Positions in the Sahel: Between Western Powers and the Gulf Kingdoms Spécial

Interview with Dr. Bakary Sambe

On December 13th 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced respective disbursements of 100 and 30 million dollars in Saint-Cloud (France) to support the implementation of a multinational force of the G5 Sahel (a coalition of 5 Sahel countries to counter terrorism). What are these monarchies seeking with such a gesture? Is the Sahelien burden suddenly too much for French president Emmanuel Macron to bare?


In this exclusive interview granted to Ouestafnews, Dr. Bakary Sambe, Director of the Timbuktu Institute and professor at l’Universite Gaston Berger de Saint Louis (Senegal), and specialist of the Muslim world and transnational Sahel networks, analyses the insertion of Saudi Arabia and the UAE into the realm of the Sahel.


Ouestafnews: Why have the monarchies of the gulf just decided to finance military forces in the Sahel at this moment?


Bakary Sambe: It’s a sign of the profound mutation of diplomatic coupling and contemporary international relations. The logic of influence has undeniably substituted that of power.  But Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the apparent palatial revolution in Riyadh were not for nothing. That the Saudis are so actively engaging in the war on terror signals a strong will to demonstrate a change in attitude in order to no longer fulfill the idea that Saudi Arabia is a country that exports radical ideologies.


The fact that this is occurring in the relative minefield that is the Sahel, also the locale of a geostrategic competition between Western powers in which France promotes the G5 Sahel while the US are well positioned in Agadez and maintain the strength of AFRICOM, reveal a truly calculated move on the part of the Saudis.


Above all, it indicates a position that is far from timid, especially when considered within the context of rivalries between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar.


O: What are they hoping to gain from this financial contribution?


B.S. : In addition to the aforementioned change of image for these countries, these monarchies do not want to miss the opportunity to put themselves on an important playing field and in a competition for control of resources and strategic positions.


We already knew about these countries’ interest in viable land for agriculture due to a food crisis that would put both at risk. But they are worried also about diversifying partnerships in an uncertain world, to put their oil dollars to good use in the vast space of investment opportunities far from Western countries that could freeze their assets and investments on the grounds of counterterrorism, like after September 11th.


Nevertheless, an important element of this is also the rivalry between these countries that dates back to the Iranian revolution, in which Saudi Arabia hopes to limit and contain the spread and power of Shiism. This concern has been shared by Morocco, a transitory country and intermediary for financial redistribution with its numerous banking institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.


The recent developments between Qatar and Saudi Arabia also indicate that we have not truly left behind a checkbook diplomacy backed by a frenzied quest for influence that is heavily dependent on religious bias.  In this context, a moderate, equidistant position is most prudent for our country.


O: Is this a way for Saudi Arabia to try and rid themselves of the image of “promoters of Salafism” that they can’t seem to shake?


B.S.: It’s true that Riyadh is in the midst of a campaign to charm and indicate goodwill towards efforts to counter terrorism after years of ambiguity in regard to its religious influence and exportation and promotion of Wahhabism. This gesture towards the G5 countries and Western powers they hope will be sufficient to not only reassure these partners but rally them to Riyadh’s cause against Qatar. 


But the bigger question facing Saudi Arabia is more complex: how do the al-Saoud conciliate the will to reform as envisioned by Mohamed Ben Salmane with the imperative of the religious wing, the al-Shaykh, who’s power is derived from the tenants of Wahhabism.


All of this depends on this objective alliance and the ingenuity of Ben Salmane to reconcile concern for socio-religious modernization in terms of both politics and appearance. That’s what the near future holds.


O: How can we analyze France’s attitude and decision to “share” its sphere of influence with actors from the gulf?


B.S.: The clear and explicit allusion to Saudi Arabia as a new partner in the war on terror in Macron’s speech at Ouagadougou insinuates a Franco-Saudi entente without precedent, circumstances notwithstanding. However, France also finds herself confronted with the same dilemma to defend and promote its democratic values, the foundation of its counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel, and managing a new ally that does not share these same values or even the same suspected economic motivations. 


The other question is to determine whether the war on terror should only be limited to military options that the international partners of the Sahelien countries seem to favor.


O: Is there another way besides using weapons?


B.S.: Maybe at the next Dakar Forum on Education will pose a debate on diversifying and complementing these approaches, and that will tackle this issue of education and radicalization head on.

We know also that it’s in the universities of those who are injecting billions of dollars into military bidding that these radical ideologies which plague the Sahel are conveyed. Moreover, this last question seemed to be at the heart of Donald Trump’s requests during his fruitful visit to the gulf.

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