From the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific: The New Map of Africa’s External Partners

Jean-Loup Samaan is a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and a regular lecturer at G5 Sahel Defense College. He is the co-author of the book The Indian Ocean as a New Political and Security Region (published by Palgrave in 2022) and has written extensively about French military strategy in the Sahel, the UAE policy in Africa as well as Israel’s military cooperation with African states.

For decades, Africa’s foreign policies seemed to be dictated by the relations of its countries with their former European colonial powers such as France and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the US seemed to act only as a reluctant player of African politics. After looking at the continent as a secondary arena of the Cold War, Washington then eyed at Africa mostly, if not exclusively, through the lens of the global war on terror that followed the 9/11 attacks.

This framework is now gone and has been replaced by an entirely new diplomatic landscape. In the last decade, a myriad of new external partners proved increasingly consequential in shaping Africa’s foreign policies. China’s economic presence across the continent is the most obvious and most documented illustration of that phenomenon. Since the launching of Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative in 2013, Beijing’s investments in Africa, be it in local infrastructures or digital connectivity, initiated a new dynamic in the continent’s relations with great powers. Other Asian countries followed: India and Japan not only increased their engagement with Africa, in 2017 they launched together the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, an ambitious project that aims to support African development via Asian investments.

This rapprochement between Africa and Asia emerged while other smaller powers raised their profile too. This was specifically the case of Middle Eastern countries like the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel that all invested tremendous resources, diplomatically and economically, into the African continent.

Gulf states have an ancient history of ties with the African continent through migrant flows and religious connections but in the past ten years, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha have also become key actors of its economic development, from the Horn of Africa to West Africa. They play a significant role in conflict resolution, as evidenced by the recent Qatari mediation between the Chadian government and its opposition or the Emirati and Saudi facilitations of talks between Eritrea and Ethiopia that paved the way to the 2018 peace agreement.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Erdogan insisted in his speech opening the last Turkey-Africa summit in December 2021 that « Turkey’s interest in Africa is not a temporary interest, it is a maintained commitment ». Finally, Israel was granted observer status at the African Union in the fall of 2021, a measure that reflected the enduring presence of the Jewish State, economically and militarily, on the continent.

The combination of all these new stakeholders on the African continent reflects broader dynamics at play in global politics, namely the shift of power from the Western world to the Indo-Pacific region. For African decision-makers, this transformation comes with obvious opportunities: it provides new avenues for investments into the development of local economies and infrastructures, and it enables policy-makers to diversify their foreign policy partnerships.

But it also creates new challenges: African countries, like the rest of the world, are slowly getting caught between the US and China and may soon be forced to pick a side. Likewise, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor led by Delhi and Tokyo is about the development of Africa as much as it is about India and Japan countering China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

Even the smaller powers may project their own rivalries on African soil: during the blockade of Qatar by its Gulf neighbors between 2017 and 2020, the Horn of Africa turned into a theater of the bitter dispute between Doha and Abu Dhabi. Israel’s increased presence in Africa has been a factor of polarization, as several African states opposed its observer status at the AU – most notably Algeria and South Africa. In North Africa, the Israeli military cooperation with Morocco initiated in the midst of the Abraham Accords is also susceptible to fuel the lingering tensions between Rabat and Algiers.

For African decision-makers, the diversity and the depth of these new relations create a complex environment that needs to be carefully appraised to prevent the continent from getting trapped into extra-regional rivalries, be it those from the Middle East or from Asia. This is a delicate game but not one where Africa is doomed to lose.

In that context, the experience of other regions of the world might be worth studying. For instance, Southeast Asia witnessed similar developments for many years: the prosperity of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore depends on their relations with China but at the same time, local governments cautiously maintain close security ties with the US, or India, in order to balance their partnerships, and preserve their strategic autonomy. They also emphasize regional governance via multilateral consultations led by ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – in order to mitigate the risks of unilateral policies being imposed by great powers.

African states would certainly benefit from such approach. Among other things, it would imply a greater role for the African Union in fostering those consultations. Eventually, cultivating a strategic dialog among the AU member states on these matters will be crucial to allow the continent to gain from the new investments of Middle Eastern and Asian countries while keeping the competition in those distant regions at bay.