15 June 2017

Africa and the Gulf Crisis - the Peril of Picking Sides

Photo: RFI
L'émir of Qatar, Tamim Ben Hamad al-Thani.

As the Gulf crisis enters its third week, the decision to cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Qatar by nine African countries could have a long-term impact on the nationals of those countries, analysts warned.

"This is not good for Africa. This is rush decision-making and taking sides in a crisis that the leaders have no clear grasp of is dangerous and will scare investors away," Adama Gaye, a Senegalese foreign policy expert told Al Jazeera.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt announced that they were cutting ties with Qatar and imposing land, sea and air blockades.

The Arab countries accuse Doha of supporting "terrorism" and "extremist groups" - charges which Qatar strongly denies.

Soon after the announcement, some Gulf envoys and ministers started shuttle diplomacy, travelling between countries trying to convince allies to cut ties with Qatar.

Two days after the Arab countries cut ties with Qatar, Senegal said it was recalling its ambassador to Qatar and expressed "active solidarity" with Riyadh.

Anaylsts say Dakar has likely automatically accepted the Saudi allegations against Qatar without questioning them.

"Security and tackling violent extremism are real issues in several African countries but there are strong economic factors at play here," Africa analyst Antony Goldman told Al Jazeera by phone from the Ghanaian capital, Accra. "Saudi Arabia has invested a lot of money recently in Africa and this gives it a lot of weight on the continent," Goldman added.

This is not the first time Senegal has been on the side of Saudi Arabia. Dakar sent 2,100 soldiers in 2015 to Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthis rebels. Dakar said at the time that it sent its troops "to protect and secure the holy sites of Islam, Medina and Mecca".

Senegal is the most significant of the African countries that have stood by Saudi Arabia since the GCC countries imposed trade, transport and diplomatic isolation on Qatar.

Djibouti, a small country of less than a million people on the northern tip of Somalia, downgraded its diplomatic ties with Qatar, saying it took the decision "in solidarity with the international coalition against terrorism and violent extremism".

The horn of African country, known for hosting foreign military bases, said in January it was finalising an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow the Gulf state to build a military base. According to analysts, this is the likely reason behind Djibouti's decision.

Eritrea - a one-party state under UN sanctions for violating an arms embargo and accused by rights groups of using mandatory and indefinite military conscription - also cut ties with Doha after initially saying it backed Qatar.

In 2015, UAE established a military base in the Eritrean port city of Assab where it currently carries out its military operations against the Houthi fighters in Yemen.

But a regional analyst says those small countries do not have much clout beyond their borders.

"These countries are small-league players in Africa, forget about the rest of the world. These countries have negligible influence. But for Saudi it seems it is quantity over quality," Abdullahi Boru, a nairobi-based regional security specialist told Al Jazeera.

Comoros, Gabon, Niger, Chad and Mauritania were the other African countries that either cut ties or downgraded them.

Those small countries are also subject to pressures that go beyond economic incentives offered by the Gulf states, Gaye said.

"It is not a secret that bullying tactics have been applied. First financial incentives were offered and, if leaders turn them down, then Saudi Arabia has the Hajj leverage where it has threatened that no citizens from these countries will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage if they don't take the Saudi side," said Gaye.

However, despite reported pressure and financial incentives from Gulf ministers and envoys, some African countries have remained neutral and declined to take sides, such as Somalia and Ethiopia.

The two countries have even called for dialogue to end the rift.

Analysts say that the longer the crisis continues, the more likely many poor African countries will be dragged into it.

"African leaders have to show more muscle and must remain neutral. They should put aside all their personal interests," Gaye said.

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