Africa, new powers in search of space (first part)

(To Enrico Magnani)

The decomposition (or recomposition) of the international community always follows new paths and not all of them are coherent and/or clear. It is a fact that various actors, whose capabilities and reliability (and stability) are not yet known, appear on the scene and bring new elements to specific areas. One of these is Africa, where in new terms those of the 'Scramble for Africa', a phase that for about eighty years, approximately 1830 and 1911, saw the powers, all European, compete to grab territories and riches of that continent.

While much is known (or presumed to know) about the ambitions of Russia, China, but also about the aspirations and ambitions of France1, USA2, Türkiye3, India4, EU5 and others, little is known about those of the Gulf nations. These, within the multiple area of ​​the Arab-Islamic world, due to peculiar circumstances, starting with the enormous financial resources, represent a world apart from that jagged community that goes from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia.

Till now lined up in the so-called Western world, these nations have been trying for some time to find an independent way out of the cumbersome partnership with the USA and Europe, also trying to increase their influence in Africa and also placing themselves in competition with Washington and Brussels. This analysis refers more to member states Gulf Cooperation Council6 that to the organization as such, that beyond the sumptuous and unrealistic meetings, it is little more than a political 'Morley'.

Historically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had the most interactions with sub-Saharan Africa (defined as those areas of the continent south of the North African Arabic-speaking states located on the Mediterranean) while Bahrain has the least of all. Oman has historical ties to the east coast of Africa, while Qatar has become more active on the continent especially since its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the United UAE heated up in 2017, due to Qatar's military ties with Turkey7, of the perception that it was too supportive in its relations with Iran and Islamist terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE became active on the African continent during the 70s, particularly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when many African countries severed diplomatic ties with Israel due to the arrival of Israeli troops across the Suez Canal. During the 70s and 80s, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE launched development aid policies in Africa and even worked towards the same goal as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on the continent, where he had big plans , when the activities were aimed at garnering support for the Arab world in its conflict against Israel. Since then the investments and trade policies, as well as the contrast to the activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Africa8, have become more important for Saudi Arabia and, in more recent years, for the UAE and Qatar. The latter rival the Saudis in these efforts and in viewing Turkey and Iran as direct rivals for influence on the African continent, despite an (apparent) improvement in relations.

In the last fifteen years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have strengthened economic and security ties with the African continent, primarily in the Horn of Africa region and progressively extending them towards sub-Saharan Africa. Emirates, Saudis and Qataris are working in this region with the aim of building the status of international power by acting as protagonists in the affairs and conflicts of the continent, but it is essential to underline this not in the framework of cooperation between them, rather of more or less open rivalry and the agreements that have been registered are due to tactical needs, as in the case of Sudan9.

As mentioned above, although Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have a tradition of contact with African realities, the 2007 global financial crisis was the boost to redirect their investments towards Africa. As Western economies slow down, rapidly growing African economies have become attractive bait. The Gulf monarchies, always in competition and never in solidarity, have strengthened their strategies of economic diversification and reduction of dependence on hydrocarbons by investing in African markets, especially when oil prices collapsed in 2014.

The Gulf companies' experience in the energy sector makes them particularly attractive to African states seeking to develop their energy industries. Furthermore, the ability of these Arab countries to carry out large-scale infrastructure projects is also a powerful attraction for African states, always seeking rapid development10.

The common religious heritage has also favored the strengthening of ties. When Western economies went into crisis, some African leaders asked the Gulf monarchies for economic help, and they did so by appealing to their religious ties. Expanding development aid to the continent also serves to boost their standing among African Muslims while advancing their own economic interests11.

As their economic interests in Africa have grown, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have also expanded their military presence, primarily in the neighboring Horn of Africa12.

Indeed, as well as supporting anti-piracy efforts in Somali waters13, boosted their military capabilities by building their first bases in the Horn of Africa14 The trigger in this case was the participation in the war in Yemen, a particularly significant nation in the context of the new global order, in which maritime traffic is strategic and from where it is possible to control maritime traffic to and from the Red Sea, the Suez Canal (and, consequently, the Mediterranean), and the Arabian Sea. It is also the Asian guardian of the Bab el Mandeb Strait. In both sections of the strait, between Yemen's Perim Island and the port of Djibouti, as well as between Yemen's Hanish Islands and the Eritrean strip of islands, it is less than 10 miles wide. This implies that maritime traffic through the strait can be easily controlled (and/or threatened).

In the case of the Emiratis and the Saudis, despite their substantial differences and oppositions15 they also intensified military cooperation with the aim of playing a leading role in international operations to combat terrorism in the Sahel. In this sense, the Islamic Military Coalition Against Terrorism (IMCTC) was launched in 2015 under Saudi sponsorship.16.

This platform has greatly enhanced military cooperation and intelligence sharing between Gulf monarchies and African states. In this context, Saudi Arabia and the UAE contributed $2017 million and $100 million respectively to the G30Sahel multinational force in 517. In recent years, the Gulf countries have opened dozens of embassies in sub-Saharan Africa and have intervened diplomatically in African conflicts with the aim of increasing their international prestige. The most recent is Sudan, where once again Saudi Arabia and the UAE support each of the warring factions, not to mention Libya, where the UAE openly supports the de facto government of Cyrenaica.

The perception of the uncertainties and weaknesses of Policies of the United States from the continent partly motivated these interventions. With Washington in an unclear position, Arab monarchies seem determined to find space18.

What appears different in the action of these nations is the availability to complete the peace agreements with important economic incentives, while other 'honest brokers' have failed, also because they did not have the availability/or the will (or the souk mentality ) as in the case of the 2018 Jeddah peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, sponsored by the Saudis and the Emirates and accompanied by investment promises19.

There is a line of thought which sees positively that diplomacy is also based on the principle of peace for money. In fact, without funds, in the aforementioned case, peace would have been impossible and that its fragility lies precisely in this condition. In the case of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in addition to economic opening to Gulf interests, there is, among other things, the construction of an oil pipeline between the two countries by the UAE and a railway linking Ethiopia with the port of Assab in Eritrea20.

It should also be noted that since 2021, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has been working as a mediator in the dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the partition of the Nile River21.

In the case of the crisis still afflicting Sudan, when it exploded closer to General Abdel Fattah al Burhan (while the UAE is openly supportive of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, "Hemeti" commander of the former Janjaweed), Saudi Arabia, together with the USA, has launched a diplomatic initiative by bringing together the representatives of the two opposing groups in Jeddah, even if without results. She also participated in the evacuation of foreign civilians to her ships by landing them at her bases on the eastern coast of the Red Sea22.

United Arab Emirates

The will to develop a real African policy was initiated by the UAE after the 2008 financial crisis, decided to refocus your international investment strategy. The push has been such that several Western companies, already operating in Dubai, have reconfirmed it as a base from which to operate in African countries due to the advantageous tax conditions and direct connections with the main African capitals. Furthermore, Dubai has attracted a growing number of African businessmen, who have chosen this emirate as their base for investment. The number of African companies registered with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Investments has increased exponentially in the last decade and the UAE is firmly betting on the fast-growing Angola as a hub for continental expansion23.

However, alongside economic interests, the UAE has important security drivers, such as the contrast of religious extremism in particular to that carried out by the galaxy of Muslim Brotherhood24. The widespread instability in the Middle East - the rise of the Islamic State, the collapse of Libya, the conflict in Syria, the never ending crisis of Lebanon and Iraq, the ever shaky Egypt and the growing influence of Iran (and the related Yemeni problem ) has sparked paranoid fears in Gulf nation leaderships; the threat of groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is considered existential to have even a limited presence within the Emirates. Their rise alarmed UAE leaders, especially as conflicts in the Arab world seemed increasingly intertwined, with events in one country spilling over into others.

The UAE has implemented with many African countries what some have called its "Egyptian model"25 diplomatic, military and financial support to stable political actors who are seen as the most capable of containing Islamist movements. This is how it acted, as well as in Egypt, in Yemen and Sudan. In this sense, the UAE makes its development aid and investments conditional on the African authorities showing support for their strategic orientations, ie on adhering to their agenda against political Islamism. The UAE is the fourth largest investor country on the African continent globally — after China, the United States and France — and the largest overall among the Gulf states26.

Between 2016 and 2021, the UAE invested approximately $1,2 billion in sub-Saharan Africa and is among the continent's top ten importers of goods and commodities. Non-oil trade between the UAE and Africa is estimated at $25 billion a year. In the last fifteen years the volume of trade between the UAE and the African continent of products other than hydrocarbons has grown by 700%. Investments from the Emirates are directed towards telecommunications, energy, mining (gold and coltan)27 agriculture, port infrastructures, where the presence of the Dubai Ports (DP) which currently manages some of the most important port terminals in sub-Saharan Africa: Dakar (Senegal), Berbera (Somalia), Maputo (Mozambique) and Luanda (Angola), Bosaso (Puntland, Somalia). In Djibouti, DP also managed the port of Doraleh until the contract was terminated by the local government in 201828. DP has also obtained a concession for the construction of a logistics center in Kigali (Rwanda). Furthermore, new projects are being negotiated in Sudan and Madagascar. For its part, Abu Dhabi Ports manages the port of Kamsar (Guinea). Port investments and agricultural land acquisition are part of the food security strategy, as the UAE imports 90% of domestic consumption29.

As with Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen has made the Horn of Africa region the main strategic area in which the UAE has deployed its own military mission, whose performances have consolidated the myth (much mythologized, indeed, also due to the poor results obtained by the Saudi forces) of the 'little Sparta of the Middle East'. At the outset of the conflict in Yemen, the UAE was alarmed by the advance of Houthi rebels near the Bab Al Mandeb Strait, as the possibility was raised that an Iranian allied group would control that vital trading point of the Emirates30.

But in addition to the aforementioned Angola, the UAE is also extending its presence in West Africa, and in the Sahel: in Senegal and Guinea, as already mentioned, they manage port infrastructures in Dakar or Kamsar; in Morocco31 Investments in civilian and military infrastructure have been made in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso. In their strategy to fight Islamist forces and funding the G5 Sahel and there are signs for further expansion and penetration into coastal areas of Atlantic Africa.

Read: "Africa, new powers in search of space (second part)"

1 Boniface P., France: la panne diplomatique? 13.07.2023 IRIS

2 US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, August 2022, White House, August 2022

3 Turkiye-Africa Relations, MFA,

4 Wagner C. India's Africa Policy, SWP 10.07.2019

5 6th EU-AU Summit: A Joint Vision for 2030, EU Council February 2022,

6 The GCC was established in 1981 and includes the countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain; to them are added with an uncertain status Morocco and Jordan, as guests; in reality they have no political weight, as they survive only thanks to loans and gifts from the Gulf countries, to which, in case of emergency, they should provide military forces in case of emergency

7 Turkey and the Gulf states: A complicated relationship, DW16.07.2023

8 Keynoush B., Revolutionary Iran's Africa Policy, , Special Report, June 2021, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,; When it comes to great power competition in Africa, one competitor is missing: Iran, Atlantic Council 09.05.2023,

9 How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War, Foreign Policy 12.07.2023; UAE thanks Saudi Arabia for evacuating Emirati citizens from Sudan, 24.04.2023 Al Arabiya,

10 Todman W. «The Gulf Scramble for Africa», Center for Strategic & International Studies. Nov. 2018.:; Soler Lecha E., Gulf Rivalries Reach North Africa,, IeMed yearbook 2018; Bishku MB, The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States and Sub-Saharan Africa: In Search of Influence, Security, and New Markets, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Villanova University, Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2022,

11 see for the Saudi case, The Evolving Relationship Between Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia,, Arab Center, Washington DC, Hoffman J., 20.04.2022-XNUMX-XNUMX

12 on the performances of the armed forces of the Arab-Islamic nations cf. de Atkine N., Why Arabs Lose Wars MERIA, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 4 No. 1/March 2000,; Pollack KM, The US Has Wasted Billions of Dollars on Failed Arab Armies, Foreign Policy 31.01.19

13 Afyare E. Said M., The Role of the GCC Countries in Ending Piracy in the Horn of Africa, Arab Center for Research and Studies, 01.09.2016

14 Neil M., The Foreign Military Presence In The Horn Of Africa Region, SIPRI Background, April 2019

15 Clashes in Southern Yemen: A Renewed Saudi Arabia-UAE Rivalry?,, Gulf International Forum 09.04.2020

16 Joint Statement on the Formation of the Islamic Military Alliance, KSA Embassy in USA, 15.12.2015

17 S. Arabia pledges $100 million and UAE $30 million for Sahel anti-terror force,, France 24, 13.12.2017; it must be remembered, that despite these funds, including very substantial from the EU, another 100 million euros, and another almost 200 from other donors, the G5 Sahel has been a resounding failure, having failed to achieve any of its objectives in the fight against Islamic terrorism

18 Lons C., Saudi Arabia and the UAE Look to Africa, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

19 Eritrea - Ethiopia accord signed in Jeddah: Here are the details, Africa News, 18.08.2018

20 The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa, International Crisis Group. Nov. 2018

21 Egypt, Ethiopia hope to reach agreement within 4 months after long dispute over Africa's largest dam AP 13.07.2023

22 Cafiero G. Analysis: Saudi Arabia's diplomatic energy, soft power in Sudan, 15.05.2023 Al Jazeera,; Royal Saudi Naval Forces conduct 19 evacuation operations from Sudan,, Saudi Gazette 05.05.2023

23 Plácido G. The United Arab Emirates, Africa and Angola in the new Silk Road, Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security.

24 UAE and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Story of Rivalry and Hatred,, Fanack, 16.07.2017; Abu Dhabi's problem with the Muslim Brotherhood,

25 Egyptian Diplomacy and International Relations El-Kamel H., Real Instituto Elcano, 13.04.2010; the real difference between the two models is that the original one, the Egyptian one, has incomparably fewer resources than those of the UAE


27 Abu Dhabi's grand gold and coltan designs in the DRC, Africa Intelligence, 06.04.2023,109932235-eve

28 as bilateral relations deteriorate, the UAE has signed an agreement with Eritrea for a military base and airport in Assab, from where attacks against the Houti in Yemen are launched

29 The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa, International Crisis Group, Ibidem

30 Johnsen GD, The UAE's Three Strategic Interests in Yemen, 24.02.2022 The Arab Guldf States Institute in Washington,

31 as proof of the pervasiveness and influence of the UAE, this has financed the purchase and maintenance costs for the Moroccan army, almost completely equipped with Western-type systems, of a certain number of BMP3 infantry fighting vehicles, of Russian production, also in service with the mechanized infantry departments of the UAE ground forces; this in expectation that contingents from Rabat will work closely with those from Dubai