Alec Erwin who was once South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry likened Africa’s relations with the rest of the world to that of a “butterfly” with the thorax of the butterfly representing the North-South axis of Africa and relations thereof with Europe and North America, while the wings of the butterfly represented its relations with the West and the East, basically Latin America and Asia. Nothing much would seem to have changed except that the thorax relationship is weakening while the wings relationship appears to be growing, noting there was not really much of substance in the East and West relations (Latin America and Asia) in those old days of the early nineties.
We had in the past accustomed to China’s Africa summits, which was followed by India-Africa Summits, Turkish-Africa Summits, Russia-Africa Summits, Kuwait-Africa Summits and even GCC-Africa Summits and now we have the Saudis dipping in. They held the first Saudi-Africa Summit on November 10th, 2023. This latest one was attended by some 50 African countries.
Erwin’s description was, indeed, aimed at diversifying Africa’s relations with the rest of the world, but what has Africa gained from these diverse and wide relationships. Obviously, the relations with Asia have grown from the little there was then to a larger portion of Africa’s economic pie, but nothing else except that it only added to more countries extracting more minerals from Africa. Perhaps the Chinese have added some a little to replace this unnatural exploitation of the continent’s riches, where they have built some road and rail links across the impassable deserts, jungles and mountains of Africa, which the Europeans failed to do earlier for over a century.
Much of Asia was not very much different from Africa’s countries barely thirty years ago. There was poverty, dependence on single commodities, and indeed, social and political instabilities in many of its countries. Things have changed much in Asia, which is now growing, and many parts of that continent are middle-income and developed countries. Japan followed by South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and later the giants China and India have all moved up the scale of development and are doing well.
Many countries now court the African continent, and the West are not giving up either. Other than the few elephantine projects of roads and rail links, none of the continent’s relationships have truly invested in there. There are no major enterprises from any Asian country in the continent, employing large numbers of African labor. Even the roads and rail built by the Chinese are built by Chinese companies, Chinese labor and Chinese sub-contractors. This is as exploitative as any other exploiter can ever be, worse even than those from the West. At least the West was employing local labor and some of the middle management levels and some subcontractors.
The Other Asian countries fare no better, other than the fact that this has only diversified those with which the continent can deal with and now the Saudis are joining the fray. What would the Saudis achieve that is different from their counterparts in the rest of Asia?
They claim they would invest in the continent but how? Would they follow the MBZ format of the UAE, which takes over ports in the continent, preventing them from their natural growth as is the case of Berbera in Somalia. The Djiboutians realized early on that they were to no good and got rid of the DP World with, of course, the litigations that followed.
Africa is generally characterized by ethnic diversity and hence disunity, as many countries of the continent were curved out for European influence rather than the natural formation of the people and the lands. The continent is also marked by limited and weak governance infrastructures and hence military coups and counter coups. Many countries are only one city countries, mostly the capital, with the rest of the country remaining rural and underdeveloped. The continent is mostly dependent on subsistence farming, whether it is agriculture or animal husbandry. The old colonizer countries pitted one group against another or preferred one group to control the others on its behalf, which has given rise to resentments surfacing after independence. Africa, indeed, is a messed-up place and will continue to be so over the foreseeable future.
What would the Saudi involvement, hence forth gain, from such a relationship. The Saudis do not own presently any factories that need the resources of the continent in terms of minerals. Would they start building such factories now to enable them exploit these resources of the continent? Indeed, they could, for Saudi Arabia owns all the main factors of building up an industrialized country. They own cheap energy, have access to cheap labor and they have the necessary capital. The country also has the lands to build up large factories and, indeed, they have access to all markets, be it European, Asian, African and/or the Americas. They are centrally located and is surrounded by navigable waters – the Arabian Gulf, the Arab Sea, the Somali Sea, the Red Sea and, indeed, the Indian ocean.
The Saudis may have a weak indigenous human capital, who abhor hard work, but this can be compensated for by all the other factors in its favor. Whatever they do, the Saudis are in, now and the mother continent, being as large as it is with a big heart never rejects anyone. The Saudis want to invest in the continent through its investment wing, the Public Investment Fund including preliminary energy agreements with countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Chad and Ethiopia. They have also signed infrastructure financing contracts with Mozambique and other debt related agreements with countries like Ghana.
The Horn of Africa States is just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and should attract some of the investments the Saudis are pledging in the continent. It is how the Horn of Africa States could possibly exploit such a new opportunity over the horizon as much as it is what the Saudis would want from the Horn of Africa, which traditionally was an ancient relationship of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Horn of Africa States is a fragile region, which has been weakened over the years by wars both intra-state and inter-state and the best the Saudis could do is to invest in stabilizing the region through massive investments that would employ the large youthful population that are prone to be exploited by devilish terror groups and other non-regional forces.
The Saudis should reverse the recent wrong approaches of the Gulf countries, which emphasized security and military presence in the region, and instead emphasize on economic engagement with the region. The reported agreement with Ethiopia on energy would be a good example should it be implemented “as is”. A stable Horn of Africa States region cannot be overemphasized. Peace and stability are important for the Gulf countries as they are for the Horn of Africa countries and economic engagement would the ideal format through which such a stability and peace can be achieved without unnecessary security apparatus which never assures neither peace nor stability.
Military presence in a region like the Horn of Africa States implies many factors, which are most often negative. Avoiding such emphasis on military and security issues and putting in the vanguard, economic engagements would have the opposite effect and is, therefore, encouraged, at all levels. The current Saudi intention about Africa presents a significant switch from security to business and money-making and hence relations on a differing plain than has hitherto been the case.
In this respect and at least for the Horn of Africa States, the Saudis can look at helping ease Ethiopia’s need to have more access to the seas of neighboring countries like building up of new ports and new corridors. One such corridor could be the Zeila-Harar corridor, which has historical significance for both the Kingdom and the Horn of Africa States (Somalia and Ethiopia). It is where Islam came through to the continent in the first place and hence has historical as well as economic implications. Investments in infrastructures support economic development not only through structural transformation and benefits thereof but also through capital accumulation.
The new Saudi approach highlights the application of soft power, provision of essential services and economic engagement in the continent as opposed to the security and military approach, which have miserably failed the continent and its people. But any approach would fail should Africa not rectify its major weakness, which basically remains to be weak governance infrastructures, where few elitist groups enjoy life at the expense of their citizenry, exploiting their ethnic and bloodlines for support/defense when they do not even help those of the same ethnic group or bloodline.
Africa should also counter media distortions of the continent, which distortions paint the continent as the hopeless one, when everything about the continent points to the opposite, including improving education, management, technologies and growing economies, noting that in some of the most fragile countries such as Somalia, the populations live in cashless societies, far ahead of their counterparts in the rest of the world, with telecommunications far more advanced than many other countries. It is where Saudi Arabia can benefit from, in its hunt for investment opportunities in the continent.
Saudi Arabia, which primarily is a desert country can benefit from investments in the vast arable lands of the continent to produce food for its population and for the host countries and the world. Grain production, fruits and vegetables, flowers and meat production both red and white offer possible investment opportunities for any intrepid investor, and Saudi Arabia, which has a long history with the continent, at least with the Horn of Africa States, should be fully aware that those opportunities are available.
A Saudi Arabia Africa partnership should be different from those Africa has entered into, so far, with other countries in Asia. It should be as genuine as it can be and should address the weaknesses of those other partnerships, which have not addressed the real needs of the continent. It should not be based, for one, on manipulating the poor or leveraging the leadership of the continent but addressing the genuine needs of the continent’s people. It should not be based on manipulated pseudo-democratic formulae that do not add one iota to the wellbeing of the people of Africa but true to a real strategic partnership which adds value to the wellbeing of both parties – strong relationships, genuine and profitable investments, employment of the youthful population of both partners, security cooperation, and indeed, sustainable development of both parties.