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First Saudi-Africa summit: off to a rocky start?

The attendance of ‘coup’ states questions Saudi Arabia’s commitment to Africa’s interests and governing principles.

On 10 November, the maiden Saudi Arabia-Africa summit was hosted in Riyadh – the latest in a growing list of ‘Africa+1’ summits. The gathering presented an opportunity to strengthen relations between Saudi Arabia and African states and bolster economic and diplomatic ties.

Among the 50+ leaders who attended were the presidents of Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe. African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and AU Chairperson and Comoran President Azali Assoumani, were also there.

It was notable that Saudi Arabia invited suspended AU member states – such as Gabon, Niger and Sudan – to the summit. Although the focus was on African countries and not the AU, the decision could undermine the AU’s norms and principles among its members – a trend already evident in the recent rise in coups. It could also strain Saudi-AU relations. As it is, the AU-Arab League summit planned for 11 November was cancelled due to disagreements among African states about the Sahrawi Republic’s attendance.

The summit – the first Arab-African gathering since Kuwait hosted one in 2013 – underscores Saudi Arabia’s vision of integrating Africa into its multipolar foreign policy and trade agenda. The country also seeks to demonstrate global leadership by fostering stronger ties between the Arab world and Africa.

The summit underscores the Kingdom’s vision of integrating Africa into its multipolar agenda

The meeting comes during greater African membership in various global institutions. In August, BRICS expanded to include Saudi Arabia and two African nations – Egypt (representing Africa and the Arab world) and Ethiopia (headquarters of the AU)- starting January 2024. That same month, the AU was admitted to the G20.

With African states and the AU becoming increasingly important in world politics, Saudi Arabia plans to increase its diplomatic presence by opening more embassies and scaling up its limited economic investments. It predominantly trades with Egypt and South Africa. Most exports are rubber, chemicals, consumer goods, minerals, metals and food products. Meanwhile, metals, raw materials, vegetable, stone and glass products account for the largest share of imports.

Investment pledges of over US$25 billion by 2030, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud proposed allocating US$10 billion to support Saudi exports. The Saudi Fund for Development will provide US$5 billion in development funding to African countries during the same period. Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced signing contracts totalling US$533 million to help Ghana and other African nations with debt relief. Over 50 other agreements were signed in various sectors.

The summit also allowed African leaders to step up their role in crisis diplomacy. The meeting’s Riyadh Declaration condemned Israel’s international law violations, called for a halt to military operations in occupied Palestine, and for civilians to be protected. South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia could use their position in BRICS to urge other members, including Saudi Arabia, to play a more constructive role in ending the Russia-Ukraine war.

Saudi outreach to juntas questioned its belief in Africa’s quest for good governance and stability

Developments in the Middle East indicate that Saudi Arabia could be another essential security partner for some African states. With the United States, Riyadh has been leading diplomatic efforts to end Sudan’s war. And after the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran seeks to normalise diplomatic relations with Egypt. Any detente between Tehran and Cairo could destabilise hostile ties between Egypt and Ethiopia.

However, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic outreach to military juntas at the summit didn’t lend confidence in Africa’s quest for good governance and stability. The presence of leaders from countries suspended from the AU for staging coups was significant. In barring them from ‘all its activities,’ the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) strongly rejected ‘any external interference by any actor or any country outside the continent in the peace and security affairs in Africa.’

By inviting them, Saudi Arabia legitimised these leaders and disregarded the AU’s anti-coup principles, weakening the impact of AU sanctions. Discussions at the summit with Gabon’s Interim President Brice Oligui Nguema about lifting global sanctions and the African Development Bank’s lifting of financial sanctions against Nguema during his visit to Riyadh directly undermined sanctions regimes. Russia’s hosting of suspended military juntas at the July Russia-Africa summit contradicts its commitment to security cooperation with Africa.

Both Saudi Arabia and Russia are BRICS members. The group’s leaders share a belief that Western states and institutions dominate the international system and don’t serve developing nations’ interests. But Saudi Arabia and Russia’s interactions with African states suspended by the AU cast doubts over their commitment to acting in Africa’s interests. It also raises questions about the value of Africa+1 summits for the continent.

Saudi Arabia legitimised coup-leaders, undermining AU anti-coup principles and sanctions

Saudi Arabia can engage sovereign states as it pleases within international law. However, international cooperation requires the pursuit of national interests to recognise shared goals among partners. The refusal of various African leaders to appear in the official Russia-Africa summit photo alongside those from Burkina Faso and Mali sends a clear message of the need to respect AU decisions and principles. This symbolic gesture should be extended to urging Africa’s partners to recognise its anti-coup norms.

Summits that engage the AU and its member states should pursue national and common interests based on mutual respect, solidarity and accountability – especially now that the AU has joined the G20 as a permanent member.

While AU suspensions don’t bar states from participating in Africa+1 summits, sanctions imposed by the PSC must be strengthened. As the AU’s decision-making organ on security, the PSC could discuss measures to better deter or punish coup behaviour. Perhaps the ‘suspension from all AU activities’ could include summits with external partners seeking to engage with the continental body and its member states.

Finalising the AU partnership strategy is an opportunity to add measures that reinforce sanctions. The strategy should call on partners to respect AU decisions and principles and recommend that suspended member states not be invited to Africa+1 summits. This is vital to becoming a respectable and influential player and partner on the international stage.

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