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

(To Enrico Magnani)

Saudi Arabia

With the accession of Mohamed bin Salman as crown prince and actually already the ruler of the country1, Saudi politics is undergoing a gradual transformation, not only in foreign policy but also in issues that seemed untouchable such as individual freedoms, women's rights and an initial opening to tourism2.

In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently Saudi Arabia had not had a specific, coherent foreign policy with a long-term projection, other than the promotion, dating back to the 60s, of the Wahhabi rite among the Islamic populations of the continent3. This with the aim of sabotaging Nasserian, secular and socialist propaganda.

For about ten years, the instability of Yemen and Sudan, the fragility of Egypt have been drivers of the new dynamism of Riyadh. In this, profound differences emerge with the approach and perception (and therefore the modus operandi) of Saudi Arabia, compared to that of its major competitors (UAE and Qatar) and geographical issues are prevalent4.

Against the background of the war in Yemen, currently in a situation of fragile ceasefire, the Horn of Africa region has assumed an exceptional geostrategic relevance for Saudi Arabia, since the countries of this area have become an important element for the security of Riyadh which has also maintained ties of a historical type with that region.

Washington's strategic uncertainties5 which, having achieved energy independence, has a less strong interest in the events of the region6, leave a gap and Saudi Arabia has been forced to adopt a different approach in the Horn of Africa (and on the continent) to protect its national interests.

Unlike the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is geographically close to the Horn and directly overlooks the Red Sea. Any instability phenomenon in those areas can impact the security of Riyadh which must act with greater prudence.

Riyadh sees a link between Yemen and the Horn of Africa and has since launched military operations against the Houthis since March 20157 the region's importance to Saudi national security is central.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia has lobbied the various governments of the Horn countries to forge an alliance and join the anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen.

Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia joined the Saudi Arabian-led military axis, sending contingents of infantry (which lacks Riyadh's ground force structure) albeit intermittently. Obviously this contribution has been generously compensated, as in the case of Sudan8.

Priority in Saudi regional policy is the resolution of the conflict in Yemen, as this has become an economic and security disaster for Riyadh in recent years9. The recent improvement in contacts with Iran, although still in its infancy, is a reflection of Saudi Arabia's political will to resolve the conflict diplomatically, since a military solution is now unlikely.

The conflict with the Houtis is not the only source of concern for Saudi Arabia regarding the overall security of the area between the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa: there are flows of irregular migrants, smuggling and drug trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy. Riyadh in 2016 signed an agreement with Djibouti to build a military base10 and strengthen control of maritime and oil traffic to and from the Red Sea which, however, weakened when the UAE took control, not agreed with the Yemeni authorities, of the island of Socotra and later of other islets of that archipelago11.

Similarly to the UAE, given the same geographical and meteorological situation, Saudi Arabia is also aiming for massive purchases of land for agricultural use, both in the Horn of Africa and in other parts of the African continent, in the light of the expected demographic growth12.

The instrument of penetration and influence politics is the Saudi Development Fund, a gigantic institution that finances almost everything and which, for Africa alone, has made available over 4 billion euros (almost half of which, however, goes to Egypt). Among the beneficiaries stand out states of the Maghreb (Morocco and Mauritania), the Horn of Africa and East Africa13 which are experiencing significant losses, ultimately posing a political problem for Riyadh's expansion plans14. With financial support and humanitarian aid, Saudi leaders seek to forge political alliances, presenting themselves as reliable guarantors of support for development policy and as generous partners and donors.

In its policy of building an overall security framework, Riyadh is also interested in joining - and creating - multilateral forums. An example of this policy is the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (known as the "Red Sea Council"). It originated in January 2020 on a Saudi initiative and includes Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. The goal of this association is to improve trade and safety along this waterway, through which approximately 13% of world trade flows. The forum has so far failed to achieve significant results, but serves as a platform for the Saudis to pursue common security interests, cultivate regional loyalties and solidify anti-Iranian ties15.

Finally, it should be noted that Saudi Arabia does not enjoy a dominant role as a creator of maritime networks and is partially dependent on the infrastructure of the UAE. Meanwhile it pushes significantly for the strengthening of its naval forces16.

Riyadh plans to invest more in the logistics sector, especially in the Horn of Africa, with the aim of lightening its dependence on the UAE and also being able to compete with China in the region. For Beijing, the Horn of Africa is a strategic center of the Belt and Road Initiative, has a military base in Djibouti and major interests in Kenya.


Over the past two decades, Qatar has become a major international player due to its position as the world's largest producer of liquefied natural gas. Its reserves, the third largest in the world after Russia and Iran, have made it possible for its rapid economic take-off. But Qatar is not satisfied with the status of energy power and from a geopolitical point of view it seeks to emerge as a regional power and above all to escape Saudi hegemony and rivalry with the UAE.

Precisely in the search for strategic independence, Qatar has launched an unscrupulous foreign policy, dissociating itself as much as possible from Saudi initiatives (as in Yemen, from whose anti-Houti breakfast Doha emerged in 2017), making its distance from Saudi Arabia public17, approaching Turkey (hosting important military installations), being not very hostile towards Iran and developing mediation initiatives such as sending interposition forces to patrol an area disputed between Eritrea and Djibouti (later withdrawn due to the alignment of these two states with Saudi Arabia and against Qatar itself18).

Besides that Qatar uses the financial instrument of the Qatar Investment AuthorityWhich, together with Qatar Airways ed Al Jazeera they are gods driver of important influence.

Qatar's diplomatic action in Africa, such as the opening of embassies (In recent years, Qatar has opened more representations in sub-Saharan Africa than any other state, with the exception of Turkey...) and the promotion of negotiations collides with the problem of the numerical and qualitative insufficiency of personnel (not yet sufficiently experienced), as in the cases of the negotiations between Eritrea and Sudan, Chad and Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti (all with poor results, also due to the Saudi influence which led all these countries to side with Riyadh).

Somalia, (together with Libya) remains one of the objectives of diplomatic action, and not only, of Qatar in Africa19. While relations with the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania) are ancient and consolidated with sub-Saharan Africa (with the notable exceptions of Sudan and Eritrea), they are recent and in the process of further development, primarily with hydrocarbon producing nations such as Nigeria and Congo or solid economic realities such as South Africa.

In the area of ​​food security, Qatar - like its neighbors - is heavily dependent on food imports and has developed large agri-food programs both in the Horn and in East Africa. As a provider of official development aid, the sub-Saharan African countries from which Qatar has benefited the most are: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Guinea, Mozambique, Congo, Senegal, Comoros and Djibouti.

The country has had a very significant influence on conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq or, recently, Afghanistan, hosting talks and negotiations. All this has meant that the Qataris have become attractive and, despite a normalization with its regional competitors, the differences remain and can arise again.

The Qataris maintain important discrepancies with the Saudis and the Emiratis. One of the main reasons is the rapprochement of the former with political Islam in general and with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. The Saudis and UAE, for their part, believe that this group intends to destabilize the established order in the region.

In the scenarios shaken by the revolts of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia and Qatar found themselves supporting opposing or competing factions; the UAE sided with the Saudis (at least in this one) and the pressure on Qatar increased.

In June 2017 there was a diplomatic crisis: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar, which they accused of interfering in their internal politics and supporting terrorist groups (actually Qatar's support for Muslim Brotherhood it is anything but ideological but "instrumental", given the objective of subverting the models of these states close to Riyadh). The closure of the borders and the restrictions on air and sea traffic have caused a crisis in Qatar which has also affected the food supply. Iran and Turkey have supported Qatar, creating a worrying system of alliances and hostilities that has led to an imbalance in the region's already complicated set-up. Qatar thus began to build a progressive rapprochement with Turkey, one of the main contestants of Saudi Arabia's attempts to affirm its regional leadership, and with Iran (at the time) the main enemy of the Saudis.

This rivalry has transferred to the neighboring Horn of Africa and Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland have been closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the 2017 diplomatic crisis, while Somalia has adopted a neutral stance so as not to jeopardize its good economic relations with Qatar and Turkey20.

During the four years that the blockade has been in place, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have obtained lukewarm support in African countries (certainly not in proportion to the aid provided by Riyadh and Dubai) and the choice of neutrality has been seen as de facto support from Qatar.

In highly sensitive Somalia, the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE negatively impacted the already difficult relations between Mogadishu and the autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland due to the growing economic and military presence of the UAE in those de facto independent regions that the government is trying to reabsorb into the federal structure. In any case, the rapprochement between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in January 2021 triggered the end of the blockade and the return to diplomatic relations, it allowed African countries to improve relations with both sides by rescuing them from the unpleasant situation of having to choose between two "financing lines" (as happened in Morocco).


The expansion of existing rivalries in the Gulf to the Horn of Africa, where there are already too many, is not a positive fact and risks spreading to the rest of the continent. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are gradually consolidating their presence. The rivalries between these actors will be more heated in the band that goes from Egypt to the Horn of Africa, where the control of the safety and navigation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden internal stability, commercial interests e Food safety: possible only if you are "present" on both shores.

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

1 Hubbard B., MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, The Duggan Books, 2020

2 UNWTO opens first regional office in ME, Saudi Arabia originally wanted the transfer of the specialized UN agency which deals with tourism and which is based in Madrid to Riyadh, but was unable to overcome the very tough Spanish opposition and a blocking majority, having to 'settle' for the opening of the organisation's first regional office in the Middle East; this even if various voices insist that this would be the prelude to a new and more organized diplomatic-financial offensive

3 Lugan B., Sahel: islam africain contre islam wahhabi,, Le, 18.07.2023

4 Sons S., Between Power Projection and Regional Rivalries. Saudi Arabia's Engagement in the Horn of Africa,, Megatrends Africa, Dec. 2022; Berman I., Here Comes Saudi Arabia's African Offensive,, The National Interest, March 2020

5 Panikoff J., Shifting Priorities: The US and the Middle East In a Multipolar World,, ISPI, 08.07.2022

6 Full US Energy Independence Could Have Huge Ramifications For The Middle East,, Oil price, 10.01.2023

7 INEE, Conflict Analysis Summary- Yemen,, March 2014; Robinson K., Yemen's Tragedy: War, Stalemate, and Suffering,, CFR, 01.05.2023; Todman W., The Gulf Scramble for Africa,, CSIS, Nov. 2018

8 Cafiero G., Sudan gets $2.2B for joining Saudi Arabia, Qatar in Yemen war,, Al Monitor, 23.11.2015

9 Juneau T., Negotiating Saudi Arabia's defeat and the Houthi victory in Yemen,, War on the rock, 15.05.2023

10 Djibouti agrees to a Saudi military base on its territory,, Al Arabiya, 04.12.2016

11 Yemen says UAE building new military base in occupied Socotra Archipelago,, The Cradle, 01.04.2023

12 Saudi Arabia's current population is thirty-two million and will reach nearly forty-five million by 2050


14 Saudi Public Investment Fund reports $11 billion loss for 2022,, Al Monitor, 13.07.2023

15 Custers D., Red Sea Multilateralism: Power Politics or Unlocked Potential,, Stimson Center, 07.04,2021. From this point of view, but to a wider extent, Riyadh's accession can be read, not only in the G-20, but also in the SCO and in the forthcoming membership of the BRICS

16 Saudi Naval Expansion Program II: Modernizing the Royal Saudi Navy,, Defenseiq, 20.08.2018

17 Qatar pulls out of Saudi-led coalition on Yemen,, TRT, 06.06.2017

18 Qatar withdraws troops from Djibouti-Eritrea border mission,, Reuters, 14.01.2017-XNUMX-XNUMX

19 Bergman R. and Kirkpatrick D., With Guns, Cash and Terrorism, Gulf States Vie for Power in Somalia,, NYT 22.07.2019-XNUMX-XNUMX; Kenez L., Qatari officers train Somali soldiers in Turkey,, Nordic Monitor, 14.01.2022; Qatar dispatches hundreds of Somali mercenaries to Libya,, Egypt today, 26.07.2020

20 Johnson HF, Gulf States Are Making Their Way to the Horn of Africa,; PRIO 28.10.2019; Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa's Horn: Lessening the Impact,, ICG, 19.09.2029

Photo: GOV.SA / web