Iran-Saudi Rivalry in Africa: Implications for Regional Stability(Part 3)


By Dr Riham Bali

As it competes with Iran for influence in Africa, Saudi Arabia has gone beyond investing in economic and religious projects to contribute to the Joint Military Force of the Sahel. This force falls under the rubric of G5 Sahel, which brings together Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad for regional cooperation on political and security issues. Invited by France to bolster the finances of this force, Saudi Arabia committed $118 million. This allows Saudi Arabia to claim leadership in the fight against global terrorism, as does the creation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition of 40 Islamic states. This support for G5 Sahel is supposed to earn Saudi Arabia international legitimacy in the fight against terrorism which Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting — and to further its economic and political interests in West Africa. It also allows Saudi Arabia to plan for a long-term presence in the region, with an eye toward countering Iran.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Saudi Arabia has limited strategic goals, is motivated primarily by the need to counter Iran’s influence and relies mainly on the promise of large investments. It has promised $20 million in cheap oil through the Saudi Fund for National Development to promote bilateral ties with Zambia and declared Tanzania to be a priority country for trade and investment, weeks after the Iranian Navy deal mentioned above. Saudi Arabia is said to have facilitated a deal between South Africa and Nigeria, in which South Africa’s MTN made a sudden payment of $250 million toward what appears to be a fine of $3.9 billion imposed by Nigeria’s NCC. Recognizing the threat to its interests if Iran were allowed to establish a foothold in the Horn of Africa, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily to counter Iranian influence. It has succeeded in Sudan. In 2014, Sudan expelled Iranian officials accused of spreading Shiite Islam through their cultural centers. At the same time, Sudan announced joining the coalition led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Consequently, Sudan received a $1 billion deposit in its central bank. 

Saudi Arabia tried to overcome the international isolation imposed on Sudan by inviting its president, Omar al-Bashir, to attend the 2017 Arab-Islamic-U.S. summit in Riyadh. However, Al-Bashir decided not to attend, presumably as a result of U.S. pressure. Saudi Arabia also promised Sudan and Somalia it would construct large dams in order to promote agriculture and the production of hydroelectric energy.  Saudi Arabia has also used economic power to strengthen ties with Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea, countries of strategic importance for the control of the Red Sea. Saudi involvement in the Horn of Africa allowed it to extend its “security belt.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE established several military bases in the Horn of Africa, providing Saudi Arabia with a launching pad to counter Iranian influence. In January 2017, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti agreed on the construction of a military base in the East African state. The UAE has a new military installation in Somalia and a jointly operated base in Assab, Eritrea. Beyond traditional security concerns, Saudi engagement in the Horn of Africa serves its interest in safeguarding access to food supplies. The kingdom has invested heavily in the purchase of land for agricultural production in East Africa. The Saudi Initiative for Agriculture Investment Abroad played a role in promoting deals with Sudan and Ethiopia, necessary to guarantee a reliable food supply.


Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a race to entrench their influence and strengthen and protect their interests. Their competition in Africa has intensified recently, reflecting three international developments: a more aggressive stance by the United States to challenge Iran’s ambitions, an assertive Saudi foreign policy under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the Iranian efforts to become a competitive regional player through employing militias, proxies and solid bilateral relations to escape international pressure, taking advantage of the reopening of relations with western powers after the nuclear deal.

The Horn of Africa has emerged as the principal focus and a zero-sum power game for Saudi-Iranian competition. The Iranian navy’s foothold in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden offered a strategic position in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Iran’s access to Somalia provided a gateway for smuggling arms to the Houthis fighting against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia invested heavily and managed to counter Iranian influence. 

In West Africa, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry played out primarily as a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shiites. The two are supporting rival groups throughout the region in order to gain both ideological and strategic footholds. Two institutions, Al-Mustafa International University and APIJ, embody the contest for influence in Senegal, and more widely in Africa, between Iran-backed Shi-ites and Saudi-funded Sunnis. Each side is spending millions to win converts and political influence in a resource-rich continent. In sub-Saharan Africa, the rivalry is primarily waged through soft power policies and the promise of investments, particularly in the oil and gas fields. Iran looks not only for political and diplomatic support, but also for raw material for its nuclear program.

In this rivalry with Saudi Arabia for supremacy in Africa, Iran is facing serious limitations. Scholars speak of the dysfunctional diplomacy split Iran’s diplomats and the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Different government bureaucracies pursue their own goals, which are often in conflict with the foreign policy objectives of other institutions. Moreover, there is a clear disparity between Iran’s ambitious foreign-policy goals in Africa and its ability to deliver on them. Iran’s economic and soft-power outreach is in contrast with its opportunistic foreign policy, especially arms smuggling and extremist proxy activities. There is the deepened perception that Iran is using Africa merely to advance its interests. Diplomatically isolated and desperate for allies and assets, Iran tried to penetrate African countries, which now are deeply concerned about Iran’s growing influence. Despite the fact that Iran’s goals in Africa are not exclusively religious, there is concern about the ideological and religious sources of Iranian expansionism.

However, scholars confirm that traditional Sufi brotherhoods prevalent in West Africa do not have much in common with the Shi-ism prevalent in Iran. Sudan helped Iran project its influence by serving as the key entry point for weapons exports to Africa. It has also been used by Iran for the transfer of weaponry to Hezbollah and Hamas. Struggling with a collapsing currency and soaring unemployment, however, Sudan has chosen to favor economic ties with Saudi Arabia over a relationship with Iran that was largely based on arms. The Sudanese government “decided to distance itself from the alliance with Iran after it evaluated the relationship and found it economically and politically damaging. Sudan discovered that relations with Iran have become a burden and that Iran did not offer any economic aid to Sudan.” This shift in alignment does not necessarily indicate that Saudi Arabia outdid Iran’s influence in Africa. The kingdom faces economic pressures due to the collapse in oil prices, which might force Riyadh to scale back the use of check-book diplomacy. Moreover, despite Saudi Arabia’s generous investments and funding of Islamic projects in various African countries, 78 percent of African Muslims are Sufis, whose beliefs generally stand in contrast to a Saudi culture that features elements of Salafism.

Despite the absence of real allies, Iran achieved a few of its objectives in Africa: an ideological foothold and sustained weapons transfers to proxies, as well as some commercial interests. As a rising power, Iran sees the necessity of building relationships globally. One can argue that Iran is currently facing major setbacks in Africa; however, the intensified Iranian-Saudi rivalry and the U.S. withdrawal from the JOPCA, as well as risks of renewed sanctions, might trigger another round of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Africa. Skeptics argue that the nuclear deal did not alter Iran’s geostrategic ambitions. Those ambitions emanate from the regime itself, rather than from Iran’s nuclear program; the nuclear deal did not alter the nature of the Islamic Republic as “a radical expansionist and revisionist state.”  Others argue that Iran’s foreign policy is purely a defensive response to an assertive Saudi foreign policy seeking Iran’s containment and marginalization.


Much of the Middle East’s current dysfunction and bloodshed can be attributed to the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Who are the winners and losers of this competition and how will it impact the region’s future? Saudi and Iranian attention to Africa can be considered a mixed blessing. The competition has meant financial and development support from the two rivals, but it has drawn African states into regional conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as intra-Gulf and intra-Arab conflicts. The Qatar-Saudi rift has triggered the withdrawal of Qatari peacekeepers from Eritrea and Djibouti, resulting in the reemergence of their territorial disputes. The two sided with Saudi Arabia and downgraded relations with Qatar. As a result, Qatar withdrew several hundred peacekeepers from Eritrean-Djiboutian borders, where they have been deployed since 2010 to maintain a 2008 border agreement mediated by Qatar. Following the withdrawal, “Djibouti accused the Eritrean military of occupying territory in the contested Dumeira Mountains, ratcheting up tensions and drawing UN and African Union engagement.”

The greatest threat emanates from the export of different forms of conservative Islam to African states. Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to fund and construct mosques and centers of Islamic learning, leading to the spread of fundamentalist Shiism and Wahhabism. These fundamentalist ideologies, coupled with weak state institutions, are radicalizing populations. Somalia is a prime example. In West Africa, a previously tolerant region, sectarian tensions are rising as Saudi Arabia and Iran export their views on Islam through schools, mosques and cultural centers. In Nigeria, a predominantly Sunni state, in which the extremist Boko Haram operates, the Shiite minority feels under threat. Iran, self-declared leader of the Shiites, justified interference in Nigeria’s domestic affairs on the grounds that it is “the legitimate guarantor of the security of its fellow Shiites.” The vicious circle of growing religious intolerance starts with Iranian and Saudi funding and leads to rising Sunni-Shiite sectarianism, allowing the rivals to intervene in support of their respective sects. This has played out in Nigeria, Cameroon, Mauritania and Senegal in the form of ideological proxy conflicts. In 2016, problems between the Nigerian army and Shiite Muslims broke out after hundreds of Shiites attacked the convoy of an army chief. As the guardian of the Shiite branch of Islam, Iran was quick to condemn the reported killing of hundreds of Shiites. It also demanded the release of Shiite cleric Zakzaki, who had been taken into custody. The Nigerian government did not respond to this demand, seen as interference in its internal affairs. In a country bedeviled by a militant Islamic group (Boko Haram), a religious clash could be disastrous.

In West Africa, Mali has raw memories of religious conflict. In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists linked to al-Qaeda invaded the country’s northern half and imposed Sharia law before being ousted by French forces. However, a low-level insurgency has been rumbling on ever since. Militants have targeted the Malian army, UN peacekeepers, and foreign aid workers with drive-by shootings and roadside bombs. The extremist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a popular restaurant in Bamako in March 2015 and the killing of three soldiers in a village near the border with Mauritania in June 2015. Some argue that by funding schools, mosques and much-needed infrastructure, Saudi Arabia and Iran are creating divisions that previously did not exist. Mali provides a case study of how enmity between Sunni and Shiite Islam is being spread, via Iranian and Saudi proxies, to places thousands of miles from the Middle East. Through schools, mosques and cultural centers, Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for African hearts and minds.

On the other hand, a strong Saudi foot-hold in Africa and African solidarity with Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran are linked to economic considerations. African states have benefitted from substantial financial investment from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Countries in the Horn of Africa are considering the economic importance of their diasporas in Saudi Arabia. A significant number of their nationals live and work in Saudi Arabia, and their countries are keen on protecting the interests of their citizens. However, the escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a negative economic impact on Nigeria, Africa’s top oil-producing country. The low oil prices since 2014 have negatively affected Nigeria’s economy, as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries refused to cut down oil production and push prices back up.

Major African countries do not want to be part of an Iranian-Saudi power struggle or to be drawn into Middle Eastern conflicts. Algeria and Nigeria denied that they have joined the military coalition in Yemen. Israel’s attack on suspected Iranian weapons convoys in Sudan on October 24, 2012, is an example of how an African state can be drawn into Middle Eastern disputes. As Israel has been trying to interdict Iran’s weapons shipments, Iran has been spreading its trafficking operations to Kenya and Tanzania.

Conversely, some scholars argue that the Saudi-Iranian competition in Africa should be seen as an advantage for the continent. African states are responding to the competition individually as sovereign nations according to their national interests. Independent African nations are capable of engaging with Iran and Saudi Arabia “without succumbing to their influence of mortgaging national policy in exchange for financial assistance.”  A report by the New Africa Institute argues that “individual African nations have their own idiosyncratic policy presumptions, calculi and means of leverage. Despite the obvious power asymmetries between some African states and some more powerful Middle Eastern states, a number of African states can, and do, leverage their location, resources and other national advantages to advance their interests.” Sudan’s recent realignment toward Saudi Arabia can be seen in the light of its dire need for Gulf funds after it lost oil revenues due to the secession of South Sudan. This repositioning toward Saudi Arabia is a “relationship of convenience.”  In May 2018, Saudi Arabia discussed a deal with Sudan that would provide its energy needs for five years. 

This deal came after Sudan’s defense minister told parliament that the government was reconsidering its military participation in Yemen, where Sudan has sent at least 3,000 ground troops to support the Saudi-led coalition. Nigeria still enjoys political relations with Iran, but it realized the serious effects of the Iranian presence on its social fabric, security and stability and began to monitor Shiite groups and curtail their activities. Moreover, given the nature of religious tolerance in Africa, a rise in sectarianism should not be a concern. Seventy-eight percent of African Muslims are Sufis, whose beliefs generally stand in contrast to Saudi Salafism and Iranian Shiism. West Africa has had a tolerant approach to religious differences, shunning — at least until recently — the sort of Sunni-Shiite rivalries that have plagued the Middle East in favor of a patchwork of beliefs that incorporate Sufism, Maliki Islam and traditional animist practices. 


It is important to note that Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the only regional powers competing in Africa. Egypt is gradually trying to gain influence there. Strong ties with the United States and Saudi Arabia give Egypt the upper hand over its rivals Ethiopia and Sudan. Turkey exploits the concerns of some African countries about Iran’s growing influence and intervention. Israel has relied on an international cooperation program to achieve its strategy of providing agricultural and cooperative planning assistance. Israel has also succeeded in building military relations with more than 25 African nations. This competition will promote multipolarity in Africa by providing much-needed alternatives to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Competition for influence in Africa boosts the chances for African countries to achieve a balance among regional powers.

Dr Bali is an associate Professor of Political Science at Cairo University.