Back to Africa

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 25 May 2021

Ahmed Mostafa discusses the recent revival of Gulf interest in Africa

By the end of last month the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had started “logistical flights” to support the France-led international alliance efforts in “combating terrorism along the African Sahel region”, according to an announcement by the Emirates’ Ministry of Defence.

The UAE has always been at the forefront of regional or international efforts to combat terrorism. In 2014, it played a significant role in the coalition of 40 countries drawn up to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Along with Saudi Arabia, it also supported previous efforts to combat the rise of terrorism in Libya.

When the Sahel and Desert Operation - comprising around five thousand troops helping five countries fight terrorist groups-needed help in 2017, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia came forward. At the time, Saudi Arabia contributed $100 million and UAE contributed $30 million.

Rising terrorism in Africa in recent years, from the Sahel on the west to the Horn of Africa down to Mozambique in the east, and in central Africa, is becoming a concern for Gulf countries. Since the war in Yemen started six years ago, coalition countries especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE have worked on securing the other side of Yemen’s western waters. They invested heavily in choking terrorism in Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea.

Recent support for Sudan’s ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Omar Al- Bashir was part of that Gulf interest in Africa, mainly squaring in on any rise in terrorism in the continent.

More than a decade ago, when Western media launched a campaign against Chinese influence in Africa, the Gulf too was mentioned as a land-grabbing entrant. To guarantee its food security, many Gulf countries invested in agriculture in fertile land in Africa. But that type of activity was not exclusive to Africa. Gulf countries invest in agriculture in Asia and elsewhere as well as trying to develop ways to produce food domestically in their own mostly desert land.

Gulf interest in fighting terrorism in Africa surpasses all other issues, however. The pledge by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in a Paris conference last week to invest $1 billion in Africa came as no surprise. Though the prince was speaking of helping African countries recover from the coronavirus pandemic, he reiterated his country’s commitment to helping African nations. Part of that support is also an endeavour against the rising power and influence of militant groups in the region.

This week the UAE “renewed its commitment to working with partners to maintain peace and security in Africa, including when elected to the UN Security Council for the 2022-2023 term” according to a written statement submitted to the UN Security Council’s ministerial open debate on addressing root causes of conflict while promoting post-pandemic recovery in Africa. The statement highlighted “how the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening jobs in both the formal and informal sectors in Africa, noting that youth are disproportionately affected”. It noted the UAE’s one half billion dollar investment in African economies, with a focus on youth and digitisation through the “UAE Consortium for Africa” which was announced in February 2020.

Noting that terrorism and violence continue to be a destabilising factor in the continent, including the Sahel, the UAE affirmed its commitment to strengthening collective efforts to boost security and stability there. The UAE also expressed support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, including its work through the College of Defence in Mauritania.

A campaign by Muslim Brotherhood accounts on social media and media outlets affiliated with Islamist groups targeted the Emirati and Saudi efforts to combat terrorism in Africa. As a Gulf analyst puts it, “such campaigns against the UAE and Saudi Arabia actually prove that both countries are doing the right thing.”

When the second Gulf war led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, some commentators warned that the chaos in the north threatens the stability of the Arabian Peninsula. But the region survived that. The only byproduct was the greater influence of Iran which was a threat to the Gulf before and after the Iraq war. As the war erupted in Syria in the course of the Arab Spring eight years later, Gulf countries supported Syrian opposition groups. It turned out that most of these groups were affiliates of Al-Qaeda and ultimately offshoots of Muslim Brotherhood.

That led to a change of position, led by the UAE, which spearheaded the regional fight to prevent militants from controlling the countries that witnessed protests. Saudi Arabia followed suit, especially after the young crown prince consolidated his power. He is fiercely against the Muslim Brotherhood and recognises that fundamentalists and militants are the main obstacle to his reform plans in Saudi Arabia.

A Dubai-based academic told Al-Ahram Weekly that Gulf countries are now keen to stop any threat before it reaches them. It is what some call “pre-emptive deterrence” of militants and nipping potential terrorism in the bud. That is why they support efforts to combat terrorism in Africa.

“Some of the terrorists transferred from Syria and Iraq to Africa through Libya are either people from the Arabian Peninsula who went to the Levant through Libya and Turkey or from North African countries. Now they’re closer to the Gulf probably via Yemen”, the academic said.

Regarding the difference between the situation now and a decade ago, he added: “A decade ago, terrorists in Iraq then Syria were thought not to pose a direct threat to the Arab Gulf countries. But as the so-called Arab Spring showed, political Islamists had their eye on the Gulf. It was a real threat to the security and stability of Gulf countries that cannot be tolerated”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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