riyadh for the distinction of undisputed Sunni leader.
At the same time, Iran’s presence in Africa — through the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, which has a stronghold in West Africa — is a source of concern for the GCC states. Working with the United States and European Union to get a better view of Hezbollah’s activities is just one way the Gulf bloc is working to curb the Islamic republic’s clout on the continent.
Despite their mutual interest in countering Iran, however, the GCC states differ in their approaches to exerting their political influence in Africa. Qatar’s support for Islamist groups on the continent is a major sticking point with its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which cut diplomatic and economic ties with the country over the issue last year. The resulting tension has come to a head in political showdowns in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have worked against Qatar’s efforts to advance the cause of Islamist groups.
The Qatari emir’s visits to Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and Ivory Coast in December 2017 also raised the hackles of Saudi and Emirati leaders. The trips, after all, offered unequivocal evidence that Doha was trying to increase its direct investment across Africa to challenge Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ dispute with Qatar simmers on, each side will continue to use its links with Africa to undermine the other.
Keeping Extremism at Bay
Beyond the economic and political opportunities that Africa has to offer, the Gulf states are also interested in the continent from a security standpoint. The Gulf states — especially the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain — are committed to fighting extremist groups abroad lest the outfits infiltrate their borders. All the bloc’s members participated in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in the Levant. And in Africa, the countries have hatched plans to manage and contain burgeoning extremist threats.
Forging security and military-to-military deals on the continent is one part of the strategy.
Talks between the African Union and the GCC bloc beginning in 2013 yielded spoken agreements to deepen security cooperation. But in typical fashion, the GCC bypassed a blocwide deal in favor of bilateral arrangements between individual Gulf states and African countries. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has offered support for troops in Somalia, an endeavor that illustrates the value — and difficulty — of cultivating these kinds of ties. It has also joined Saudi Arabia in backing a new counterterrorism force in the Sahel, pledging 30 million euros (about $36 million) to Riyadh’s 100 million euro offering. The funding and training help demonstrate that the two Gulf countries are reliable partners in the fight against terrorism.
For Saudi Arabia, which is using the shared menace of terrorism to unite countries in regional alliances under its leadership, proving its commitment to international counterterrorism initiatives will go a long way to support its ambitions. Furthermore, intervening in the Sahel will give the Gulf states a better shot at keeping the militant groups from becoming a problem at home.
For all their shared goals in Africa, however, the Gulf states are out to preserve their own interests. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, though largely aligned in their goals in Africa, are focused on their own priorities, which will drive them into a rivalry on the continent. What’s more, their enduring dispute with Qatar will drive both sides to try to outstrip each other in their economic and political ties to Africa. The competition will only keep heating up as the Gulf states and their neighbors jockey for access to trade and investment opportunities on the nearby continent.