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Vol 65 No 8

Published 11th April 2024

Facing neither west nor east – but forwards

Unleashing tens of billions of investment across Africa, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are buying critical minerals and political influence

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2024

The strategy of the oil-fired Gulf States in Africa appears to be modelled on a foreign policy dictum coined by Ghana's founding President, Kwame Nkrumah: 'We face neither east nor west – we face forwards.' Like Nkrumah, the Gulf monarchs alternate between cutting deals in Washington and Beijing and Moscow. Unlike him, they have trillions of dollars in sovereign wealth funds and face no immediate threats of coups d'état.

Last year in Johannesburg, the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were inducted into the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping at its summit. Along with their regional rival, the Shiite theocracy in Iran, the new BRICS members mean the grouping now produces almost half global oil output.

But Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their sights set on a post-oil future. Just 16.8% of the UAE's gross domestic product came from oil and gas in 2019, down from over 40% in 1980. That's a strategy that African oil producers want to replicate.

The UAE's and Saudi Arabia's investment firepower and post-oil planning has won them multiple business suitors on African projects from Europe and North America. Over the past decade, the UAE has invested over US$60 billion in Africa, compared with Saudi Arabia's more than $25bn in the same period.

Both countries are upping their African targets. The UAE's state-owned Masdar, specialising in renewable energy, says it will invest at least $10bn in green energy projects in Africa by 2030. And at its Africa summit in November Saudi Arabia, pledged to invest another $25bn on the continent over the next seven years.

That explains why the Gulf's ambassadors are widely welcomed in Africa – just when the United States, Europe and China have sharply cut back investments and other financial commitments in Africa. Washington officials encourage, even facilitate, the Gulf States' investments in critical minerals in Africa as a way to balance China's dominance in the sector.

Dual strategy
Among the world's top hydrocarbon producers and presiding over trillions of dollars of investment funding, Saudi Arabia and UAE alternate between today's world of fossil-fuel dependent economies and tomorrow's renewables. As they launch their own transitions, they have a stake in both. 

On the public stage they endorse sharp cuts in carbon emissions; privately, they fend off, like US officials, any serious efforts to cut the $7 trillion a year (according to IMF estimates) subsidies on fossil fuels. Such posturing is greatly appreciated by African oil producers, irritated by Western blocks on hydrocarbon investments.

The UAE's chairing of the UN COP28 climate summit in November saw that strategy in action. The conference resembled less a policy meeting to slow climate change than a glorified trade fair bringing together energy companies, from the west and Asia, to negotiate deals. It was globalisation 2.0, run by the middle powers.

The Gulf States are not quite a concert of powers. Personal interests of the ruling monarchs and ideology, to a lesser extent, divide them. Differences between the UAE's Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan (MBZ) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) have sharpened in recent years. MBZ has led the charge into Africa but Saudi Arabia's MBS is charting his own course. 

The two rulers did not share the same hostility towards the Muslim Brothers (MB) and other Islamist movements. MBZ and MBS supported General Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Egypt and funded his coup against President Mohamed Morsi (a Muslim Brother) in 2013. MBZ viscerally opposes the MB in all its manifestations whereas MBS takes a more pragmatic line.

Elsewhere, MBZ endorsed local strongmen against Islamists and Doha-supported politicians and insurgents. In Libya, UAE endorsed General Khalifa Haftar against a 'national unity' government backed by Qatar and Turkey. 

Like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the UAE kept lines open to President Omer Ahmed Hassan el Beshir in Sudan, who headed the MB-affiliated National Congress Party. 

Having dealt with El Beshir's military officers when Sudan sent mercenaries to fight in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis, MBZ eventually endorsed General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo Hemeti, Commander of the Rapid Support Forces, in Sudan's civil war (AC Vol 64 No 23, Darfuris face a global dereliction of duty). This has earned the UAE international opprobrium for arming the brutal RSF, as documented in successive UN and independent human rights reports.

In Somalia, the UAE endorsed and funded local administrations that opposed the Islamists and those allied with Doha, such as President Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed 'Farmajo'. The UAE has tried to help Puntland, Somaliland, and Jubaland because they were reluctant to follow Mogadishu, Turkey, and Doha internationally. 

MBS and his administration take a more nuanced approach that may owe something to Saudi Arabia's role in the Muslim world as guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Saudi officials see deterrence against Iran was seen as an existential imperative but show more pragmatism towards managing the crises triggered by Islamists in the greater region. Through its charities and heavily-funded and networked intelligence systems, Riyadh reckons it can effectively track and neutralise Islamist activists in the region.

Seeing a vacuum left by the West and China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have started to accord Africa far more attention, in diplomatic and commercial terms. They are racing each other to win new contracts in mining, public works, and logistics.

Private sector rules
When the private sector is mentioned in the Gulf states, one should look at how the rulers understand their country's interests and also acknowledge that big business in the Gulf states is rooted in the ruling families. No state decision can be made without considering how it will affect the situation of specific firms connected with the ruling elite. 

A good example is how 51% of the Zambian Mopani copper mine was sold last year to International Resources Holding (IRH). A UAE company, IRH came late in the bidding  with no specific background on mining against two other companies, one Chinese and the other South African, that are well-known in the sector. 

IRH is part of International Holding Company, the $240bn business empire of Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahayan, son of the founder of UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan. Sheikh Tahnoon, who serves as the UAE's national security advisor, also chairs the Royal Group, an Abu Dhabi investment company with links to Primera Group, a gold-exporting company in Congo-Kinshasa (AC Vol 64 No 13, Tshisekedi gives away gold rights to UAE). The Mompani and Primera invetsments are typical of the way that Sheikh Tahnoon acts as the bridge between the state and private companies that deal with strategic issues for the UAE.

Another strategically and commercially successful operation is Dubai Ports (DP) World, which was established in 1999 and has established ports in Angola, Djibouti, Egypt, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, and Somalia. Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is its main shareholder, besides his position as vice-president, prime minister and defence minister of the UAE.

This overlap broadens negotiations across commercial and state sectors. In Zambia, IRH's negotiations went from copper mining to investments in agriculture, tourism, and energy. That may also have happened in Tanzania, where DP World bought two-thirds of the management of Dar es Salaam port over the 30 years for $230m in July 2023. Dar es Salaam is a crucial transhipment point for copper from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

With the Tanzania deal, DP World has a presence on the Indian Ocean coast and the Red Sea up to Egypt (an agreement with Sudan was signed but not yet enforced due to the war).

Compared with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has a greater understanding of policy and tactics and is making itself indispensable to some of Africa's weaker regimes. Such a transactional approach to policy can entangle the UAE in arenas from which it can't escape.

In Libya, the UAE backed Haftar but he failed to take  Tripoli despite bombarding the city for weeks. Still a UAE client, Haftar had to come to terms, behind the scenes, with Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dubaiba's government in Tripoli (AC Vol 63 No 16, Dubaiba woos UAE and Haftar with about-turn on oil).

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, having won a pyrrhic victory against the Tigray region, is increasingly in thrall to the UAE for cash and diplomatic heft as his government faces growing threats in the Amhara and Oromo regions (AC Vol 65 No 1, Reality catches up with gambler Abiy).

In Somalia, the UAE struggled to interpret the intricacies of clan politics and has been backing several ineffectual operators. UAE firms do better when they focus on a limited commercial agenda, even though they benefit from state support.

Today, the UAE is the fourth biggest investor in Africa – after China, the European Union and the US. For the last two years it has invested more than China in Africa.

Yet there are plenty of warnings and questions about a wave of Gulf States funding washing across Africa.

Africans, if not their governments, have learned hard lessons about the need for more transparency in contracting and implementing agreements.

Other new commercial entrants to Africa have not provided the hoped-for contrast with western or colonial-era companies. For example, China's commercial operations have often undermined Africa's workforce and damaged its environment. They have also generated debts that have become problematic for some states.

Modern Gulf companies have little experience in Africa. Local counterparts are asking whether they would bring in their own staff and equipment or subcontract to other firms that may disrespect commitments as a means to boost short-term profits.

Some companies question the ability of Gulf companies to act quickly on the ground. Saudi Arabia's state apparatus is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that MBS still needs to reform. Despite its technocratic rhetoric, the UAE often subcontracts to companies when it needs greater expertise.

The sheer volume of investment that the Gulf States are bringing to Africa can change financial dynamics across the continent. Much less clear is whether it will be used to generate sustainable growth and make the countries' economic structures more productive.

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