The Growing Role of Arabian Gulf Countries in Africa

The paper suggests that the development of political, as well as security, partnerships between Arab and Islamic countries led by the GCC countries will be most valuable in Africa, as well as serving the interests of both the EU and NATO.

The Growing Role of Arabian Gulf Countries in Africa


Mohammed Baharoon


July 10, 2018



The Growing Role of Arabian Gulf Countries in Africa

President Macron has recently called for the international community to help finance a Sahel Region Counterterrorism Force1. He may be missing an opportunity by not looking closely at the potential of the Islamic Counter Terrorism Coalition and its impact. The establishment of the Islamic Counter Terrorism Coalition (ICTC), referred to at its inception as the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, was seen as an positive initiative by Arab and Muslim forces to fight Daesh rather than leaving the fight to international coalition. But the makeup of the coalition which brings together forces from 41 countries include 24 African countries, more than half the coalition, signifying the importance of trans Red Sea relations between Arab and African countries.

The establishment of the ICTC creates a security cooperation platform that cuts across existing regional governance bodies such as the GCC, Arab League, African Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The coalition is also making important strides towards establishing interoperability through a series of joint exercises. The first was North Thunder2 in which 20 countries participated. The second was the month-long Gulf Shield 13 in which 24 countries participated. The ICTC is essentially an anti-terrorism alliance, but it also addresses wider volatility across the region. With security threats ranging from terrorism, piracy, weapon and human trafficking adding to a history of tribal clashes and the growing threat of water scarcity, Africa is a region that is growing both in importance and political risk. However, GCC-African relations go beyond security alone and have a strategic nature that transcends the immediate security situation. Historically, Africa was one of two main trade routes outside the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Trade routes to India date back to Dilmun civilization and trade between Arabia and East Africa, specifically Zanzibar, can be dated back to the 1st century AD. The current strategy of Arab Gulf States to strengthen relationships both with India and East Africa particularly in the Horn of Africa is rebuilding historical ties that are little different from China rebuilding its centuries-old Silk Road in the form of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). According to Professor Mark Horton4 the trade routes between Arabia, India and East Africa are possibly the basis of globalization as we know it today.

As trade was the vehicle that created the bond between Arabia and Africa, trade continues to do the same. A recent UN report5 reveals that trade between Africa and UAE alone increased from US$5.6 billion in 2005 to $17.5bn in 2014. The growth is still small but diversification into commodities, services and infrastructure is a clear departure from the previous oil for food binary trade relationship and is significant. The role of Dubai Ports World (DPW) in Africa is a significant indication of the strategic value of Africa in the its global outlook. Currently DPW operates 7 maritime terminals in Africa (including a river port in Rwanda) and is developing an 8th terminal in Senegal. The company operates only 3 ports on the Arabian Peninsula – one in Jeddah and two others in its hometown Dubai. Culturally, the Arab Gulf states share a lot with the African coast. Islam is not the only bond between many East African nations and the Arab gulf, in fact relations go back to the pre-Islamic era including the famous attempt by Ethiopian invaders to seize Yemen, and later Mecca, before the birth of Prophet Mohammed. The spread of Islam across Africa fostered trade relations and investment in building and infrastructure evident in the contributions of the Bin Said dynasty in developing the Sultanate of Zanzibar in the 17th century as the major trading hub of East Africa.

The image nowadays is not very different. The level of investment in development in Somalia is broadly similar. DPW went beyond the development and operation of the Berbera port to invest in the Greenfield Free Zone, a 12 square kilometers free trade zone modeled after the Jebal Ali Free Zone (JAFZ), is designed to “develop the Berbera Corridor, which is key to encouraging regional economic activity”6 according to DPW Chairman, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem. The investment of DPW in Berbera amounts to $442 million7 is varies from infrastructure development, to human resources development as well as job creation. The establishment of the UAE military base in Berbera should not be seen as separate from this investment in regional stability. The establishment of the base is part of a sustained effort to support the security and stability of the region, mostly recently against piracy and which has resulted in developing Somalia’s ability to counter piracy8 as part of the strategy to provide maritime security in an important waterway. The UAE’s security cooperation has included: training, supplies of equipment and materiel, and facilities development. The current disagreement between the Federal Government of Somalia and the Autonomous Authority of Somaliland over the DPW deal on Berbera is essentially the reflection of an internal political dispute that has unfortunately been amplified by Qatar’s attempt to impugn the UAE as part of its current diplomatic spat with 3 GCC countries. Nonetheless, it emphasizes the importance of the African region for all Arab gulf countries.

That security cooperation between the UAE and Somalia is part of a bigger picture that the ICTC is developing to encourage regional cooperation on security. This security cooperation has its base in economic stability and offers the opportunity for an important gateway for trade between Asia, Europe and Africa. The ICTC is a new platform for regional security cooperation that will not be limited to hard security but will expand to economic security. An effective tool for the sustainability of security as the UAE experience in fighting terrorism in Yemen has proved. Security in Africa is not a regional affair. The EU has cooperated on African Security with the African Union for years. However, the EU support to the African Peace & Security Architecture through financing the African Peace Facility have proved to be insufficient and raised skepticism regarding “Yet shortfalls in the operationalisation of APSA are well known (inter alia non-full operational capability of the African Standby Force, uneven levels of operational capacity of RECs/RMs, AU-RECs coordination and decision-making problems) and Europeans remain by and large sceptical about African medium-term operational and financial real capacities. And as demonstrated in the cases of Mali and the CAR, Europeans were quick to look for alternatives to the African-led peace operations deployed there” according to Thierry Tardy assessment of the changing security partnership between EU and Africa9 . The growing security partnership between Arab and Islamic countries led by the GCC countries will be most valuable in Africa and the EU and NATO will need to take a closer look at the impact of such regional security platforms such as ICTC and the role of individual countries in the Horn of Africa and the new opportunities to deal with old challenges.

The military presence of the US, France, China, Russia, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the region can be cause of alarm or a reason for unprecedented security coordination. GCC countries like the UAE and Saudi are in a position not only to provide military security but also help create trade corridors and bring in development investment to an area that is much closer home than any of the international powers in the region. The interest of the GCC in Africa is truly beyond security, but the effect of that interest will contribute to global security not only regional. 


1. 2. 3. Joint-Gulf-Shield-1-drills-conclude-in-Saudi-Arabia-s-Eastern-Region.html 


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