A member of the Algerian military was killed in a car-bomb in the south of the country close to the border with Mali last weekend. While it was not clear which terrorist group was responsible for the attack, the triangle of southern Algeria, northern Mali and south-west Libya is an active theatre for Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group and their affiliated local terrorist groups. Last weekend’s incident was not the first incident of its kind, and it will probably not be the last.
The rise of terrorist activities in North Africa, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa is of great concern to many in the region. The Arab Gulf countries are at the forefront of those concerned, not only for their interest in Africa, but also for their strategy to combat terrorism and radical Political Islam, with only Qatar standing out as an exception.
Libya is becoming the focus of the terrorist threats, especially after Turkey stepped up its intervention in transferring IS fighters to the country from Syria. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking for ways to reduce this threat, and both countries back Egypt in its action against the Libyan threat and its stand against Turkish intervention. Only Qatar is supporting the Turkish efforts, sticking to its long-standing policy of backing the Political Islamists and associated terrorist groups.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to draw Libyan neighbours Tunisia and Algeria into his endeavours to support the militias controlling the Libyan capital Tripoli against the Libyan National Army that has been trying in recent months to neutralise the threat they represent. Though the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood Ennahda Party dominates politics in Tunisia, secular and nationalist forces in the country have rendered Erdogan’s efforts unsuccessful.
Algeria is a key party to any settlement in Libya, and Erdogan’s attempts to win it to Turkey and Qatar’s side have been swiftly met by intensified Gulf diplomatic efforts to bring Algeria into line in combating the terrorist threats that Erdogan has been feeding in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal Bin Farhan visited Algeria last week and met with Algerian President Abdel-Majeed Tabun. Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed had visited Algeria and Tunisia the week before and had met with both countries’ presidents.
Libya and terrorism in Africa were the focus of the two foreign ministers’ discussions with the presidents of the two countries. Their visits came days before the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, where Libya and the rising terrorism threat in Africa will also be the focus. Some analysts attribute the recent diplomatic activity to changes in Algeria after the ousting of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year as a result of popular protests and actions by the Algerian army.
However, one British academic who is an expert on Turkey and the Gulf said this was not the only explanation for the changes. “It’s not only that Algeria is reclaiming diplomatic activity after years of stagnation, but Saudi Arabia is also slowly adopting a proactive foreign policy to protect its interests and advance a moderate and pragmatic approach. Part of this is to change long-held perceptions of its foreign policies, but it’s also a positive development within the context of the changes Saudi Arabia is now seeing,” the academic told Al-Ahram Weekly, speaking under condition of anonymity.
The UAE champions the fight against radicalism and terrorism, but the Saudi enthusiasm to join forces with it is worth noting. Riyadh recently took up strong positions against Turkey in the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean over oil and gas resources and met with Cypriot and Greek leaders. Of course, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi both acknowledge that Erdogan’s ultimate target is Egypt, where his Brotherhood allies were thwarted after their brief control of the Middle East’s largest and most strategic country.
The UAE is a main backer of Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is now matching this with a special interest in Africa and stopping Turkish and Qatari support for terrorist and militant groups on the continent.
Early last month, Riyadh hosted foreign ministers from the Horn of Africa countries at a meeting addressed by Saudi King Salman that aimed at forming a Council of Arab and African States on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The council will include Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia, and the countries at the Riyadh meeting issued a 12-point agenda pledging to enhance their political, economic, cultural, environmental and security cooperation.
While the Saudi interest in Africa might not be new, its strategy is different. “Years ago, the West was taking part in a campaign against Gulf interest in Africa. The Western media and NGOs launched a campaign against it, accusing the Gulf countries of engaging in a land grab to ensure their food security. That was a false accusation, and the world now needs to acknowledge that Gulf efforts in Africa to combat terrorism are for the good of the world as a whole and aim at protecting global security and stability,” one Saudi commentator said.
The rivalry between the Arab Gulf countries, excluding Qatar, and Erdogan’s Turkey also cannot be discounted as a factor behind the new Saudi approach. Turkey has been focusing on countries in chaos hosting terrorists and militia groups, with first Somalia and now Libya being the main arenas of the Turkish destabilisation campaign in Africa. Turkey has been providing arms and logistical support to militant groups in these countries, replenishing them with terrorists transferred from Syria and Iraq.
The Gulf countries are more concerned that the rise in terrorism in the Red Sea through North Africa and to the west coast of Africa is a threat to their security and stability and not merely to their interests in another continent.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.