By Jihâd Gillon, in Doha
Isolated in the Middle East, Doha has launched a diplomatic charm offensive on the continent. It is in competition with the networks of its Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) peers.
Over the past two years, Qatari leaders have made progress in Africa following the embargo against the emirate imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017. Those countries targeted the Doha government for its closeness to the government of Iran, saying that Qatar has been supporting terrorist groups.
Several African countries took retaliatory measures against Qatar after the launch of the embargo.
- Mauritania, Gabon, Djibouti, Chad, Comoros, Senegal, Niger and Gabon recalled their ambassadors, with some countries even cutting off ties. “There was a little moment of panic,” admits a Qatari official who requests anonymity. The episode marked the beginning of a new awareness in Doha: the continent could no longer be neglected.
- For a long time, Africa has been reduced to just Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for Doha. Sub-Saharan Africa was terra incognita, with the non-governmental organisation Qatar Charity often the only evidence of Qatari presence in many countries. “We had to do more on the continent, if only to counter hostile lobbying by the Emirates,” a Qatari official explains.
Qatar is far behind its Gulf peers in Africa.
- “I have decided to follow Saudi Arabia, a partner country for more than 40 years, while Qatar has only been here since 2008,” said Comorian President Azali Assoumani.
- Economic factors weigh heavily in the choice of allies. In return for Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno’s initial decision to break with Qatar, Abu Dhabi offered financial help to Chad.
But Qatar also brought its own economic interests to bear in Chad.
Qatar owns shares in the Swiss commodity firm Glencore. The latter lent Chad nearly €1.2bn ($1.4bn) in 2014 to buy Chevron’s shares in the consortium that exploits Chadian oil.
The problem was that with the fall in the price of oil, N’Djamena was unable to repay its debt. Doha offered its help in mediation in February 2018, which led to the renegotiation of the debt on very advantageous terms for Chad.
In the hours that followed, Déby sent his foreign affairs minister to re-establish relations with Qatar.
Chad has not broken its ties with the UAE. “I think our flexibility has made us score points in the region,” says a senior Qatari official. The Qatari method – making itself useful through mediation and not requiring exclusive relationships – has mitigated the effects of the embargo.
Qatar is building its own African diplomatic network. “We are opening new embassies. We want to establish a win-win partnership,” says Faisal Al Hanzab, a senior official at the foreign affairs ministry. “Qatar will open an embassy this year in Bamako,” confirmed a member of the Malian delegation present at the Doha Forum in mid-December. Along with Burkina Faso, Mali is one of the few Sahelian countries that did not break with Qatar in 2017.
West Africa tour
As a sign of the attention now being paid to the continent, in December 2017 Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani undertook a tour of West Africa, his first trip to the region. The visits, including Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, leave little doubt that its objective is to express its gratitude to those states that did not break off, or that quickly re-established their relations with Qatar. The trip also led to the signing of several cooperation agreements, including with Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara. Doha appointed an ambassador to the country in June 2018. “I think things have become clearer for African countries, especially with the criticism of blockade states,” says Al Hanzab of the ministry of foreign affairs.
Conflicts closer to home
It is in East Africa, and more particularly in the Horn, that the stakes are most crucial for Doha. The embargo has forced the emirate to turn to new trade routes. “Before the blockade, 90% of imported goods were imported by the only road that connects us to the peninsula. We had to reorganise,” says Seif Al Thani, head of government communication.
Port Hamad, the new infrastructure inaugurated in September 2017, is intended to be an instrument of the diversification undertaken by Qatar to become a regional hub. But the UAE’s strategy of maintaining its presence on the coasts of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa threatens access to the Suez Canal. Relying on the giant logistics company DP World, the Emirates are building ports and naval bases around the Horn, such as in Assab, in Eritrea.
The Qataris and Emiratis are competing for influence in Somalia. After the Djibouti authorities fell out with DP World in 2017, the UAE has been looking for support bases along the coast for its operations in the war in Yemen. Abu Dhabi signed a deal with the secessionist government of Somaliland in February 2017 to build a naval base at the port of Berbera.
Somalia’s government denounced the Somaliland deal, meanwhile Qatar expressed its support for Somalia’s “unity and stability” during the May 2018 visit of Somalia’s President Abdullahi Muhammad to Doha in May 2018.
The Mogadishu government has not officially taken sides in the Gulf crisis, but has nevertheless interrupted its military cooperation with Abu Dhabi. Puntland has called on the UAE to maintain its presence in the semi-autonomous region. Faced with Emirates accused of pushing for the partition of the country, Doha is defending the central government of Somalia.
But working closely with central governments presents its own problems. While Doha’s enemies in the Gulf often accuse it of supporting popular protests in order to destabilise regimes, the Qatari government played on its long ties to the Khartoum government and assured then president Omar al-Bashir’s government of its support for “Sudan’s stability”.
The fall of the former president is putting a stop to Qatari projects. In particular, the rehabilitation of the port of Suakin, for which Doha had promised billions of dollars in investment and which would have enabled Qatari ally Turkey to set up a military base there, to the great displeasure of Cairo.
Anticipating a military takeover based on the Egyptian model, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi hastened to announce $3bn in support for Sudan on 21 April. Here again, Doha has not had its last word. Through its ability to address civil societies through its media strike force, Qatar is once again putting on its pro-revolutionary garb. Doha-based news outlet Al Jazeera is already broadcasting topics on the “political calculations of the Sudanese military regime”.
What to watch out for:
On the continent, Qatar is adjusting its strategy, slipping its foot in the half-opened doors, pushing its advantages where it can. The main test will be whether it can stand up to the pressure of Saudi Arabia and its allies.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.