By Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
WHY are we now so interested in Africa? Why is Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani visiting Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa in less than a year? Why had Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir toured a number of African countries, last year, some of which are relatively small, such as Guinea, Benin, Senegal, Tanzania, the Comoros and Burkina Faso, as well as major nations like Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, in addition to African-Arab countries — Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt? Why are African leaders visiting Gulf capitals in droves? Why Saudi Arabia and Qatar occupy two observer seats in the African Union? And what does the declaration of Sudan’s foreign minister about a new strategic alliance with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states mean?
These are legitimate questions posed by keen international observers about the Gulf convergence, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Africa. The two oil-rich countries are investing billions of dollars in under-developed and less-stable markets of the sub-Saharan countries. They seem to be channeling investments in addition to political and commercial partnerships to these promising economies as well as moving to contain Iran’s expansion, culturally, politically and culturally.
The same questions have been raised about China’s interest in Africa for decades, especially when compared to American and Western neglect, with the exception of France and Britain which had past colonial ties with parts of the continent.
Africa, according to Wikipedia, is the world’s second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia, with abundant natural resources. With about 30.2 million km (11.7 million square miles) including adjacent islands, it covers six percent of Earth’s total surface area and 20.4 percent of its total land area. With 1.1 billion people as of 2013, it accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s human population.
The continent, the birthplace of humankind, mostly lacks modern infrastructure, skilled human resources and political, security and financial stability. This may have been partially the result of European exploitation of the continent’s wealth and the enslavement of its population. In return, few countries, like South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia and Sudan, had received substantial developmental investments during colonial era.
Over the last decade, Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, have been heavily investing in African countries, especially in agricultural resources. Sudan is the food basket of the Arab world, Ethiopia is the Nile origin with enormous agricultural and pastoral treasures. Both command capable infrastructure and human resources. Africa is promising market for the Gulf petroleum, petrochemical and industrial products, and a rich supplier of raw materials and agriculture.
Politically and culturally, Africa has been the strategic depth of the Arab world. Its nations are either mostly Muslim or have large Muslim communities devotedly linked to the Arabian Peninsula and the land of Two Holy Mosques. And among us live generations of Africans who have migrated for work, education and Haj.
It is no secret that the Iranian incursion in African countries is aiming for ideological, economic and political hegemony. The coup attempts of the Iranian-backed sects against the elected governments of Nigeria, Somalia and the Comoros are evidence of malicious intentions.
Arabs and Muslims cannot afford to lose Africa. It is part of our world — geographically, historically, socially and culturally. Realizing such importance, King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz toured Africa in the 1960s. His visits to the likes of Mali and Uganda turned these countries away from Israel to join the Islamic nation. Saudi Arabia hosted numerous African leaders since then, and our bilateral relations became much stronger.
The Arab League and GCC should design a common cooperation strategy with the African Union at all levels, for all above reasons. We need cooperation councils, like those we have with the European Union and South America, in addition to bilateral strategic councils and agreements, like what we have between Sudan and the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
We definitely need to diversify our international cooperation and investments. It is not safe to rely exclusively on traditional partners, allies and markets. The oceans of interests shift, the winds of alliance twist and the globe is too large, hospitable and diversified for us to be any limited.
Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi