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Courting Africa: The Saudi Arabia Ambitious Bid for Influence


The high-profile Saudi-Africa Summit saw the oil-rich Saudis position themselves as Africa’s new best friend and biggest benefactor. Motivated to expand its global influence amid shifts in alliances, Saudi Arabia royalty dazzled visitors with unusual generosity.

Riyadh pledged a whopping $25 billion investment over the next decade to woo African nations, knowing money talks louder than words. Billions more in aid and loans aim to deepen economic dependence on Saudi support.

Seeking diplomatic gains, the Kingdom rallied African states behind its conflict resolution objectives. But its reliability remains uncertain.

Africa has much at stake in this partnership, if wisely managed. With prudent cooperation, Saudi funds could unlock mutual benefits. But leaders must ensure aid doesn’t become a Trojan horse for undue influence.

The question lingers – will the Saudis follow through on their lofty promises? Or will this summit be a mirage in the desert sand after the spotlight fades?

For now, soaring pledges spark hope and hazards in equal measure. The summit’s legacy relies on converting talk into tangible progress. With billions promised, all eyes turn to execution.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever Saudi-Africa Summit in Riyadh on November 11. The summit brought together leaders from over 50 African countries with the goal of strengthening cooperation and ties between Saudi Arabia and the nations of Africa.

The summit represents an ambitious foray by Saudi Arabia into Africa, expanding its economic, political, and even military footprint. 

By promising investment and aid to African leaders, Saudi Arabia aims to open up new markets, secure business partnerships, and build broader geopolitical clout. For African nations, the summit presents opportunities for trade, assistance, and infrastructure development. 

The high-level participation in the summit, including presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers, demonstrates the importance African nations place on building stronger ties with Saudi Arabia. Key attendees included the leaders of regional powerhouses like Nigeria and Kenya, underscoring Saudi Arabia’s focus on cultivating relationships with influential African countries.

The Summit resulted in a series of agreements and pledged investments aimed at boosting economic ties between Saudi Arabia and African nations. Saudi Arabia positioned itself as a major benefactor, offering billions in financing and investment to spur development across the continent.

A key announcement was the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s $500 million worth of investment pledges for projects related to energy, transportation, and health in African countries, including $158mn allocated for the development of hospitals and dams in Mozambique. This direct investment demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s interest in building infrastructure and expanding its economic foothold in the region.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia committed $10 billion in trade finance to increase trade relations with African partners through 2030. Another $5 billion in development finance was also pledged to help African countries facing fiscal crises. These funds will provide economic relief while deepening dependence on Saudi support.

Apart from direct financial assistance, Saudi Arabia lifted an embargo on red meat from South Africa, signaling efforts to open trade flows. The Arab Coordination Group also pledged $50 billion in financing for Africa’s development by 2030, expanding Saudi Arabia’s role as a key financer of African growth.

In total, Saudi Arabia outlined plans to invest $25 billion in Africa over the next decade, targeting sectors like green energy, counterterrorism cooperation, and climate change adaptation. This long-term approach shows Saudi Arabia’s goal of building lasting influence in the region.

Overall, the summit demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s ambition to become a major economic partner to African countries through trade, investment, and development financing.

It also reflects Saudi Arabia’s move to take greater control of its foreign policy agenda rather than rely on the United States. As Persian Gulf analyst Anna Jacobs writes, “the new approach is also informed by Saudi perceptions that the U.S. has become unreliable in its longstanding de facto role as a guarantor of Gulf security, putting more pressure on Saudi statecraft to create a geopolitical climate that is conducive to its goals and interests.” 

With this perception that the US is becoming an uncertain ally, Saudi Arabia is engaging regions like Africa to build new partnerships and boost its influence. 

For decades, Saudi Arabia cultivated close ties with Western powers, especially the United States, relying heavily on these alliances to achieve its foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia leveraged its oil wealth and status as an anchor of regional stability to maintain strategic relations with the US and Europe.

However, shifts in global dynamics have pushed Saudi Arabia to increasingly engage with emerging centers of influence beyond the West. As the US shifts its focus to Asia and becomes less dependent on Saudi oil, the Kingdom perceives its longtime superpower ally as a less reliable partner.

Meanwhile, the rise of powers like China and Iran has opened up new opportunities for Saudi Arabia. Stronger ties with these countries helps Saudi Arabia hedge against over-reliance on Western backing.

The Saudi-Africa Summit exemplifies Riyadh’s efforts to diversify its web of partnerships. While still maintaining its core defense alliance with the US, Saudi is reaching out to African states as viable new political and economic allies. 

With its immense oil reserves and leadership within OPEC, Saudi Arabia carries significant geopolitical influence. Extending engagement with emerging powers allows Saudi Arabia to wield this influence more multilaterally.

In the past, Saudi mainly channeled its clout through coordination with Western policies. But today it is directing investment and aid to African partners to shape outcomes aligned with Saudi interests. This gives Saudi Arabia more strategic autonomy to pursue its goals independent of reliance on the West.

Ultimately, Saudi seeks to preserve its core alliances while tactfully engaging new partners for additional leverage. Its future power depends on adroitly navigating this shift towards a more diverse, multipolar order where Western backing alone is insufficient. The Africa pivot expands Saudi options.

Courting African partners allows Saudi Arabia to reduce over-reliance on any one ally. With $25 billion in announced investments, Saudi Arabia’s ambitions in Africa are substantial. As Saudi Arabia pursues a more multi-polar foreign policy, the Africa summit provides a platform to demonstrate its potential as an independent power player on the world stage.

But Saudi Arabia’s objectives are not merely about economic deals and investments, the summit also provided a strategic opportunity for Saudi Arabia to advance its political aims. A key goal was uniting African nations to address the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The summit’s joint declaration advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza and renewed two-state solution negotiations allowed Saudi Arabia to project solidarity with the Palestinian cause. 

Saudi Arabia’s plans to grow its footprint on Africa’s peace and security landscape included hosting peace talks between the warring parties in Sudan’s civil war and making significant contributions towards fighting terrorism in Africa’s Sahel region. As it deepens engagement with African nations, Saudi Arabia aims to play a greater role in conflict mediation and security cooperation across the continent.

Saudi Arabia is also prioritizing growing its diplomatic footprint across Africa. As part of its strategic engagement with the continent, Saudi Arabia announced plans to increase the number of its embassies in African countries from 27 to 40 in the near future. 

This significant expansion of diplomatic missions highlights Saudi Arabia’s commitment to strengthening its political and economic relationships across Africa. By having more embassies, Saudi Arabia will be able to build deeper bilateral ties, cooperate more closely on key issues, and demonstrate its long-term interest in African partners.

Saudi Arabia is undertaking an ambitious effort to expand its economic and political influence across the African continent. The Kingdom aims to leverage billions in investments and a growing diplomatic presence to position itself as a major player shaping Africa’s future.

While African nations stand to benefit from Saudi investment, they must be wary of becoming over-dependent on Saudi aid and aligned too closely with Saudi interests. By increasing engagements with African states, Saudi Arabia seeks to boost its global standing and leadership of the Islamic world. But African nations should ensure these partnerships ultimately empower their own development trajectories and policy autonomy.

The true fruits of the Saudi-Africa summit remain to be seen. If managed judiciously, it could catalyze sustainable growth. But a neo-colonial imbalance could also emerge if Saudi Arabia exerts outsized leverage on the continent. Both sides have much at stake in ensuring mutually beneficial cooperation and respectful relations.

While the scale of Saudi investment pledges is impressive, African leaders would be wise to maintain realistic expectations. The summit’s long-term legacy will depend on execution rather than announcements.

To maximize benefits, African nations should strategically direct Saudi funds toward their greatest development priorities. Diversifying partnerships is also crucial to avoid over-reliance on Saudi aid.

The summit marks potential promise, not guaranteed progress. Its success will be measured in tangible improvement of Africa’s prosperity and self-determination in the coming years, not headlines. With vision and wisdom, African nations can judiciously capitalize on what Saudi investment has to offer without being passively shaped by it.

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