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Saudi Arabia courts Africa with billions in investments

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OPINION: Saudi Arabia’s courting of Africa comes amid new geopolitical shifts in world politics and the kingdom is positioning itself to protect its interests, writes Dr Sizo Nkala.

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and was hosted in Jeddah by Crown Prince and Prime Minister of the Kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud. Picture: Presidency

By Dr Sizo Nkala

Africa’s repertoire of so-called “Africa + 1 summits” with major and emerging powers keeps growing. African leaders periodically attend summits with countries such as China, Japan, the US, France, Russia, India, Germany, the UK and Turkey. Indeed, a foray into Africa has become a rite of passage to every country bidding for more global influence.

While the focus of the various summits may differ in details, each of the powers engaging African leaders aims at establishing a sphere of influence in Africa. On the other hand, African countries tend to focus on maximising trade, investment and assistance deals they can eke out from these interactions. The latest emerging power to court Africa using the same method is the Middle East powerhouse and the global oil superpower, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The country hosted representatives from 50 African countries including the heads of state and government from Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Djibouti, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Niger in the inaugural Saudi Arabia-Africa Summit last weekend in Riyadh. The gathering came five years after Saudi Arabia signalled its new focus on Africa by appointing a Secretary of State for African Affairs in 2018. It was also in keeping with the Middle Eastern country’s plans to grow its footprint on Africa’s peace and security landscape which has seen it hosting peace talks between the warring parties in Sudan’s civil war and making significant contributions towards fighting terrorism in Africa’s Sahel region.

Saudi Arabia has also been making notable socio-economic development overtures around Africa, namely the Saudi Fund’s $8 million water project in Guinea, the $5m street light project in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the $15 billion in investment deals it signed with South Africa in October last year.

The summit also yielded pledges and agreements to co-operate in various spheres including infrastructure, social services, trade, investment, and development finance. And true to the structure that has characterised the other Africa + 1 summits, Saudi Arabia emerged as the benevolent benefactor and African countries as the lucky beneficiaries.

Saudi Arabia made its intention to expand in Africa patently clear. It was announced that half a billion dollars’ worth of investment pledges from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) would cover projects in the energy, transport and health sectors.

The embargo on red meat from South Africa was lifted.

In another pledge, the Arab Co-ordination Group pledged $50bn which is intended to spur Africa’s development. This will be availed by 2030.

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, announced a new $10bn trade finance package aimed at enhancing trade relations with Africa, in addition to $5bn in development finance to help African countries that experiencing a fiscal crisis.

Moreover, a plan to invest $25bn throughout the next decade in Africa was also released. The investment will be directed to green energy projects, counter-terrorism efforts and climate change co-operation.

A raft of development loan agreements were signed between the kingdom and a host of African countries, including Burundi, Niger, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone among others.

In a move to boost Saudi Arabia’s stock of soft power, the Crown Prince announced the King Salman Development Initiative in Africa which will expire in 2030. The initiative will focus on various development projects to help African countries meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 deadline.

Saudi Arabia also intends to expand its diplomatic presence on the continent by increasing the number of its embassies in the region from the current 27 to 40 in the near future.

The summit was also an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and African countries to close ranks on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Both parties issued a statement calling for a humanitarian ceasefire and the redoubling of efforts towards a two-state solution.

Saudi Arabia’s courting of Africa comes amid new geopolitical shifts in the world politics and the kingdom is positioning itself to protect its interests.

The summit, the first of many to come, follows Saudi Arabia’s increasingly closer relations with China, its diplomatic rapprochement with Iran, its incorporation as a full member of the BRICS group and the friction in its long-standing alliance with the US.

The country has long saddled on the geopolitical heft of the US and it is now trying to chart its own independent foreign policy and establish its own sphere of influence.

Controlling a massive 13% of the global oil market and being the de-facto leader of the influential Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in addition to having a sovereign wealth fund worth over $700bn, Saudi Arabia’s bid for more global influence cannot be ignored.

African leaders must position their countries to take full advantage of Saudi Arabia’s substantial war chest. Only time will tell what this new partnership will yield. However, if the majority of the other previous summits are anything to go by, it is possible that many of the pledges and investment deals and plans announced may not see the light of day.

* Dr Sizo Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the DFA.

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