The Geo-Strategic Policy of the GCC in Africa: An Economic, Political, and Military Partner?

By Mostafa ElSayyad


While instances of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cooperation with their African counterparts can be seen throughout certain points in history, the relationship consolidated over a decade ago, specifically after the 2008 International Financial Crisis. The African horn has recently become the focus of many superpowers, with many reaching out for cooperation on various levels; the GCC is no exception. The GCC members known for their resource driven wealth have themselves tried over the past decade to diversify their economies and evade the “oil curse”. The GCC has went beyond its geo-strategic alliance to extend its economic, political and military influence to the African Horn. A place that is promising. The GCC has established its relationship with African counterparts on many instances and has at times acted as a very influential mediator to settle African disputes. This paper aims at giving a glimpse of the extent to which GCC is involved in Africa and its implications on the region and beyond. In other words, how does the GCC involvement in Africa affect future relations, create room for cooperation (possibly alliances) and geo-strategic shifts. What does this involvement create for Africa? Is it a win-win situation?

This paper aims at adopting a socio-political approach to current GCC-African relations going beyond the conventional approaches to the subject. The GCC-African relation can be highlighted in instances of cooperation and projections for the future of the relationship are therefore inevitable. As political rifts unfold, we can see a possible GCC reconciliation with Qatar. Arguably, the African horn has been a crucible to which GCC foreign policy has unfolded. Saudi Arabia for example acted as the main mediator to bring an end to a 20-year-old bloody border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia that erupted in 1998. King Salman brought the two leaders to Jeddah along with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to sign an agreement ending the conflict. It later became known as the Jeddah Peace Agreement. 

Economic Dimensions

Relatedly, the GCC countries (led by UAE) continue to promote a less resource-dependent economy with continuous attempts to diversify their economies through infrastructure investments and even industrial projects. This was a move further welcomed after the oil crash in 2014. In terms of statistics, the GCC has come to invest huge funds in Africa. The UAE, the Gulf’s main business hub and home to the majority of international conglomerate present in the region, invested in 2016 around $11 billion in capital across the African continent, becoming the second largest investor in Africa after China. Saudi Arabia is no exception with around $10 Billion investments in South Africa’s energy sector. The contributions are not only financial, but UAE has also exported its know-how of managing and developing ports to many of its African counterparts, namely Eretria. The GCC continues to stretch is economic influence in return for establishing long term secure food sources found in Africa’s fertile soils. After all, Africa continues to have huge land areas that are unused and provide huge potential for growth, production and development. The GCC were quick to understand this and offered a development hand, in return for some food security. With food security issues in the GCC, the Gulf has relied on Africa for food, with imports (UAE alone) hitting a skyrocketing $23.9 Billion in 2016. African labor have also found work abroad in the GCC countries as expatriate labor. Their remittances contribute immensely to the African economies. 

The GCC also aimed at promoting this economic relationship through acting as benevolent Muslim Actors. This has materialized with the establishment of a number of relief-based organizations with generous aid funds to help in a number of humanitarian appeals throughout Africa. This economic role will continue to be the source of leverage for the GCC’s collective security goal and foreign policy characteristic.

Geo-Strategic Dimensions

The energy-born GCC has also offered on many instances to develop the energy sector in respective African countries. The GCC’s ability to implement large-scale projects has made Energy-hungry Africa a fertile ground for energy investment.  Saudi Arabia for example has implemented a number of projects in South Africa’s energy sector with $10 Billion in investments. In July 2018, Dubai’s DP World announced an initial $50 million investment in an inland logistics facility in Mali, supplementing other large infrastructure investments in West Africa, such as Dakar’s port and economic zone. Moreover, in March 2018, Qatar had also signed a $4 billion deal to manage a Red Sea Port with Sudan. The Gulf’s geo-strategic location relative to that of Africa and China has allowed it to utilize its ports for trading. 

However, China remains the number one investor in Africa with the value of trade increasing to more than 180% between 2010 and 2017 alone. UAE has capitalized on these figures to increase imports from African countries accounting for quadrupled figures in the past six year only. 

Military Dimension

Another integral part of the GCC- African relations includes the military dimension. These investments also highlight the Gulf’s interest in military support by deploying its first military base in Eretria (Assab) and Somaliland. The latter was also part of a $442 million deal. Neighboring Saudi Arabia also finalized a military base deal in Djibouti in 2017. The GCC has been on the outlook for military bases in Africa for military operations in Yemen and an attempt to balance out the Iranian rivalry back home. These efforts have also been balanced out by playing a diplomatic role by committing to peacekeeping and counterterrorism especially in the Eritrea-Djibouti dispute, and more importantly their ongoing commitment to fighting terrorism in Somalia. Saudi Arabia in 2016 even launched the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition (IMCTC) with more than 21 members (more than half) are from Sub-Saharan African States.

The GCC policy towards Africa has evolved immensely over the past decade and it is expected that these ties will only continue to grow. Not only does Africa prove itself as a crucial economic partner, but also a political one that can influence diplomatic decisions and even war.

Mostafa ElSayyad, (MA) is a Senior Researcher at the American University in Cairo.