Rwanda Courts Qatar in a Week Uhuru Visited Saudi Arabia

Kenya and Rwanda last week took contrasting missions to the Middle East in their search for trade and investment fortunes with President Paul Kagame going to Qatar, giving a wide berth to the Future Investment fronted by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh and attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President Kagame's diplomatic presence at the International Information Technology Conference and Exhibition in Doha was not wholly surprising given that Rwanda is leaving nothing to chance in becoming an advanced ICT hub in Africa.

The country is pursuing promising economic trade deals with Doha especially in aviation.

The Gulf country's plan involves $1.5 billion funding for trade deals and partnerships across Africa.

It is already targeting partnerships between continental airlines and Qatar Airways which was banned from flying in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain in 2017 over alleged terrorism funding.

To this end, Qatar and Rwanda have already discussed possible collaboration in aviation. The partnership would include Qatar Airways, which started flying to Kigali in 2012, taking a stake in RwandAir which has struggled to break even.

Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Rwanda earlier this year and discussed the possibility of financing the construction of Bugesera International Airport.

Qatar's bigger plan is to extend ties across Africa ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup which will, for the first time, be hosted in the Middle East.

The Qataris are also said to be interested in the housing sector across Africa, tying in with President Kagame's vision, already under implementation, of ensuring decent, affordable housing for all Rwandans.

President Kagame's visit to Doha further illustrated his growing desire to build ties beyond the traditional partners in western Europe and the US after reaching out to China, India, Russia and Turkey. His presence in Doha, however, also had some political undertones.

Likely to face US trade sanctions--possible removal from list of countries eligible for the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) facility over its ban of used clothing and footwear--over his dalliance with Al Thani, Rwanda also scored some diplomatic points for the hosts who have become a pariah state in the Gulf region.

Parallel pursuits

On the other hand, President Kenyatta's choice of Saudi Arabia, which has suffered bad publicity since the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi's, allegedly at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, was seen as a pursuit of ties with Kenya's nascent crude oil industry as well as food processing and housing.

There were quick wins in Riyadh as Kenya's Finance minister Ukur Yattani announced the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) had agreed to invest in unnamed projects.

The Kenyan entourage had dangled proposals on the Big Four--housing, manufacturing, health and food security--to the SFD as possible investment projects. The Big Four is at the core of President Kenyatta's plans of an economic revival and development.

Diplomatic sources said SFD was eyeing Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa with housing as a key attraction. In Kenya, the Saudis have already invested in power, roads, health and education.

SFD's projects are mainly in grants worth $143 million to renovate water supply projects in Nairobi, pave roads in Garissa and Kiambu counties, establish a paediatric and emergency burns centre at Kenyatta National Hospital as well as scattered projects in rural electrification.

SFD is known for funding development, finance and trade in developing countries with more than 700 projects in at least 70 countries across the world.

Mr Yatani said Saudis would not be given any special privileges should they decide to invest in the Big Four which has suffered credibility questions as some of its flagship projects--the Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme along Tana River, the medical leasing equipment and the National Health Insurance Fund--are mired in graft.

"They will be working within existing framework," Mr Yatani told The EastAfrican of the deal with the Saudi's, implying the door was still open for investors from other countries.

President Kenyatta said Saudi Arabia should ignore adverse reports on Africa and join China and Russia in enhancing business ties.

"There are many opportunities that offer mutual prosperity. Africa is a continent that seeks to overcome conflicts, offer investment opportunities, and end corruption altogether," he said.

This could have been in reference to the fact that China does not place emphasis on governance issues when investing in developing countries, a non-interference approach Russia pledged to follow at last month's meeting with African leaders in Sochi.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Kenyatta discussed "the need to enhance the co-operation in the fight against global terrorism."

Kagame and Kenyatta's presence in the Middle East also came as the Saudis battle for influence in the Horn of Africa--in Somalia and Djibouti--with Qatar, and as Kenya seeks support from far and wide to become a temporary UN Security Council member for the 2021-22 session and also in its maritime border case with Somalia.

In his speech, President Kagame praised his Qatari friends who are ranked together with Rwanda among the top 10 globally on long-term vision and responsiveness to change by the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report.

Several Rwandan start-ups were represented at the Smart City Expo in Doha, such as Ampersand, which assembles electric motorcycles in Kigali, and recycler, Wastezon.

It was Kagame's second visit to the country in a year following one in November 2018. Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani is expected in Kigali in December as the chief guest at the International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award which is named after him.

It will also be his second visit to Rwanda in a year after he signed multiple investment deals with Kigali in April.

Rwanda on the other hand wants to increase its exports to the Gulf nation, particularly coffee, tea and packaged foods.

To date, Rwanda has exported goods worth almost $7.8 million to Qatar in 2018 up from $1.09 million in 2017, according to national statistics. It also imported goods worth $771,000 in 2018 from Qatar down from $3.6 million in 2017.

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