Authors: Javad Heiran-Nia & Somayeh Khomarbaghi
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are supporting the Sahel Joint Military Force, the latest indication of a competition for influence with Iran in West Africa.
The force falls under the rubric of G5 Sahel, which brings together Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad for regional cooperation on political and security issues.
To bolster the finances of this organization, France invited UAE, Saudi Arabia, Germany. and Italy to coordinate with this organization. Saudi Arabia committed $118 million and the UAE offered $35 million to fund the joint military force. In addition, the UAE has promised to establish a “school of war” in Mauritania.
Support for this joint force allows Saudi Arabia to claim that it is leading the fight against global terrorism, alongside the creation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition of 40 Islamic states. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in particular, wants to prove his leadership in this fight. It also allows both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to plan for a long-term presence in the region, with an eye toward countering Iran.
Iranian Presence in Africa
The presence of Iran in Africa dates to the 1980s. During the Cold War, Iran was located in the bloc of US-aligned states. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran became interested in spreading Shiite thought in West Africa through cultural, economic, diplomatic, and media initiatives.
Most African countries are rich in natural resources such as gas, oil, gold, iron, copper, diamond, platinum, and phosphate. Poverty in the Sahel Region and West Africa, however, opened the doors of the region to Iran. Iran implemented hundreds of economic projects in many African states like Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Sierra Leon, Benin, Nigeria, and Ghana. Iranian leaders—Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Sayyed Muhammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travelled to these states and signed many bilateral agreements.
Iran also benefitted from these deals, and not just the expansion of Shiite thought. The deals allowed Iran to break out of the international isolation generated by its nuclear activities. They created new markets for Iranian products, particularly the oil that was under global sanctions, and provided access to raw materials, like uranium. Iran earned billions of dollars from the implementation of joint projects, including facilities that refined Iranian oil.
Saudi Arabia’s concerns about increased Iranian influence have prompted it to push back, particularly after the ascension of King Salman. Saudi Arabia poured investments into the public and private sectors in West Africa and the Sahel. But Saudi penetration also extended into the religious realm, with a focus on the Maliki Muslims who compose the majority of West African population. Since 78% of African Muslims are Sufis, their beliefs generally stand in contrast to a Saudi culture that features elements of Salafism.
To compete for influence, then, Saudi Arabia has gone beyond economic projects and religious programming. That’s why it has created an unofficial coalition with Mauritania and Senegal and is also preparing a new coalition with Libya and Chad. The presidents of Senegal and Mauritania travelled to Riyadh in April 2015, and Senegal has committed to sending hundreds of troops to the Asefah Al-Hazm military operation under Saudi command.
Saudi Arabia has contributed to the joint military force of the Sahel to earn international legitimacy in the fight against terrorism and to further its political and economic interests in West Africa. But countering Iran is the main rationale. Stemming Iranian influence in this region and globally remains one of the cardinal pivots of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.