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Rivalries in the Persian Gulf and Its Implications for Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

May 1, 2018


Rivalries in the Persian Gulf and Its Implications for Africa

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 6 (2018), Number 7 (May 2018)

During the Cold War, the African continent was ravaged as proxies of Washington and Moscow fought their respective ideological and strategic battles. Whilst ordinary Africans were killed, maimed or rendered homeless because of a hot Cold War in the regional context; political elites secured largesse from the superpower rivalries. History seems to be repeating itself given rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between GCC countries and Qatar.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry could be viewed at both a theological and realpolitik level. Theologically, there are 650 million Muslims on the African continent – the majority of whom are Sunni. In recent years, however, Iran has been making inroads into Africa’s restive Muslim population and have been increasing the number of Shi’a Muslims on the continent – notably in Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal. This is not merely a theological thrust to Iran’s foreign policy but also strategic. More Shi’a Muslims gives Tehran an opportunity to establish Hezbollah-styled proxies across the continent. Indeed Iran-funded and controlled Hezbollah has a huge footprint in West Africa through the Lebanese diaspora in the region and effectively controlling the drug and arms trade.

Whilst such a strategy like Iranian support for the Shia’ inspired Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) led by Ibrahim Zakzaky holds benefits, there are definite dangers. When the IMN began confronting the military, including attempting to assassinate the Nigerian Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukul Burati, the Nigerian government declared the group as a terrorist group and killed over 300 of its members at a rally in December 2015 and imprisoned its leader Zakzaky. Tehran won no sympathy in Abuja when it attacked the Nigerian government for its imprisonment of Zakzaky. To make matters worse, the Saudi government encouraged Nigerian President Buhari to crush the IMN and financially supported the Sunni group, the Izala Society, which regularly attacked Nigeria’s Shi’a community. The one consequence of Saudi-Iran rivalry on the African continent is increased sectarian polarization and conflict. Another consequence of the Iran high-risk strategy is that it serves to undermine its strategic goals in Africa: African diplomatic and political support in international organizations like the UN where Tehran is a pariah state as well as access to uranium deposits for its nuclear programme.

The Crown Jewel in Iran’s Africa policy remains the most developed economy on the continent – South Africa. South Africa’s strong ties with the Islamic Republic was facilitated largely on account of the sale of cheap Iranian oil and gas to Pretoria. However, there are indications that Saudi cheque book diplomacy may well have resulted in Pretoria opting for closer ties with Riyadh. On 29 February 2016, then South African President Jacob Zuma was scheduled to travel to Iran on a state visit. Four days prior to this visit though, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair visited Pretoria. President Zuma then abruptly cancelled his visit to Tehran and led a South African delegation to Riyadh instead. There, several trade and investment agreements were signed.

A similar fate awaited Sudan’s relationship with Iran. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Khartoum and Tehran retained strong military relations. Sudan also became a major transit point to re-supply arms to key Iranian allies – Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, by 2014, several factors merged which resulted in Khartoum jettisoning its alliance with Tehran in favour of Riyadh. In 2014, Sudan, the only African state to be governed by Sunni Islamic law, took grave offense at Iranian diplomats making use of their cultural centres to promote Shia Islam in the Sunni-majority country. Iranian diplomats were subsequently expelled from the country. Sudanese-Iranian tensions further escalated when Riyadh decided to execute Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on charges of terrorism. In the meantime, Riyadh through political and financial incentives lured Khartoum into its orbit of influence. Riyadh offered Sudan an opportunity to break out of its diplomatic isolation and Saudi Arabia led the push to quash the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Given the parlous state of Khartoum’s finances with the splitting of the country along north-south lines, the deposit of US $ 1billion by Saudi Arabia into Sudan’s Central Bank enticed Khartoum to not only sever diplomatic ties with Tehran but also joined the Saudi military coalition in Yemen.

Iran’s proximity to Eritrea also concerned GCC countries especially when the Iranian Navy started using Asmara’s ports. It provided Tehran with a strategic foothold in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners worked quickly to win over strategic Horn of Africa countries like Djibouti and Somalia. Both these countries severed ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Somalia expelled Iranians who it said were propagating Shia Islam. Djibouti, meanwhile, allowed Saudi Arabia to construct a military base on its territory, whilst Saudi ally, the UAE, has constructed a military base in Somaliland, to check Iranian influence. Even Eritrea, was won over from its embrace with Tehran when it allowed Riyadh to establish a military base in Assab.

The Iran-Saudi rivalry is not the only one affecting the African continent. Ratcheting tensions between Qatar and its erstwhile GCC partners is also spilling over onto the African continent where both sides are seeking to isolate the other. Both parties are making use of threats and financial incentives to keep African countries onside. Riyadh has already leaned on countries like Mauritania, Chad and Niger to sever diplomatic ties with Doha. All three African states subsequently withdrew their ambassador from the Qatari capital. Sudan tried to remain neutral in the dispute on account of US $ 3 billion Qatar invested in the country. However, they were compelled to join the rest of the GCC countries given the political support and financial incentives offered to Khartoum as outlined earlier in this paper. In response the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, embarked on a six-nation tour of West Africa in December 2017, which was the quintessential example of cheque book diplomacy. In this instance, the cheque book was the US $300 billion sovereign wealth fund – the Qatar Investment Authority.

Whilst individual African states might receive short-term benefits from such cheque book diplomacy, the long-term security risks for Africa, far outweigh any short-term benefit. Consider the territorial dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti. After these countries, downgraded their ties to Doha under Saudi pressure, Qatar withdrew its 400-strong force of peacekeepers from the Red Sea island of Doumeira which both states claimed. Taking advantage of the vacuum created, Eritrea promptly seized the disputed island, thereby threatening the entire peace process. Consider too, the case of the hapless Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (aka Farmaajo). His presidential campaign and his government is heavily financed by Qatar. This prompted both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to financially support the separatist regions of Somaliland and Puntland. The UAE hasupgraded the ports of both breakaway Republics and also negotiated a twenty-five year lease with Somaliland for a military base in Berbera. These developments serve not only to undermine the Somali Federal Government but also diminish efforts to fight Al Shabaab terrorists who invariably take advantage of the tensions between Mogadishu and the breakaway regions.

This saga is far from complete and expect many more twists and turns as rivalries in the Persian Gulf continue to negatively impact the African continent.

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