Petro-dollar diplomacy; Riyadh’s anti-Tehran measure in Africa

Alwaght- Saudi Arabia under King Salman has heightened its hostility to Iran, and it no longer solely relies on its Western allies’ support to contain Tehran. Since the time King Salman ascended to the throne, Riyadh has gone to great lengths to curb the increasing Iranian influence in Africa, Asia, and even the Latin America.

Using networks of operatives, Saudi Arabia makes the other countries sever or decrease level of diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic. It, for example, formed the 34-member anti-terror Islamic Military Alliance without inviting Tehran to join it.

Some of African countries followed many of Arab states in cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran. The move took place following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Since 2012, Saudi Arabia has spent nearly $11 billion in a bid to attract Sudan, a former friend of Iran, to its side. Finally, in January 2016, Khartoum severed diplomatic ties with Tehran. Somalia and Djibouti took the same steps after Sudan. The published documents suggest that a short time before announcing cutting off relations with Iran, Somalia had received $50 million in aids from the Saudi kingdom.

In fact, poverty and deprivation have always been a problem the majority of African countries grappled with. This is considered as an Achilles heel of the African world.

Culturally, the Africans are highly lenient people. The blatant presence of the Sufism in many of African countries has added to complexity of the issue, making the Africans tolerant and away from extremism in the sense it is witnessed at the present time across the Muslim world.  Thereby, in terms of social culture it is difficult to create bonds between the lenient African culture and the Saudi-funded Wahhabism and the fundamentalist principles originating from this ideology.

Also, the Arab states of North Africa hold no convenient view of the Persian Gulf Arab states. Many of North African and Maghreb nations consider themselves as Berbers rather than Arabs sharing features with other Arabs, and so they look down on the Arabs of Persian Gulf countries.

Muammar Gaddafi, the slain leader of Libya, was one of the staunch opponents of Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. He used to call them the “pigs of the Persian Gulf”. This negative picture of Persian Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, is deeply rooted in the African societies, specifically those of North Africa. This fact plays a role of a serious hurdle ahead of Saudi influence in the African states.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the kingdom begun to get toehold in the African countries. Saudi Arabia holds two key means to get its influence in Africa: first, the kingdom takes advantage of the title of Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques— a title given to the Saudi kings—, and existence of the holy Muslim city of Makkah in its territory. Second, Saudi Arabia earns large amounts of money from its large-scale oil exports— a factor helping Riyadh to pursue its policies regionally.

The huge oil revenues helped Saudi Arabia to get many of the African countries that are in desperate need of financial aids of the kingdom to side with its regional policies. Sudan is a good example to give. The country lost nearly 75 percent of its income which came from oil sales after it lost its southern part, the present-day South Sudan. Sudan in past few years has undergone tough times due to economic setbacks.

Despite opposition of Sudanese society in terms of culture to the radical Wahhabi ideology and opposition of Sudan’s leaders to the ideology governing Saudi Arabia, the kingdom, drawing on Sudan’s economic weakness and by pressures, has managed to get Khartoum to change approach of its foreign policy, end diplomatic ties with Tehran, and follow Riyadh’s regional policies.

Egypt is another African country in critical need of Saudi financial aids. Holding a significant place among the Muslim world’s countries, Egypt always viewed Saudi Arabia as its conventional regional rival. However, to get things on the right track and move out of the economic crisis, Cairo sees no way but siding with Riyadh to get its financial aids.

It is notable that although Egypt desperately needs Saudi funding, the new Egyptian politicians, beside keeping Riyadh content and getting its financial support, have tried to keep their distance with the kingdom, and so show independence in their policies despite some strains put on them by Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the status of Djibouti and Somalia is clear under Saudi pressures. They match their foreign policy and relations with such countries as Iran with the amount of money they take from the wealthy kingdom.

But the question that comes to the mind is that until when this Saudi Arabian strategy could last. What is obvious is that many of the African countries, including the mentioned ones, are suffering from economic difficulties. This is a long-standing challenge these countries have to deal with, and temporary financial aids are not a remedy to it. On the other hand, despite huge oil revenues, Saudi Arabia’s reserves are limited and so they are not endless. Thus, the oil revenues only to a limited degree could support Riyadh to pursue its policies.

Therefore, due to deep ideological and cultural gaps between the African communities and the Wahhabism along with Saudi Arabian radicalizing policies, the only factor that gets some states in Africa to follow Riyadh’s pathways is the financial aids to them. It appears that when the aids are cut or reduced, these countries find no justification to back Riyadh’s regional policies and feel no need to side with it.

The Saudi policy of expanding influence among African states could be dubbed “coin diplomacy.”

The earlier telephones in booths worked only after a coin was inserted into the coin box. To keep the connection going on, another coin should be inserted into the box. When no coin is inserted into the box, after a limited time the contact is cut.

Due to lack of strong bonds between Saudi Arabia and African states, it is the need of the Africans to the Saudi money that pushes them to follow Riyadh’s policies. It seems that as soon as Saudi Arabia cuts aids to them, they start distancing from Riyadh and its policies in the region.

So, in the International relations it is possible to borrow some friends but it is impossible to buy them forever. Continuation of this Saudi policy could be subject to questions because the Saudi-led alliances are tactical and money-powered.

By Alwaght