Belt and Road at Ten

China wanted to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a sumptuous ceremony in Beijing in mid-October. This was intended to mark the success of the project which represents the net of all kind of agreements, accords and presences that bind a large number of nations across the globe and which the competitors, primarily the USA and EU, understand that Beijing’s assault on world power can no longer be stopped.

President Vladimir Putin, on his first trip outside Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, visited China for the summit. This decision underlined Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing for trade and political support, in an attempt to circumvent Western sanctions but also that Xi Jinping is now the majority partner of the global anti-Western alliance. China exploits Russia aggressive approach worldwide, hoping to concentrate on the attention of the USA, Europe, NATO and the G7 on Moscow. For China, this would weaken the response towards Beijing’s initiatives and actions, trying to take advantage of Western divisions and difficulties. During a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the visit, Putin stressed the need for close coordination of Sino-Russian foreign policy to address the current difficult circumstances. A sentiment echoed by Xi, who praised their “close and effective strategic coordination.”

In reality this meeting was of a minor nature, given that the number of participating foreign leaders was constantly decreasing from one summit to another; further, the “allure” of the meeting was heavily affected by the news of the growing difficulties afflicting China (and which Beijing is no more in condition to hide or camouflage), such as a heavy slowdown in economic development, a looming financial disaster in the immense real estate programme, the growing youth unemployment, the sharp decline of foreign investments, the piling errors of Xi Jinping’s governing style, such the disastrous Covid management and the re-nationalisation of large sectors of production and services.

But there are also other reasons, a growing number of states, especially African ones, are starting a slow but steady disengagement from China. There are various reasons for this. First of all, the very heavy Western pressure; secondly, there is a growing awareness that Chinese offers of help and financing have a greater counterweight, and the failure to repay the loans have similar punitive consequences, for the indebted country, not very different from those of the IMF and similar institutions (methodologies that originally pushed many nations to move closer to China, believed to be more generous and objective) and discovering the dark face of Beijing. Another reason of growing distancing is the fact that China started to reduce the flow of financing and loans to the continent, and tighten further the reimbursement of credits policies, as witnessed at the Africa-China Summit in Dakar on 2021, where was announced the new approach.

This situation is a window of opportunity that the competitors of Beijing do not want to lose as they try to recover political and commercial positions in Africa, and try to improve their strategic autonomy in some specific sectors, such as rare materials, a sector in which Beijing maintains a strong position on the continent (but not only, given the infiltrations in Australia and in North America itself).

The tool which appears leading the counteroffensive is the G7, thanks to its informal nature of interstate conference, more flexible than the structured architectures like EU, NATO (and OECD).

The US and the EU have joined forces with the African Development Bank (AFDB) and the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC, a pan-African multilateral development financial institution established in 2007 by 40 African states [out of 54 of African Union] to provide pragmatic solutions to continent’s infrastructure deficit and challenging operating environment) to launch the west’s latest attempt to counter BRI in the continent, and as said above, to regain control over the market of rare hearts.

The four partners signed a memorandum of understanding setting out plans to develop the “Lobito Corridor” which will setup a link across Atlantic Ocean Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean façade of the continent through a number of large mining area, joining Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (in the Katanga province), Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya and, with the real aim of replacing China, or, at least, undermining her influence there.

In the area, there are already existing railways, even if with narrow gauge, the “Benguela railway,” the Portuguese colonial time mining exploitation line of 1344 kms and the “Tazara railway” of 1860 kms. The first one was rebuilt by China in 2014, and the second was completely built by China in 1975. But there is a large gap of 800 km between the two lines and the US and EU initiative look to fill it. The railway, with Lobito, the main harbour of Angola and Mombasa (Kenya), Dar Es Salam, Bagamoio (this one under construction by Chinese firms) in Tanzania on the Indian Ocean coast will represent a transcontinental corridor for trade and development of global profile in consideration of the raw materials which are found along the planned line.

This also describes how stiff is the rivalry between the non-African competitors and the values on the table. The deal was done on the margins of the Global Gateway Forum in Brussels, an invitation-only meeting of EU governments with companies, banks, and international organisations intended to promote international infrastructure. Washington labelled the project as “the most significant transport infrastructure that the US has helped develop on the African continent in a generation, and will enhance regional trade and growth as well as advance the shared vision of connected, open-access rail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.”

The projects will be carried out under the auspices of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the G7’s operational sub architecture established to counter to the BRI. The Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment was launched in June 2022 at the G7 summit in Germany.

The aim of the Partnership is to invest over $600 billion by 2027 to close infrastructure gaps around the world and exclude China from geographical strategic areas and markets. The Western block has already launched initiatives to compete with Chinese infrastructure largesse in the developing world. In 2013, then president Barack Obama launched his “Power Africa” initiative aimed at investing $7 billion to add more than 10,000 megawatts of clean electricity—but it did not work. The G7 tried again in June 2021 with its “Build Back Better World” scheme, intended to funnel billions into infrastructure in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific. At the end of 2021 EU launched the “Global Gateway,” a project of $300 billion only for Africa for a time length of 2030.

The G7 initiative appears to be more targeted and takes into consideration the interests of the African countries to develop exploitation and trade in the region. The project aims to expand and improve the “Benguela Railways,” which runs within Angola, to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a new railway from northwest Zambia will join that line. The project also involves building 260 kms of roads and about 550 kms of track in Zambia, spanning from the Jimbe border to Chingola in the country’s copper region. As well as the railway, the corridor will involve 4G and later 5G telecoms systems and a billion-dollar investment in solar farms and microgrids.

Analysts suggest that this is a direct challenge to BRI, largely viewed as an unsettling extension of China’s rising power, and that it will be impossible to avoid working with Beijing on the Lobito project, as for example in the telecommunications sector, since local firms, partly owned by China Communications, signed an agreement to run the Lobito Corridor network. These analysts foresee that Beijing, despite the internal difficulties, will fight stiffly to face the response of the Western countries and will continue to bet on the campaign to reinforce her position on the rare materials, essential elements for the environmental conversion and technology developments.

As example of this enlarged battlefield, China is the world’s top graphite producer and exporter. It also refines more than 90% of the world’s graphite into the material that is used in virtually all EV battery anodes, and the demand for graphite over the next decade will grow at an annual compound rate of 10.5%, but supply will lag, expanding at only 5.7% per year. While there is a need for 200,000 tonnes of graphite to meet demand, the reality is, the current US supply capability is zero. But there are signs that, slowly a dynamic by the Western countries is beginning, like the reopening of North America’s only graphite producing mine in Canada.

Other than China, the world leaders in graphite exploitation are Madagascar, Mozambique, Brazil, South Korea, Russia, Canada, Norway, India, North Korea, while the US Geological Survey states that Africa has been a recent focus for graphite exploration, with projects under development in Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania (this list clearly shows that few exporter countries are close to the Western security and economic architectures).

With the BRI, China wants to seek its own space and assert its global leadership; and the “New Silk Road,” as it is also informally called, is part of a series of architectures (some under its full control, like the SCO, with others less, like the BRICS), which are part of a large-scale project. The “broadened” Western system has understood that the confrontation will be at least long and certainly not easy, even if China itself does not want to take the confrontation to extreme consequences, as it is aware that the price would still be high. The internal difficulties are starting to have an impact on Beijing’s policy-making and proof of this is the bilateral meetings between Xi and Biden, on the sidelines of the San Francisco summit; they are the signal of a possible resumption of dialogue, though China will not give up its ambitions, but it will reorient them, based on circumstances, needs and resources.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

Turkey, Africa and the World: A Fragmented View

The decomposition of patterns dating back to the Cold War and their ongoing recomposition according to new, but still uncertain parameters, is particularly evident in Africa, where ancient presences are progressively attenuating their influence and new ones are pushing to assert themselves on the continent, despite their own internal problems, while others try return there. An example of it is the fogging of France, the penetration of Turkey, the return of Moscow and the not so clear stance of China.

The reality, however, is more articulated and complex and alliances and hostilities are intertwined in the constant diplomatic game of influences, to which are added imperial and/or neo-imperial dreams, economic interests, internal political needs.

Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence in Africa often align with those of Russia, with both Ankara and Moscow holding back from condemning recent military coups in Sahel and seeking to capitalize on post-colonial resentments growing in the region, especially against France, but widely hostile to the Western economic and political states and architectures (e. g. G7, NATO and EU).

While the analysts look on the Turkish ambitions only towards the Turanic area (Caucasus and former USSR Central Asian republic) and Middle East, Africa is also an important element of the Ankara welt politik and the highly mediatized presence and influence of Turkey in Libya is a mere, even important, part of a broader strategy of influence and penetration in the continent.

A series of military takeovers in West Africa, the latest occurring in Gabon at the end of August, may reveal the extent to which Turkish and Russian efforts converge in trying to leverage political shifts to the detriment of former colonial powers, chiefly among them France, and expand their own influence in the region.

Keen to seize opportunities under the new African governments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Russian head of state Vladimir Putin, have refrained from condemning the putschists riding the wave of popular resentment toward the ongoing influence of former colonial powers, their endless exploitation of local natural resources and the failure of Western-led anti-terror operations in the region.

Speaking at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg shortly after the July coup in Niger, Putin remarked that some manifestations of colonialism remain in Africa and underlie the instability in many regions on the continent.

Erdogan has employed similar rhetoric for years, in particular targeting France, expanding the rift that opposed the two countries in the demarcation of hydrocarbon fields in Eastern Mediterranean waters and the consequent rapprochement of Paris with Greece and Cyprus, and leading to a dangerous confrontation in June 2020 when, when a French frigate under NATO command tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of the UN embargo, was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels escorting this one. A Turkish ship flashed its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their light weapons.

However, as many other aspects of the Russian-Turkish relationship, also there is a strong background of ambiguity, giving the divergent strategic and long-term objectives. But this ambiguity is present as well with the relationship with NATO, of which Ankara is full member, and EU, and these ambiguities reflect, paradoxically, the firmness of Turkey in finding her own way, space and ambitions, regardless the expectations of partners/competitors, but the dreams of Ankara’s leadership could be undermined by intrinsic fragilities, weakness and fracture affecting the country.

In August 2020, just after the coup, the (then) FM Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Mali, putting his opportunism on striking display and openly irritating (further) France and US. However, after the coup in Niger (July 2023), Ankara has been more prudent expressing concern for the toppled President Bazoum and the suspension of democratic framework (the prudence of statement in Niger could be read as concern also for the presence of a quite large group of Turkish aid workers there). Ankara had issued an almost identical statements after the other recent coups, in Burkina Faso in September 2022 and in Gabon in August 2023.

Hyping the attention received from Russia and Turkey is politically advantageous for the juntas, as it allows them to claim that they are not without alternatives while breaking with France. French President Emmanuel Macron openly pointed out Moscow and Ankara of seeking to exciting and exploiting the anti-French sentiment in Africa. “There is a strategy at work, sometimes led by African leaders, but especially by foreign powers such as Russia or Turkey who play on post-colonial resentment,” he already said in a 2020 interview to the Paris-based weekly ‘Jeune Afrique’. “We must not be naive on this subject: many of those who speak, who make videos, who are present in the French-speaking media are funded by Russia or Turkey.”

With the military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, Russia got the opportunity to expand the presence of the Wagner Group, the Moscow-funded private military company, (even now the fate of these contractors appears uncertain in the whole contingent, giving that for example, all of them were withdrew from Libya). For Turkey, the primary objective is to strengthen military ties through training programs and arms sales, including the named and very coveted combat drones. Turkish military sales to Africa rose to $288 million in 2021 from $83 million the previous year. Turkey now lists 14 clients on the continent: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia and Uganda.

Erdogan expressed his readiness to boost military cooperation with Mali in September 2021 during a phone call with Assimi Goita, head of the junta government (since then, Mali has received several Bayraktar TB2 drones). But Turkey expanded dramatically the diplomatic fingerprint in the continent, opening embassies (today are 43, and there are plans to open new diplomatic facility in Bissau, while the member states of the African Union are 54 and Turkey is the fourth most represented country in the continent after the US, China and France), consulates, development aid offices (22) and expanding trade (more than 100 US$ Billions last year). Turkey had opened its embassy in Bamako in 2010, with Erdogan making his first presidential visit in 2018. There are of course up and downs; while in Mali, the Turkish presence is only in sending drones, in Somalia, where Ankara has a military base in Mogadishu, Turksom, where since autumn 2017 Turkish 300 CO and NCOs, train Somali soldiers (till now 10.000 completed their training programme).

Modern Turkey’s current engagement with Africa officially started in 2005 after Turkey declared 2005 “the year of Africa” and adopted a new policy of “opening up to Africa.” Since then, it was seeing Turkey’s diplomatic venture in the continent because, according to the Turkish foreign ministry, relations with Africa constitute one of the key foreign policy objectives and opening new diplomatic missions enhances Turkey’s relations with the continent.

Also, Turkey was granted observer status by the AU in 2005 and later became a strategic partner in 2008 with its first Turkey-Africa summit in Istanbul in the same year. Focal points in the Istanbul summit were a “common future,” “cooperation” and “solidarity” between the participating parties. Moreover, both Turkey and African partners have agreed to implement a concrete programme of action based on equality, mutual respect and reciprocal benefits. The second summit between Turkey and African states was held in Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, in 2014 in accordance with the Istanbul Declaration’s follow-up mechanism, which demarcated that summits are to be held every three years and ministerial review conferences every three years. In Malabo, the Joint Implementation Plan for the period of 2015-2019 was accepted by the participants.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s Africa policy is not limited to periodical summits. Official visits to African countries play an important role in developing Turkey’s cooperation with Africa too. In this regard, Turkish President Erdoğan has visited 30 different African countries, including war-torn Somalia, a couple of times in the last 15 years. This is usually considered a record for a non-African leader. After a two-year interruption due to the coronavirus pandemic, he started his Africa tour once again from Angola, Togo and Nigeria in October 2021 and make another tour in 2022, visiting DRC (where it was signed a pact of military cooperation and assistance) and Senegal.

Turkey’s history in the continent goes back to the 16th Century when the Ottomans first arrived in North Africa. Later, Ottoman territory expanded across the shores of the Red and Mediterranean seas and towards the Sahel region. The Ottomans remained a ruling power in Africa for four centuries and established five separate administrations in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Eritrea. However, in 1912, Ottoman forces retreated from Libya, the last stronghold in the continent, expelled by the Italian colonialist push. Although it is quite rich, the Ottomans’ historical legacy in the continent still remains unexplored by academics. In addition, during the Republican era, Turkey focus shifted to the West.

While Turkey carries some Ottoman baggage in North and East Africa, Russia has no colonial past in the region, which gives it an edge in terms of perception and now Putin emphasize it as tool for his assault to global power. In addition, bilateral ties fostered during the Cold War make things easier for Moscow than Turkey, which remain a member of NATO and could awake some suspicions. Whereas Turkey (along with Russia) was seen as a rival of France in Mali, the main rivalry in both Burkina Faso and Niger appears to pit France against Russia.

Niger, giving her geographical position as hub linking western and eastern Africa, carries more importance for Turkey’s opening to Africa than Mali. Turkey has signed 29 agreements with Niger since opening an embassy in Niamey in 2012. Erdogan paid a visit in 2013, and the following year, President Mahamadou Issoufou traveled to Ankara. In 2021, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay attended the inauguration ceremony of Bazoum, who then traveled to Turkey for a diplomatic forum in 2022, where he met with Erdogan. Many other Nigerien senior officials and ministers have visited Turkey as well since 2021. Bilateral trade stood at $134 million last year, up from $46 million in 2012, and an agreement on military training cooperation was among the deals that (the then) FM Cavusoglu signed when he visited Niger in July 2020. After a phone call with Bazoum in November 2021, Erdogan said that Turkey would help boost Niger’s defense capabilities by supplying it with TB2 drones, armored vehicles and Hurkus light trainer and combat aircraft, in the frame of rearmament policy inaugurated by that country to face the Islamist terrorist pressure. At least six TB2s have been delivered to Niger since then, but claims of plans for a Turkish military base in Niger have not been confirmed.

The junta in Niger withdrew the country’s ambassadors from France, Nigeria, Togo and the United States, but revoked military deals with only France. It is unlikely to halt defense cooperation with Turkey. Reluctant to explicitly condemn the coup and be hostile against an intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ankara look to protect her interests and enlarging it furtherly in the sub region of Sahel, expel France and limit the influences of US, Russia and China.

As above said, Niger is in a critical geographical point and in a peculiar momentum and the persistent instability of Nyamey, despite the ongoing normalization with US (which recently de facto accepted the quasi legitimacy of the military junta) may represent a risk for the subregional and continental ambitions and plans of Ankara.

The low intensity conflict in Niger (as well for Chad) could be sealed with the one which affect the instability of South-West Libya and Western Fezzan. After years of heavy, but ineffectual, civil war, the country is still split in two (officially, while in reality there are at least 5 entities/areas under different power and/or influence). Ankara want to defend the position acquired with the Tripoli-based institutions (also based on the fact that Turkish military appeared to be the key element of the struggle against of the general Afthar-led forces offensive, which, by the way, were supported by hundreds of Russian military contractors and thousands of mercenaries from Niger, Chad, Sudan). Turkey might be in tactical convergence with Russia, but she damaged by the Russian factor elsewhere in Africa as it is in Libya. Turkey wants to keep the agreements on defense, maritime delineation and energy exploration with the Tripoli-based government, with the political aim to marginalize Italy and (again) France from Libya.

The changing political landscape in Africa may offer Turkey opportunities to expand its areas of influence, but any prospect of gaining new footholds on the continent, such as its permanent base in Somalia or its de facto base in Libya, appears unlikely at present.

But as mentioned above, under a general view, Erdogan in its look to dismantle the legacy of Ataturk, may be in unconsciously, he walks in the path of political doctrine of the last period of Ottoman Empire.

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, playing on the contradictions of powers to protect its interests, it was the central doctrine of the international policy of the Sublime Porte and particularly of Sultan Abdulhamid II.

The bet quickly became untenable and led the Empire to numerous setbacks. The construction of the Republic in 1923 must initially be understood as an attempt to break with this strategic framework.

Turkey of Erdogan has been able to reconnect with a certain influence and advance its pawns, it is, systematically, by benefiting from the contradictions of world powers, seeking first to exploit all the interstices from which it could benefit.

The opening of two military bases abroad, one in Doha (formally opened in 2015, even training programme existed since 2022), the other in Somalia, was firstly the result of local conflicts and the disengagement of Western states having a preponderance history in these regions. The dynamism of its defense industry, materialized by the production of drones or the delivery of a drone carrier for the national navy, directly contributes to Turkey’s interventionism in numerous conflicts.

But here again, it benefits from international contradictions and confrontations, like the support of Azerbaijan, against Armenia, getting advantage of Russia’s strategic refocusing in Ukraine (and consequent quagmire).

Likewise, recent years have seen Turkish companies enter new markets. Still using the African parameters, in 2022 there were 225 of them operating on the African continent, particularly in the construction, textile and infrastructure sectors, compared to only three in 2005. Turkey has notably benefited from the challenge to the monopoly of the former colonial powers initiated by other actors and in particular China.

Above all, in the last period, diplomatic balancing has become a trademark and a means of affirmation for the Turkish president, oscillating between Moscow and Washington, asserting his place in NATO, slowing the adhesion of Sweden (blackmailing Washington in order to get spare parts for the F-16’s fleet, practically grounded) the Atlantic Alliance, and applying for membership within the Bejing tool of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), or playing a pivotal role between Russia and Ukraine.

Ankara’s diplomacy aims to obtain, piecemeal, as many concessions as possible from appropriate allies. It thus allows Russia to circumvent international sanctions, to benefit from massive imports of energy products.

However, Turkey’s current policy thus risks transforming strategic opportunism into critical vulnerability, but there are, as above mentioned, elements of fragility. Turkish foreign trade is already experiencing a record deficit due to the exponential growth of Russian hydrocarbon imports. The country has lost its food sovereignty, and entire sections of its economy are directly backed by foreign financing, particularly from the Gulf states. The development of its defense industrial base, despite some important achievements, like an indisputable experience on the drone sectors, still suffers from critical dependencies for fundamental parts, such as engine construction, which obstructs the path to real strategic autonomy.

To encourage foreign investment and strategic rapprochements, a large part of the country’s state property productive assets has been privatized and dependence on food and energy imports fuels inflationary loops (and the new finance minister signalled to further privatize important sectors, but his problem is to privilege domestic buyers and avoid foreign influences and the potential domestic buyers have limited finances).

Finally, building the country’s power to mirror the game of the great international powers weighs heavily on Turkish society. Faced with the loss of sovereignty, this strategy fuels a nationalism encouraged by political power. To reassure partners about the reliability and stability of the country, this path encourages a tenuous, and often brutal, supervision of the population which participates, moreover, in the growing questioning of secularism.

The imposition of religion in the political field and in all dimensions of society cannot mask the growing secularization of the Turkish population, and particularly its youth. The need for the AKP to increasingly resort to religious themes in its mode of governance constitutes, ultimately, both an admission of weakness and a signal sent to the outside world. It helps to channel its youth and impose its political agenda, but at the same time reinforce the secularism in social and geographical areas. It also supports Turkey’s strategic realignment, both economic and diplomatic, giving guarantees to the States of the Gulf, North Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans which now constitute strategic partners that Recep Tayyip Erdogan intends to use as support (especially the ones, like in the Gulf, which have a financial leverage) to help the recovery of the national economy and lower the prices (it should be recalled that the ‘Erdoganomic’, or lower prices, was a key element of the electoral successes of AKP).

How much longer will this strategic opportunism allow Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remain in power in the face of a shrinking social base? This is an essential question for the Republic of Turkey, on his centenary.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

Africa: New Powers and a New Scramble?

The decomposition (or re-composition) of the international community always follows new paths and not all of them are coherent and/or (still) clear. It is a matter of fact that various actors, whose capabilities and reliability (and their own stability) are not yet known, appear on the scene and bring new elements to specific areas. One of these is Africa, where those of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ reappear in new terms, a phase which for about eighty years, approximately 1830 and 1911, saw the powers, all European, compete to grab territories and wealth of that continent.

While much is known (or assumed to know) about the ambitions of Russia, China, but also about the aspirations and ambitions of France, USA, Turkey, India, EU and others, little is known about those of the Gulf nations. These, within the multiple area of the Arab-Islamic world, due to peculiar circumstances, starting with the enormous financial resources, represent a world apart from that jagged community that goes from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia.Till now deployed in the so-called Western world, these nations have been trying for some time to find an autonomous way from the cumbersome partnership with the USA and Europe, also trying to increase their influence in Africa and also placing themselves in competition with Washington and Brussels. This analysis refers more to the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) than to the organization as such, which beyond the sumptuous and unrealistic meetings, is little more than a box of fictional cigarettes “Morley.”

Historically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had the most interactions with sub-Saharan Africa (defined as those areas of the continent south of the Arabic-speaking North African states located on the Mediterranean) while Bahrain has the least of all. Oman has historical ties to the east coast of Africa, while Qatar has become more active on the continent especially since its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the UAE heated up in 2017, due to the military ties of the Qatar with Turkey, too much lining with Iran and Islamist terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE became active on the African continent during the 1970s, particularly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when many African countries severed diplomatic ties with Israel due to the arrival of Israeli troops across the Suez Canal.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE launched development aid policies in Africa and even worked towards the same purpose as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on the continent, where he had big plans, when the activities were aimed at garnering support for the Arab world in its conflict against Israel. Since then, investment and trade policies, as well as countering the activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Africa, have become more important to Saudi Arabia and, in more recent years, the UAE and Qatar rival the Saudis in these efforts and in considering Turkey and Iran as direct rivals for influence on the African continent, despite an (apparent) improvement in relations.

In the last fifteen years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have strengthened economic and security ties with the African continent, primarily in the Horn of Africa region and progressively extending them towards sub-Saharan Africa. Saudis, Qataris, Emirates are working in this region with the aim of building the status of their international status by acting as protagonists in the affairs and conflicts of the continent, but it is essential to underline this not in the framework of cooperation between them, rather of more or less open rivalry and the understandings that have been registered are due to tactical necessity, as in the case of Sudan. As mentioned above, although Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have a tradition of contacts with African realities, the 2007 global financial crisis was the booster to redirect their investments towards Africa. As Western economies slow down, rapidly growing African economies have become attractive bait.

The Gulf monarchies, always in competition and never in solidarity, have strengthened their strategies of economic diversification and reduction of dependence on hydrocarbons by investing in African markets, especially when oil prices collapsed in 2014. The Gulf companies’ experience in the energy sector makes them particularly attractive to African states seeking to develop their energy industries. Furthermore, the ability of these Arab countries to carry out large-scale infrastructure projects is also a powerful attraction for African states, always in search of rapidly developing. The common religious heritage has also favored the strengthening of ties.

When Western economies went into crisis, some African leaders asked the Gulf monarchies for economic help, and they did so by appealing to their religious ties. The expansion of development aid on the continent also serves to strengthen their reputation among African Muslims, while promoting their own economic interests. As their economic interests in Africa have grown, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have also expanded their military presence, primarily in the neighboring Horn of Africa.

Indeed, in addition to supporting anti-piracy efforts in Somali waters, they boosted their military capabilities by building their first bases in the Horn of Africa. The trigger element in this case was participation in the war in Yemen, a particularly significant nation in the context of the new global order, in which maritime traffic is strategic and from where maritime traffic to and from the Red Sea, the Suez Canal (and, consequently, the Mediterranean), and the Arabian Sea can be controlled. It is also the Asian guardian of the Bab el Mandeb Strait. In both sections of the strait, between Yemen’s Perim Island and the port of Djibouti, as well as between Yemen’s Hanish Islands and the Eritrean strip of islands, it is less than 10 miles wide. This implies that maritime traffic through the strait can be easily controlled (and/or threatened).

In the case of the Emiratis and the Saudis, despite their substantial differences and oppositions, they have also intensified military cooperation with the aim of playing a leading role in international operations to combat terrorism in the Sahel. In this sense, the Islamic Military Coalition against Terrorism (IMCTC) was launched in 2015 under Saudi patronage. This platform has greatly enhanced military cooperation and intelligence sharing between Gulf monarchies and African states. In this context, Saudi Arabia and the UAE contributed $100 million and $30 million respectively to the multinational G5Sahel force in 2017.
In recent years, the Gulf countries have opened dozens of embassies in sub-Saharan Africa and have intervened diplomatically in African conflicts with the aim of increasing their international prestige. The most recent is Sudan, where once again Saudi Arabia and the UAE support each of the warring factions, not to mention Libya, where the UAE openly supports the de facto government of Cyrenaica.

The perception of the uncertainties and weaknesses of US policies from the continent partly motivated these interventions. With Washington in an unclear position, the Arab monarchies seem determined to find a space. What appears different in the action of these nations is the availability to complete the peace agreements with important economic incentives, while other ‘honest brokers’ have failed, also because they did not have the availability/or the will (or the souk mentality, more openly) as in the case of the 2018 Jeddah Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, sponsored by the Saudis and the Emirates and accompanied by investment promises.
There is a line of thought which sees positively that diplomacy is also based on the principle of peace for money. In fact, without funds, in the aforementioned case, peace would have been impossible and that its fragility lies precisely in this condition. In the case of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in addition to the economic opening to the interests of the Gulf, there is, among other things, the construction of an oil pipeline between the two countries by the UAE and a railway that connects the ‘Ethiopia with the port of Assab in Eritrea. It should also be noted that since 2021, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has been working as a mediator in the dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the partition of the Nile River.

In the case of the crisis still afflicting Sudan, when it exploded closer to General Abdel Fattah al Burhan (while the UAE is openly supportive of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, “Hemeti” commander of the former Janjaweed), Saudi Arabia, together with the USA, he launched a diplomatic initiative by bringing together the representatives of the two opposing groups in Jeddah, even if without results. It also participated in the evacuation of foreign civilians on its ships by disembarking them at its bases on the eastern coast of the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia

With the ascension of Mohamed bin Salman to crown prince and actually ruler of the country, Saudi politics is undergoing a gradual transformation, not only in foreign policy but also in issues that seemed untouchable, such as individual freedoms and the rights of women and an initial opening to tourism. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently Saudi Arabia had not had a specific, coherent and long-term projected foreign policy, other than the promotion, dating back to the 1960s, of the Wahabi rite among the Islamic populations of the continent and this with the aim of sabotaging the Nasserian, secular and socialist propaganda. But for about ten years, the instability of Yemen and Sudan, the fragility of Egypt have been the drivers of Riyadh’s new approach and dynamism. In this, profound differences emerge with the approach and perception (and therefore in the modus operandi) of Saudi Arabia, compared to that of its major competitors UAE and Qatar and geographical issues are prevalent.

Against the background of the war in Yemen, currently in a situation of fragile ceasefire, the Horn of Africa region has assumed an exceptional geostrategic relevance for Saudi Arabia, since the countries of this area have become an important element for the security of Riyadh, which has also maintained links of a historical nature with that region. The strategic uncertainties of Washington which, having achieved energy autonomy, has a less strong interest in the events of the region, leave a gap and Saudi Arabia has found itself forced to adopt a different approach in the Horn of ‘Africa (and on the continent) to protect their national interests.

Unlike the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is geographically close to the Horn and directly overlooks the Red Sea and any instability phenomenon in those areas can impact the security of Riyadh which must act with greater caution. Riyadh sees a link between Yemen and the Horn of Africa and since it launched military operations against the Houthis in March 2015 the importance of the region for Saudi national security is central. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has lobbied the various governments of the Horn countries to forge an alliance and join the anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen. Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia then joined the Saudi Arabian-led military axis, sending contingents of infantry (which lacks Riyadh’s ground force structure) albeit intermittently. Obviously, this contribution has been generously compensated, as in the case of Sudan.

The priority in Saudi regional policy is the resolution of the conflict in Yemen, as this has become an economic and security disaster for Riyadh in recent years. The recent improved contacts with Iran, although still in their infancy, are a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s political will to diplomatically overcome this conflict, since a military solution has become unlikely. But the conflict with the Houtis is not the only source of concern for Saudi Arabia regarding the overall security of the area between the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.

There are flows of irregular migrants, smuggling and drug trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy and Riyadh, in 2016, signed an agreement with Djibouti to build a military base and to strengthen the control of maritime and oil traffic to and from the Red Sea, which however weakened when the UAE took control, not agreed with the Yemeni authorities, of the island of Socotra and subsequently of other islets of that archipelago. Like the UAE, given the same geographical and meteorological situation, Saudi Arabia also aims at massive purchases of land for agricultural use, both in the Horn of Africa and in other parts of the African continent, in light of the expected population growth.

The tool of the Saudi penetration and influence policy is the Saudi Development Fund, a gigantic institution which finances almost everything and which has made over 4 billion euros available for Africa alone (almost half of which, however, goes to Egypt) but the Maghreb states (Morocco and Mauritania) and the Horn of Africa and East Africa stand out which also records significant losses, ultimately representing a political problem for Riyadh’s expansion projects as with financial support and humanitarian aid, Saudi leaders seek to forge political alliances, presenting themselves as reliable guarantors of support for development policy and as generous partners and donors.

In its policy of building an overall security framework, Riyadh is also interested in membership and the creation of multilateral forums. An example of this policy is the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (known as the Red Sea Council). It originated in January 2020 on a Saudi initiative and includes Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. The goal of this association is to improve trade and safety along this waterway, through which approximately 13 percent of world trade flows. The forum has so far failed to achieve significant results, but it serves as a platform for the Saudis to pursue common security interests, cultivate regional loyalties and solidify anti-Iranian ties.

Finally, it should be noted that Saudi Arabia does not enjoy a dominant role as a creator of maritime networks and depends in part on the infrastructure of the UAE and in the meantime pushes hard for the strengthening of its naval forces. However, Riyadh plans to invest more in the logistics sector, especially in the Horn of Africa, with the aim of lightening its dependence on the UAE and also to be able to compete with China in the region, in fact for Beijing the Horn of Africa is a strategic center of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), which has a military base in Djibouti and major interests in Kenya.


Over the past two decades, Qatar has become a major international player due to its position as the world’s leading producer of liquefied natural gas. Its reserves, the third largest in the world after Russia and Iran, have made it possible for its rapid economic take-off. But Qatar is not satisfied with the status of energy power and from a geopolitical point of view it seeks to emerge as a regional power and above all to escape Saudi hegemony and rivalry with the UAE. It is precisely these parameters, i.e., the search for strategic independence, that Qatar has launched into an unscrupulous foreign policy, dissociating itself as much as possible from Saudi initiatives, as in Yemen, from whose anti-Houti stance Doha emerged in 2017, making public its distance from Saudi Arabia, approaching Turkey (and hosting important military installations or, still being not very hostile towards Iran and developing mediation initiatives such as sending interposition forces to patrol a disputed area between Eritrea and Djibouti, later withdrawn due to the alignment of these two states with Saudi Arabia and against Qatar itself.

In addition, Qatar uses the financial instrument of the Qatar Investment Authority, which together with Qatar Airways, Al Jazeera are important influence drivers, however Qatar’s diplomatic action in Africa, such as the opening of embassies (Qatar has opened more embassies in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years than any other state except Turkey) and the promotion of negotiations collides with the problem of the numerical and qualitative insufficiency of personnel (not yet sufficiently experienced), as in the cases of the negotiations between Eritrea and Sudan, Chad and Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti (all with poor results also for the Saudi influence which led all these countries to side with Riyadh).

But Somalia (together with Libya) remains one of the pillars of diplomatic action, and not only, of Qatar in Africa. While relations with the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania) are ancient and consolidated with sub-Saharan Africa, with the notable exceptions of Sudan and Eritrea, they are recent and in the process of further development, primarily with hydrocarbon producing nations such as Nigeria and Congo or solid economic realities like South Africa. In the area of food security, like its neighbors, Qatar is heavily dependent on food imports and has developed large agribusiness programs both in the Horn and in East Africa. As a provider of official development aid, the sub-Saharan African countries from which Qatar has benefited the most are Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Guinea, Mozambique, Congo, Senegal, Comoros and Djibouti.

Qatar has had a very significant influence on conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq or recently Afghanistan, hosting talks and negotiations. All this has meant that the Qataris have become attractive and, despite a normalization with its regional competitors, the differences remain and can arise again. The Qataris maintain important discrepancies with the Saudis and the Emiratis. One of the main reasons is the rapprochement of the former with political Islam in general and with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.
The Saudis and UAE, for their part, believe that this group intends to destabilize the established order in the region. In the scenarios shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia and Qatar found themselves supporting opposing or competing factions, and the UAE sided with the Saudis (at least in this one) and the pressure on Qatar increased. Thus, in June 2017 there was a diplomatic crisis: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar, which they accused of interfering in their internal politics and supporting terrorist groups (actually Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is anything but ideological but instrumental, given the objective of subverting the models of these states, all close to Riyadh).

The closure of the borders and the restrictions on air and sea traffic have caused a crisis in Qatar which has also affected the food supply. Iran and Turkey have supported Qatar, creating a worrying system of alliances and hostilities that has led to an imbalance in the region’s already complicated set-up. Thus, Qatar began to build a progressive rapprochement with Turkey, one of the main contestants of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to affirm its regional leadership, and with Iran, (at the time) the main enemy of the Saudis. This rivalry has transferred to the neighboring Horn of Africa; Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland have been closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the 2017 diplomatic crisis, while Somalia has adopted a neutral stance not to put its good economic relations with Qatar and Turkey are in danger. During the four years that the blockade has been in place, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have obtained lukewarm support in African countries (certainly not in proportion to the aid given by Riyadh and Dubai) and the choice of neutrality has been seen as a support of made of Qatar.

In the highly sensitive Somalia, the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE negatively impacted the already difficult relations between Mogadishu and the autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland due to the growing economic and military presence of the UAE in those de facto independent regions, and which Somalia is trying to reabsorb in the federal structure. In any case, the rapprochement between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in January 2021, which triggered the end of the blockade and the return to diplomatic relations, has allowed African countries to improve relations with both sides and rescue them from the unpleasant situation of having to choose between two (actually) lines of funding (as was the case in Morocco).

United Arab Emirates

The will to develop a real African policy was initiated by the UAE after the 2008 financial crisis, decided to refocus your international investment strategy. The push has been such that several Western companies, already operating in Dubai, have reconfirmed it as a base from which to operate in African countries due to the advantageous tax conditions and direct connections with the main African capitals. Furthermore, Dubai has attracted a growing number of African businessmen, who have chosen this emirate as their base for investment. The number of African companies registered with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Investments has increased exponentially in the last decade and the UAE is firmly betting on Angola, a fast-growing country as a hub for continental expansion.

However, alongside economic interests, the UAE has important security drivers, such as the fight against religious extremism in particular that carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood galaxy. The widespread instability in the Middle East – the rise of the Islamic State, the collapse of Libya, the conflict in Syria, the never-ending crisis of Lebanon and Iraq, the ever-shaky Egypt and the growing influence of Iran (and the related Yemeni problems) has sparked paranoid fears in Gulf nation leaderships, but the threat from groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is considered existential, also have a presence, albeit limited, within the Emirates. Its rise alarmed UAE leaders, especially as conflicts in the Arab world seemed increasingly intertwined, with events in one country spilling over into others.

The UAE has implemented with many African countries what some have called its “Egyptian model” diplomatic, military and financial support to stable political actors who are seen as the most capable of containing Islamist movements. This is how it acted, as well as in Egypt, in Yemen and Sudan. In this sense, the UAE conditions its development aid and investments on the African authorities showing support for their strategic orientations, i.e. adhering to their agenda against political Islamism.
The UAE is the fourth largest investor country on the African continent globally — after China, the United States and France — and the largest overall among the Gulf states. Between 2016 and 2021, the UAE invested approximately $1.2 billion in sub-Saharan Africa and is among the continent’s top ten importers of goods and commodities. Non-oil trade between the UAE and Africa is estimated at $25 billion a year. In the last fifteen years the volume of trade between the UAE and the African continent of products other than hydrocarbons has grown by 700 percent.

Investments from the Emirates are directed towards telecommunications, energy, mining (gold and coltan) agriculture, port infrastructures, where the presence of Dubai Ports (DP) stands out, currently managing some of the most important port terminals in sub-Saharan Africa: Dakar (Senegal), Berbera (Somalia), Maputo (Mozambique) and Luanda (Angola), Bosaso (Puntland [Somalia). In Djibouti, DP also managed the port of Doraleh until the contract was terminated by the local government in 2018. DP has also obtained a concession for the construction of a logistics center in Kigali (Rwanda) In addition, new projects are being negotiated in Sudan and Madagascar For its part, Abu Dhabi Ports manages the port of Kamsar (Guinea) Port investments and agricultural land acquisition are part of the food security strategy, as the UAE imports 90 percent of domestic consumption.

As with Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen has made the Horn of Africa region the main strategic area where the UAE has deployed its own military mission, whose performance has solidified the myth (much mythologized, indeed, even due to the poor results obtained by the Saudi forces) of the ‘little Sparta of the Middle East’. At the outset of the conflict in Yemen, the UAE was alarmed by the advance of Houthi rebels near the Bab Al Mandeb Strait, as the possibility arose that an Iranian allied group would control that vital trading point of the Emirates. But in addition to the aforementioned Angola, the UAE is also extending its presence in West Africa, and in the Sahel: in Senegal and Guinea, as already mentioned, they manage port infrastructures in Dakar or Kamsar; in Morocco, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso investments were made in civil and military infrastructure. In their strategy to fight Islamist forces and financing of the G5 Sahel and there are signs for further expansion and penetrations in coastal areas of Atlantic Africa.

The expansion of existing rivalries in the Gulf to the Horn of Africa, where there are already many, is not a good thing and risks spreading to the rest of the continent, as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar progressively consolidate their presence. In this scenario, the rivalries between these actors will be more heated in the belt that goes from Egypt to the Horn of Africa, where the control of the security and navigation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is fundamental internal stability, commercial interests and their food security, and this is only possible if there is a presence on both sides.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

A Complex “Near Abroad”

The Euro-Atlantic economic and security system, which can be summarized with the EU and NATO, also looks towards the southern shore of the Mediterranean. These two organizations have gradually expanded their cooperations with the nations bordering the Mediterranean coast, establishing different architectures and programs of dialogue, economic and security cooperation.

For the EU the ENP (European Neighbourhood Policy) developed since 2004 is geared immediate neighbours both to the east (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and to the south (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Tunisia). As of 28 June 2021, Belarus has suspended its membership in the Eastern Partnership. Libya and Syria currently do not fully participate in the ENP. NATO established the Mediterranean Dialogue was launched in 1994 and include Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt (it includes also Israel, Jordan and for Libya there is the open door, if it wants to join).

However, the progressive extension and worsening of the political, economic, social and security situation in the nations south of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, and for the same countries on the southern coast obliged these two organizations to enlarge their attention to an important and large part of the African continent.

The “near abroad” concept and vision for EU and NATO, consequently expanded from Maghreb to its neighbouring region, Sahel. Both are affected by a grid of problems, fractures and opportunities and it is an obliged choice, a painful necessity in order to reduce potential damages.   

The Maghreb (in Arabic, “the West”) is a geographical and political region that includes five countries: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco Mauritania, and the disputed territory of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. The Sahel (“the edge” or “the limit”) is a geographical region that extends south of the Sahara Desert, through ten countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both spaces add up to almost 9 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of the EU. This are count more than 550 million inhabitants with a 3% of birthrate. In its social structure, with different intensities, the concept of tribe or ethnic group still prevails. The majority religion is Islam, which in some countries coexists with animistic practices.

In these regions there are failed States, such as Libya, and others are marked by internal conflict, such as Tunisia; there is regional rivalry between countries, both from the political and diplomatic point of view as well as security (Morocco and Algeria); in other territories the presence of terrorist organizations is stable (Mali or Nigeria) or there is political instability (Burkina, Niger or Mali); certain nations suffer almost endemic famines (Sudan, Eritrea or Ethiopia); some countries are places of transit or origin of irregular immigration flows to Europe (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali or Niger). And in all of them, the democratic standards, to a greater or lesser extent, are lower from Western standards. Many of these nations have natural resources that should favor their economic development and are of special interest for Western industry and economy. The risks and threats related to this area of the planet are a recurring object of interest in successive national security strategies, as well as for NATO and EU.

In this enormous region, terrorist activity with a jihadist ideology is together with other instability elements such as illicit trafficking, political instability, famine, forced displacement of the population, irregular immigration networks and poor and weak governance. In the dynamics of jihadist terrorism, it is a constant to use regional conflicts as training grounds for future terrorists who will end up acting in Western countries. These groups spread their propaganda through social networks to ideologize people who finally join the jihad in conflict zones or in the Western countries where they reside after legal and/or illegal migration. In the region there are economic resources of interest but physical and legal insecurity hinders legitimate business activity in the region.

Currently, the Sahel countries with the highest terrorist activity are Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Mali has more than 1.2 million square kilometers and a very low population density. The country and the populations in the north and south show notable differences both ethnically and culturally. As a result of the agreements of the Berlin Conference of 1884, artificial borders were imposed in Africa that separated ethnic groups and cultures, a process that also affected Mali. Traditionally the population of northern Mali (Arabs) has not felt identified with the policies of the Government of Bamako (Black dominated). The fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya triggered the return of numerous Tuareg fighters to the north of Mali and the reactivation of initiatives to advance towards the independence of the northern regions gathered around the self-proclaimed state of Azawad. The Malian forces where not in condition to control the situation and the area of fighting was used by jihadist armed groups to occupy part of the territory. The Bamako government’s inability to control the country led it to request international aid. In January 2013, the “Serval” operation began—led by France—, which in July 2014 was renamed “Barkhane,” extended to Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and concluded at the end of 2022. In 2013 the EU launched a military training mission for the Malian forces called EUTM-Mali, which would end in 2024, and two civilian missions, EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger, whose mandates will end in January 2025 and September 2024 respectively, and giving the strong hostility of Bamako, the first one is probable that will be not renewed. For its part, the UNSC approved by Resolution 2100 of April 25, 2013, the establishment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a peace enforcement mission that had aims to pacify northern Mali and is concluded, on the request of Mali (and the withdrawal of the “blue helmets” is ongoing and it would be completed at the end of this year). All these efforts did not overcome the threat, which at the contrary licked to Niger and Burkina Faso. After the last military   coup in Mali, on May 24, 2021, social and government rejection of Western troops—especially French ones— has increased. The final thing is that all the international presence is on the way to leave the country and the current government is relying on the mercenaries of the Russian company Wagner to combat terrorist groups and the anti-Western feeling spread in Burkina Faso. While the Tuareg groups maintain an agreement, certainly precarious, with the Government, while the jihadist-based armed groups have been congregating around two major groups: the Support Group for Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State for the Greater Sahara, which count on several thousand militants with the capacity to occupy territory and control the population through terror. Attacks on humanitarian aid convoys or MINUSMA columns and bases are frequent. The first and most obvious consequence of terrorist activity, not only in Mali, is the growing IDPs both to safer areas of the country and to Mauritania and Senegal, where these refugees live precarious life.

Irregular immigration is another of the risk factors that can affect the security side. This is not necessarily caused by immigrants, but by organizations that stimulate and control illegal trafficking: specialized structures, linked to other criminal traffic, that obtain great benefits and disregard the risk of losing their lives to which they expose immigrants. Irregular immigration can entail other risks —such as the increase in social unrest as a consequence of massive arrivals—which is why it is a phenomenon that can be easily used as an instrument of political pressure, like it was done by Morocco against Spain in occasion of the hospitalization in that country of the leader of the independentist movement of Western Sahara, POLISARIO in May 2021. And, in some cases, it constitutes the gateway to Europe for jihadist terrorists.

Down to Maghreb, as above mentioned, there is Sahel; this area includes countries with important differences in their economic structure and natural resources. However, they are all among the LDCs. The region has been facing multiple challenges for years —such as political instability and insecurity—, added to the economic and health crisis caused by COVID-19 and the increase in energy and food prices, a consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

In the case of countries in which around 80% of the population depends on agriculture and livestock —with the exception of Nigeria—and where the primary sector represents between 20 and 45% of the GDP, the climatic conditions and the expanding desertification, are factors which challenge any option for growth. Some of these territories are rich in natural resources, including the rare earths. This is the case of Chad, where more than 90% of exports are fuel, rare hearts and precious metals, or Niger, where 80% of exports, directed to France and the UAE, are concentrated in uranium—Niger is the third world exporter of this mineral. The case of Ethiopia is significant: it has significant gold and tantalum reserves. Despite its natural wealth, as general view, the benefit obtained affects the governing leadership, linked in some cases to foreign interests, and the population does not get an improvement in their income.

On the other hand, the industrial sector is very limited, mainly linked to agri-food sub sector, with a low demand for labor with the notable exception of Nigeria’s petrochemical industry in consideration that the country is the largest producer in Africa, representing the 80% of the national export (as comparison, in Chad, income from the exploitation of natural resources constitutes almost 22% of GDP; however, the oil sector generates 80% of these incomes).

The services sector presents various degrees of development in the Sahel, with the exception of Nigeria and Senegal (for this country is tourism the leading subsector).

Trade relations are concentrated in the export of hydrocarbon (oil and gas), rare hearts stones and metals (particularly gold). In addition to commercial exchanges between neighbors, the relations that the Sahel countries maintain with China, India, US, Switzerland, UAE and EU (particularly with France, Belgium and Spain). However, there are important barriers that hinder the arrival of investors: insecurity, legal and tariff obstacles, high installation costs caused by the enormous expenses in electricity and protectionism against imports.

The region’s population structure is typical of developing countries: due to the high birth rate and low life expectancy, there is a high percentage of young people.

Undoubtedly, a characteristic common to the countries that make up this geographical area is the situation of poverty in which a large part of the population lives. In the Sahel, between 30 and 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Extreme poverty is especially concentrated in rural areas, where the population depends on agricultural or livestock production, subject to climatic fluctuations. The percentage of the population living in rural areas is especially high in countries such as Chad (77%) or Mali (53%), which explains the significant economic dependence on the primary sector and the difficult access to basic services, such as education or health, a situation that leads to high levels of illiteracy and high mortality rates.

In addition to the problems mentioned, there is increasing demographic pressure on certain areas of the region, caused by internal displacements caused mainly by armed conflicts.

The Maghreb occupies an extensive area that includes densely populated coastlines and desert and unpopulated areas that end up bordering on the Sahel. This circumstance produces a double territorial imbalance —between the coast and the interior and between the countryside and the city— which has triggered an exodus to the cities, whose services have been overwhelmed and suffering. The main industrial and agricultural activity in the Maghreb is located in the coastal areas; it is complemented by an important mining and hydrocarbon activity in a large part of the territory. These factors encourage the Maghreb to have a GDP per capita of more than $3,000. Mauritania with $1,700 euros it remains more closer to Sahel. However, GDP growth has been irregular, not sustained and insufficient to generate the resources required by demographic pressure. However, it remains higher than Sahel.

The economies of the Maghreb are based on three pillars: the agri-food sector, the export of manufactures and a significant contribution from hydrocarbons and minerals. In the agricultural model, modern agriculture, for export, focused on Mediterranean products (fruit, olive oil, vegetables), and traditional agriculture, dedicated to cereals, converge. This sector concentrates about half of the workforce in Morocco, but only contributes between 10 and 15% of GDP, which underline a low productivity. In Tunisia, the figures are more balanced: the activity employs 16% of the labor force and accounts for a similar percentage of GDP. In the rest of the region the weight of agriculture in exports is lower.

Fishing is a fundamental sector for Mauritania, representing 10% of GDP and 35 % of its exports. For Morocco it represents 16% of exports. Both countries have very rich fishing grounds, however exposed to risks of overexploitation. Example of it is Morocco, which has already exhausted the fishing grounds in its internationally recognized sea border and the only fisheries reserves are now in the water of the disputed Western Sahara and Rabat use it as political tool with economic and political partners/customers like EU (especially Spain and Portugal), but also South Korea, Russia and China in order to legitimize his presence in the former Spanish colony.

Mainly, the industrial sector of the Maghreb has experienced growth in the north, influenced by its proximity to the EU and its low costs. In the case of Morocco and Tunisia, the protagonists have been light manufacturing; the automotive and aeronautical industry; in Algeria the steel and petrochemical industries are strong. However, the Maghreb run around the exploitation of natural resources, mainly hydrocarbons and minerals. The largest producers of oil and natural gas are Algeria (98% of export revenue) and Libya (95%). Morocco, less rich in hydrocarbons, is the world’s second largest producer of phosphates, while Algeria looks to develop the same sector and with Chinese help, the iron ore. Mauritania is hopeful that oil exploration projects will become a reality, after many promises, and iron ore now accounts for the bulk of its exports. Tunisia, despite being below its neighbors Algeria and Libya, is a producer of phosphate, iron, zinc and some oil.

The commercial activity of the Maghreb materializes fundamentally in countries of the EU; Mauritania, whose main customer is China, is the exception.

All the countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel were colonies of several European nations, but even under foreign rule existed tribes/clan dynamics which where formalized after the colonization. To this lack of political experience was added, during decolonization, artificial borders separating ethnic groups, establishing territorial units with no elements in common and the new states were unable to exercise effective control. The classic elements that make up a State—people, territory and power, governed by a legal order—have not fully articulated to ensure the necessary political stability, especially in the Sahel.

With regard to the political form of the new States, except for Morocco (even if a constitutional monarchy, the king keep an iron fist in controlling the policymaking and governance), the rest of the countries in the regions studied were constituted as French-inspired semi-presidential republics. Due to the aforementioned circumstances and the lack of stable party systems, these have frequently degenerated into personalist governments, threatened, in turn, by frequent coups, especially in the Sahel.

The wave of democratization that began in the 1990s and continued through the first decade of the 2000s gave us a glimpse of some hope, which had vanished after the failure of the so-called Arab Spring. Political fragility, corruption, the emergence of jihadism and the expansionist policies of certain countries, added to the effects of climate change, are threatening the very viability of the States of the Sahel, since without political stability robust and sustained economic growth cannot be born. Electoral systems in the Sahel area operate in a framework of political pluralism that is not guaranteed and do not generate trust among citizens. Consequently, the results are often disputed, especially when the general interest is neglected in favor of the tribal or ethnic interest. In this environment, constitutionalism becomes a purely semantic issue. European attempts to support certain governments in the Sahel so that they are able to control their security crises have not had the expected success; Support from countries with more lax democratic standards has been shown to be more effective, making available to those supported procedures that cannot be assumed by Western values.

Maghreb and Sahel are marked with a greater or lesser extent, by political and institutional instability, little chance of progress for young people, high rates of poverty, illiteracy and insecurity. All this conditions the more than uncertain future of an area besieged to a large extent by corruption, whose governments, whatever the political form of the State and the current system, lack the capacity to protect and empower their populations. The situation described generates social discontent that, on many occasions, is transformed into different forms of violence. Thus, there seems to be an obvious link between poor governance, corruption and violence, creating the potential combination for “a perfect storm.” Governance can be understood as the provision of political, social, economic and environmental goods that the citizens has the right to expect from their State, and that a State has the responsibility to provide its citizens. Poor governance manifests itself in various aspects that, broadly speaking, are shared by the least developed countries in the area:

Low economic development and extreme poverty. According to the Human Development Index (HDI) of UNDP, which includes 189 countries, those of the Sahel are at the bottom in development, with a GDP up to ten times lower than the territories of the Maghreb, which is already low, and it is estimated that at least 40% of its inhabitants live in extreme poverty, that with the endless increase of population, it will worsen the situation.

High unemployment rates and low literacy. Poor reforms are reflected in the high unemployment rates in some countries. These are very young societies, with high fertility rates and low literacy (especially in the Sahel area). The inexistence of qualified employment opportunities represents a great loss for the States, since the emigration of citizens interested in jobs of this profile prevents their contribution to national governance.

Corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, whose classification includes 180 countries and territories around the world, the public sector in the Maghreb and the Sahel is among the most corrupt on the planet. Corruption is due to political and cultural reasons and generates economic stagnation and institutional disaffection. Values such as freedom, security and transparency have not yet settled in the upper echelons of the political and military establishment.

In terms of democratic governance, there is a setback connected with high doses of institutional instability, caused by popular revolts more or less vast, as in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, or coups, as in Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso, white coups in Chad, civil war in Libya and Ethiopia, perennial presidencies in other states. Institutional instability significantly weakens state structures and makes it difficult to implement public policies that build confidence at the internal and international level.

The extension and link between terrorism and criminality have as consequence, in some cases, of the weakness of governments and internal disagreements.

The insecurity encourages massive population movements within countries and between neighboring States and to Europe. Added to the foregoing is the socioeconomic exodus, caused by poverty and poor governance, which is precisely the reason for political instability and insecurity. These phenomena lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees, IDPs and migrants, collapsing of the already limited public services due to terrorist and criminal threats.

It is undeniable that, without skilled security forces that generate confidence among the population, progress towards economic and social development is improbable. All this generates poverty and uncertainty and encourages emigration through criminal networks in Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya to Europe.

For this, it is necessary, without a doubt, to maintain collaboration. Although it may be time to propose a new model, one that does not lose sight of the social, political and cultural reality of these countries and considers that the Western model is not welcomed and directly applicable to territories that carry a colonial past and still suffer the consequences of an unfortunate territorial division (and this is used as excuse to excite the chauvinism of the local population with the aim to consolidate the governing elites, especially now, while Russia and China take advantage of it in their confrontation with the West). Further, the emphasis of the respect of collective and individual liberties from the West it is saw with open suspicions and hostility by the region leaderships which consider these concepts as way to increase moral corruption and push for access into domestic affairs, revealing the authoritarian nature of these states.

In the field of security, it would be convenient to have a more active participation in the training of the military and security forces of the countries of the Sahel zone, (while for Maghreb this is less necessary, giving their better quality) and it would even be necessary to contemplate their accompaniment in the fight against terrorist and insurgent groups, assuming the possible risk of their own casualties. The training and provision of new skills must be accompanied by a program to monitor their effective and adequate use and their correct maintenance through a calendar of targets, conditional on meeting previously defined objectives and accepted by both local governments and by the Union or the participating Member States.

In the economic and social field, it seems necessary to create the bases to achieve sustained development, which fosters the conditions so that the population —especially young people—, mostly settled in rural areas, does not consider emigration as the only possible solution to their situation of extreme poverty. In this sense, cooperation programs could be launched aimed at modernizing agricultural and livestock production systems, improving the supply of products or developing value chains and promoting an incipient auxiliary and transformation industry linked to said production. To this end, together with international cooperation, duly coordinated with actions in other areas, the use of other types of financing should be promoted, such as microcredits, which entail monitoring and monitoring of medium-term results. Additionally, the evaluation of the impact of the projects seems to be a key element that will make it possible to redefine priorities and improve their design. However, any initiative in this sense will not achieve the objectives pursued if two essential conditions for the desired economic and social development are not met: security and national political stability and good governance.

In the field of governance, it is evident that the strengthening of institutions is a necessary step to promote the rule of law, transparency in public activity or the fight against corruption, among other aspects. Programs aimed at training officials and advising or collaborating with public administrations could perhaps have a direct effect on the better functioning and stability of the institutions. A public function made up of servers with a high level of professionalism and competence could minimize the impact of crises and/or political instability. However, as already mentioned, the push transparency and rule of law is not welcomed by the local elites and any action should be oriented to corner them into accept it and avoiding that this situation will drive those elites to rapprochement to Moscow and China, as already happened, especially for cases like Algeria, that does not depend to the economic dependence from the West.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

The South Caucasus: Between Dynamism and Stalemate

In the framework of Washington’s policy of attempts at penetration into the Russian “near abroad,” in the first week of May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted, in Washington, the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Jeyhun Bayramov and the Foreign Minister of Armenia, Ararat Mirzoyan, for a series of talks. According to the final communiqué, after a series of bilateral and trilateral discussions, the parties made significant progress regarding the resolution of the conflict that has opposed Yerevan and Baku since 1991.

Moscow responded by restarting a similar initiative, taking advantage of a forum of the EAEU (EuroAsian Ecoomic Union) on May 24 and 25, marked by the presence of Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, as well as that of the member states and other guests, for a bilateral and trilateral meeting (with Putin). However, the meeting, which was supposed to restart the dialogue between Yerevan and Baku (and secure the Russian grip on the region at the expense of the EU and NATO, keep out the Turks, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Chinese, the Israelis) saw a tough verbal confrontation between Aliyev and Pashinyan regarding the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. A confrontation so hard in substance but formal in form, as to embarrass Putin himself, who presided over the meeting and who clearly showed he did not know which way to turn.

Russia is certainly worried about the crisis on its “southern front,” but it shows more and more clearly the lack of options and resources. Putin is engaged in a very difficult game, where open enemies, fragile, ambiguous, doubtful, necessary and unbearable allies and friends mix.

With so much political, economic, diplomatic, military attention and energy focused on Ukraine, Russia has reduced its attention (and capabilities) to the South Caucasus, where its grip is inexorably fraying. After a series of tensions, on April 11, a new clash between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces caused the death of four Armenian and three Azerbaijani soldiers while a massive exchange of artillery fire broke out between the two sides, despite the presence of a Russian interposition mission (with a small Turkish contingent).

Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized as a part of Azerbaijan under international law, was occupied by the Armenian army for 26 years, following the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. Under the terms of the UN Charter, Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory. But the province is also home to a large ethnic Armenian population who, as the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1988, unilaterally declared their independence from Azerbaijan. The first war in the 1990s ended with the victory of the separatists, supported by the Armenian regular forces and the expulsion of the few Azeris who lived in the region. The support of Yerevan allowed the separatists to enjoy a form of de facto independence, even if no country in the world, not even Armenia itself, has officially recognized them. This lack of recognition by Yerevan, which had promoted and supported it, might have seemed a paradox, but it wasn’t; in fact, Armenia wanted pure and simple union with Nagorno-Karabakh (the dream of a Wilsonian Armenia). In 1993 the UN Security Council passed four resolutions (822, 853, 874 and 884) calling for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan, but Yerevan flatly ignored them.

It should be underlined that despite the enormous financial and cultural influence of the Armenian diaspora in the world, especially in the US and France, it was impossible to move the situation, legally toward unification, due to the stiff resistance of Azerbaijan. Since 2008 Baku, which has always claimed sovereignty over that territory, has begun to increase pressure on the Armenians with a series of clashes and skirmishes on the de facto border, using an ever more powerful and prepared military force; this, thanks to the enormous hydrocarbon resources, which became a real threat for the forces of Yerevan and Stephanakert.

Between the end of November and the first half of November 2020, Azerbaijan, after a brief conflict, came very close to the almost total recovery of the lost territory, accompanying this with the expulsion of all the Armenian populations (Christians, while Azerbaijan is Sunni-Muslim and Turanian-speaking [Turkish lineage]) and the systematic destruction of all Christian presence in that territory. The conflict ended with a ceasefire agreement brokered by the Russians.

The ceasefire was, on the surface, meant to make room for a formal truce, but no further. This is where the Russian vision comes into play, dictated by its need to keep the South Caucasus under control, but it has few options and even fewer tools to try to impose its model. Moscow, allied with Armenia, albeit instrumentally, would prefer a freeze on the conflict and seeks to push away the option of a definitive peace treaty between the two contenders, which among other things would involve the withdrawal of the interposition forces. Despite the dire need for experienced soldiers to send into the Ukrainian cauldron, Moscow sees them as necessary to bolster her influence and a tool to keep outside any infiltration of NATO and EU in the region. Putin fears, and he saw it in 2020, that any change in the field, given that it has already happened, strengthens Azerbaijan, which seems to act more and more like a small-scale Turkey, in terms of ambitions and will to emerge (and indirectly increases the influence of Turkey, Israel and other actors).

Proof of Moscow’s will to keep the matter in the backburner was the appointment of the oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, born in Armenia and linked to the Kremlin, as prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh (by now reduced to a patch of land flattened by Azeri bombings and garrisoned by Russian soldiers) who blocked any dialogue. Last February, Vardanyan was unexpectedly sacked from his post by the president of the breakaway republic, Arayik Harutyunyan, further showing the weakening of Russian regional influence. As proof that the South Caucasus continues to be an area of great importance to Moscow, it has appointed General Alexander Lentsov, one of Russia’s most experienced military figures (previously he served as head of the so-called center joint control, coordination and stabilization of the ceasefire in Donbas after the first conflict in Ukraine in 2014 [the Russian troops supporting Russian-speaking forces in the region], and served in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Syria)

The timing of Lentsov’s appointment was indicative: just four days before the FMs of Armenia and Azerbaijan travelled to the aforementioned meeting in Washington. Blinken and Borrell, the high representative for European foreign and security policy, would like to revive the US-EU two-track process.

The Americans are evidently aware of the benefits of reconciliation in the South Caucasus and are pressing for a solution as soon as possible. However, some signals from Brussels, such as the sending of the EUAM (EU Assistance Mission in Armenia) irked Azerbaijan, leaving the door open to sirens from Moscow, or at least allowing Baku to raise the political price for the dialogue with Brussels.
Such a peace agreement, in the pious wishes of Washington, should proceed from the recognition by Armenia that Nagorno-Karabakh is the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, but with guarantees from Baku, which however it is absolutely not willing to grant, taking up the Turkish approach towards the Kurds. For the US, solving the issue, would allow the restart of a dialogue between the two enemies, but the path is narrow.

In fact, Pashinyan recently signalled that he was willing to do so, despite a further wave of protests, which echoed those following the defeat against Azerbaijan, of which he was accused (and objectively responsible, given that he squandered the limited military resources of Armenia in support of Nagorno-Karabakh). This, while Moscow, aiming for limited normalization between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is suggesting that the province’s status should be left off the table for the foreseeable future.

But this is a red line for Baku, which having won the war, had increased negotiating weight thanks to Western needs to sever energy ties with Russia, and replace it with the ones in Azerbaijan. Aliyev showed that it is able to raise the price and keep everyone on the ropes (also in this imitating Erdogan, for example with NATO and Swedish membership). Aliyev’s only possible concession would be an amnesty for the soldiers of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces who fought against the Azerbaijani troops, who for Baku are criminals and as such must be prosecuted. It is not much; less than what Armenia should give up, i.e., the renunciation of the achievement of national unity, but at least it is a first sign and Washington hopes for further steps.

The USA and EU seems very determined to remove Armenia and Azerbaijan from Moscow’s influence, and the two FMs met again, this time in Chisnau (Moldova) after the meeting in Washington, in preparation for the 2nd Summit of Heads of State and Government of the European Political Community, which took place on June 1st (the two had already spoken in a bilateral meeting during the 1st Summit of this architecture, promoted by President Macron, in Prague, in October 2022).

Precisely following the political-military disaster of the 2020 conflict, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh is under pressure to negotiate with Baku their reintegration into the Azerbaijani state. The issue is how to do it and what guarantees can be offered to the Armenians so that their rights as a minority group within Azerbaijan are respected, and as already mentioned, despite some small, recent openings, Baku is deaf to any hypothesis of administrative autonomy of that region, as well as cultural, linguistic and religious ones.

But having demonstrated its military superiority, nearly all the leverage in the negotiation’s rests with Azerbaijan, particularly as it knows that its position is valid under international law and has acquired interests in the eyes of potential buyers of its energy resources and for the its location as an important hub for present and future energy pipelines. Baku sees its victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War as a justified corrective measure that ended an illegal encroachment on its sovereignty. So, in that sense, it will be difficult to get Azerbaijan to concede much else in the negotiations.

Given the context, international actors have the difficult mission of convincing Armenia not to lose the option of a sustainable peace agreement in exchange for a very difficult option, to obtain the recognition of any autonomy for the Armenian speakers still residing in Nagorno-Karabakh, considering the military (and political) weakness of Yerevan.

In addition to dampening the danger of new violence, the EU and USA are dangling the prospect that peace could bring economic benefits to Armenia, which since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war has remained regionally isolated, with more than 80% of its land borders closed: those with the Azerbaijan to the east and those with Turkey to the west. With Georgia to the north, given the bad relations with Tbilisi, the flow of exchange is limited and difficult (the bad relations between Armenia and Georgia are historic; as soon as they achieved independence in 1919, both Tbilisi and Baku stabbed Yerevan in the back in its struggle against the resurgent Turkey that was no longer Ottoman and paved the way for the arrival of the Bolsheviks who imposed their brutal regime on the whole of the Caucasus; the continuous internal political upheavals of independent Tbilisi do not help a reconciliation with Yerevan). Armenia’s only connection to the outside world is a narrow border with Iran (a nation that has been subjected to a harsh sanctions regime for decades) through the mountainous terrain to the south and without railway lines.

Regional reintegration would open Armenia to new trade and energy supplies, eliminating its overwhelming political dependence on Russia, making it easier to connect Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves (especially for Kazakhstan, which seeks to evade an embarrassing link with Moscow).

Today Nagorno-Karabakh is in the worst possible limbo, the only area not in Azerbaijani hands is garrisoned by Russian troops and there are no prospects of reunion with Armenia, and the terms of a re-incorporation into Azerbaijan are uncertain, at least. Whether we admit it or not, the project has failed.

Given the success of field operations, Azerbaijan which has an important military apparatus, has not formally abandoned the idea of completing the recovery of control of the territories lost in the 1990s, and this keeps Yerevan close to Moscow, which still has a little more than a symbolic military contingent in Armenia, but as a guarantee against possible Turkish attacks, perhaps coinciding with a new Azeri offensive in the east.

Russia has also traditionally been the main guarantor of Armenia’s security. However, its credibility has taken a hit since 2020, when Moscow proved unable to back Armenians in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, and showed very limited leverage vis-à-vis with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan, who showed his state of submission to Putin on the occasion of the celebrations of last May 9th in Moscow, could try to grasp the signals that the West sends out, but he has strong fears over internal stability. In fact, the elders and a large part of the large Russian-speaking minority frown upon any pro-NATO and EU oscillation (see in this light the pro-Russian riots in Georgia and Moldova), while a good part of Armenians look at prospects for socio-economic development (political life and the media are rather dynamic and free for a former Soviet republic).

But the internal Armenian scene is much more complex. Historically Armenia has an empathetic bond with Christian Russia which defended them from the Ottomans; it is strongly nationalistic. Despite the political and financial influence of the Armenian diaspora in France and the USA, Armenians suspect Western docility towards Turkish diktats (especially from Washington) and Azeri blackmail (in this case from the EU); it also has claims against Georgia and Turkey (the districts of Kars, Trabzon and Van, lost in the partition between Ankara and Moscow in the 1920s). The aforementioned debacle with Azerbaijan has exasperated Armenian public opinion; and Pashinyan himself, after barely surviving (also from the point of view of his personal safety) a very serious institutional crisis following the defeat, continues to be in a difficult situation.

Opposition parties staged massive anti-government protests at the first indications that Pashinyan might relinquish Nagorno-Karabakh claims to Azerbaijan. In early May, former Armenian president Robert Kocharian even called for Pashinyan’s resignation.
Brussels (NATO and EU) work to undermine the apparently good but weakened ties between Moscow and Yerevan by driving a wedge, given that much of Russia’s political capacity is now focused on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. By diminishing the Kremlin’s influence in the region, Yerevan would have the leeway to build new, closer security ties with the West and attempt to boost cooperation with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan. But even this, in the light of the present situation and domestic, regional and international dynamics, look to be a long and painful path.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a retired UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations). This paper was presented at the 53rd Conference of the Consortium of the Revolutionary Era, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 2-4 February 2023.

BRICS, or the New International Bipolarism (Maybe)

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the US and its partners in the “enlarged” West architectures (EU, NATO, G7 and some OECD/G20 countries) have been remarkably united in their support of Kyiv, but they have been much less successful at getting others to join their cause, especially in the so-called “global South” (mainly MENA/Africa, Latin America, South Asia countries). Governments and populations across the developing world express more and more vocally their objections against this narrative underlining the double standards and hypocrisy, about decades of neglect of the issues most important to them, about the mounting costs of the war and of sharpening geopolitical tensions. So, the support to Moscow appears to be more a sign of intolerance vis-à-vis US (and the Western-like states and system) than an ideological alignment with Russia, with some significant exceptions (e. g. Belarus, DPRK, Eritrea, Nicaragua).

This situation is window of opportunity for China, which looks to consolidate her penetration in the international system. Beijing had already set up, since a few years, several initiatives and architectures like BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), focused on building a network of client states. In the past, superpowers, and mid-size powers as well, used trade tariffs and coerced allies and enemies to achieve their geopolitical ends, creating tensions and leading to confrontations, like the trade policy of the US against Japan before WWII which exasperated Tokyo and facilitated the path to conflict.

In large part, companies, and not countries, are now the focus of China’s campaign to regain leverage over the West and keep open the door for a flush of trade, and reduce the tensions about critical raw material and products. China has paused its economic coercion of countries and commenced another one against firms. With new tactic, but same objective in order to achieve long-time political goals such as building domestic technological capabilities or the acceptance of its policies about “one China” (read absorb Taiwan) or ease the criticism over the internal contestation in Tibet, Sinkiang/East Turkestan, Hong Kong, religious minorities.
But the growing Russian weakness on the Ukrainian frontline allows China to increase her influence inside BRICS (initially BRIC, gathering Brazil, Russia, India and China established in 2006, formalized in 2009 and with the adhesion of South Africa in 2011, and renamed BRICS). This group of states worked to transform BRICS in an architecture more than a diplomatic conference and now appear close to a major turning point (or another step).

However, it is useful to analyse the approach of the founders and their views for the future of BRICS. Russia and China have the same one, using it as tool to face the “other side” (the Western economic and security system), but their magnitude is different. If before the war in Ukraine, the two (Moscow and Beijing) could be considered not so unbalanced, the poor political and military performances of Russia, changed the scene and China emerged as the real power and Putin looks more and more as junior partner of Xi Jinping. As consequences of it, BRICS seems to be transformed on the stage of the more assertive (and effective?) of Chinese assault on the world. For Moscow, BRICS is a tool that may help to re-propose herself as an alternate pool of attraction against the (above-mentioned) pro Western architecture/s.

For India, South Africa and Brazil, even with different extent and magnitude, BRICS is a space of maneuver for their own autonomous policies, monetize their cooperation with the pro-Western side, keep a dedicated channel of communication and trade (this especially true for India) with China and Russia.

As of now, despite the intrinsic weakness of the Chinese economy and society, Beijing is now the real leading pusher for the enlargement of the BRICS, and in parallel of it as part of the main assault line to the backbone of the US-led influence over the world which runs on the dollar (the euro currency would be a secondary target, the pound and Swiss franc are not considered challenges for China in this field) and the influence of Washington in the management of the world affairs, establishing a new world wide currency.

As above-mentioned, BRICS has an informal character, as yet. There is no funding charter, it does not work with a fixed secretariat nor does it have any funds to finance its activities. But slowly, and not fully reported and analysed, BRICS is on the way to set it up.

The first tool of the BRICS-led architecture is the New Development Bank, established in 2012 with a founding capital of 100 US$ Billions and with the aim of mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging market economies and developing countries, “complementing the efforts of multilateral and regional financial institutions for global growth and development.” In 2021, NDB enlarged its membership and admitted Bangladesh, Egypt, UAE and Uruguay as its new members and it is led by the former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, designated at this position on the month of April of this year.

The announced summit of BRICS for August in South Africa (according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, country chairing the group in 2023, the summit will have the theme: “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism.”) it is announced as a critical moment of the project to undermine the Western dominance (or influence) over the world. One of the keys of this meeting, as announced by the galaxy of pro-Beijing/Moscow media sources, it is the enlargement of the membership of BRICS and, in parallel, the launch of a new currency for the group and show off for other potential members.

China leading the development process of a new currency, to overrule the US dollar dominance and become a top currency for buying and trading worldwide. Even if it is presented as a collective initiative, in reality this is a solo project given that the only economy that has the capacity (and willingness) to setting up this currency mechanism is China. Russia, despite the unexpected positive performances of the ruble facing the Western sanctions, has not the capabilities to be the leader (or even co-leader) of the initiative.

On the best of the options, Moscow could be a minor partner of the new financial system and nothing more. India is not interested to lead it and wants to keep an autonomous space and is reluctant to have the major financial burden of this initiative may bring. Brazil and South Africa are even weaker than Russia under this perspective and out of the machinery. They, like Russia, could participate with minoritarian shares and showing the international façade of it.

According to the pro-Beijing/Moscow sources, talks will likely progress throughout this upcoming summit, with other countries outside of BRICS looking to join in. Allegedly, a total of 24 nations (but the reported number is reportedly increasing) are now looking to build a strategic alliance that will challenge the US dollar’s decades-long role as the world’s reserve currency. According to a South African diplomat, a long list of nations is now looking to join in; 13 countries that have formally asked to join while an additional six countries that have informally requested to be part of the alliance. The group of known newcomers includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Argentina, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Indonesia, two unnamed nations from East Africa and one from West Africa. Additional details are likely (or allegedly) to emerge by the summer.

The timing of the project of the expansion of the BRICS, the anti-Western narrative of its members (regardless of current members, potential members and allies), the repeated visits by top Russian and Chinese diplomats to Africa and other regions of the global South, etc., indicate that Beijing and Moscow target those countries as platform for their geopolitics, economy and diplomacy push.
Thirty years ago, the multipolar global system, despite the collapse of USSR, did not emerge as a reality and was replaced by a US-led Western hegemony. Now, this system is more and more challenged by the growth of China as global competitor, re-proposing a newly designed bi-polarism. Functional to the establishment of a bi-polar world, where China hope to lead the alternate poles, Beijing needs to set up a collection of client states, possibly bound up with strong financial ties. In this project Russia would play an essential role as junior partner and decoy, calling the attention and hostility of West for the aggression against Ukraine and dragging political, financial and military resources and distracting (at least trying to) their concerns about the dynamics ongoing in the Indo-Pacific macro-region and elsewhere.

The project of a new currency, is one of the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the BRICS is their ability to expand their membership base while maintaining their current growth.”

BRICS group of states, with the current membership, is already the world’s largest GDP, contributing 31.5% of global GDP, ahead of the G7, which contributes 30.7% (the lion share is in the hand of China and India).

The attraction of a new BRICS-led international currency is based on another aspect of the growing hostility, in the so-called global South (but not only there), for the policies of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), which formally part of the UN system, are perceived as US tool to dominate the policies of many countries. These two institutions are known for stipulating their monetary support to countries, especially in the global South, always with tight (and tighter now) political conditions focused on tough budgetary adjustment policies, the privatization of public services and the opening of markets for foreign (especially western) investors. To these harsh terms, IMF and WB, more recently started to add conditions of the defense and promotion of human rights and democracy, and acceptance of migrant waves (the last is very recent and its operate in cooperation with UNHCR and IOM).
So, under these circumstances, the struggle for build alternative tools to the IMF and the WB is political, understanding that the global South requires, like or not, a different political agenda in terms of reject of attempted external intromissions and/or controlling local economies.

However, a BRICS-issued currency still has a long path beyond and will holds many questions and difficulties (technical and political, more than purely political, which are already important). The first, is which currency will be used. As above mentioned, for different reasons, the most probable would the Chinese yuan/renminbi, which is already the 5th most traded currency as of April 2022, while rubles, rupees, rand and real will (or better, would) play a minor, if not purely symbolic role.

With many powerful countries backing it and looking for an alternative to the US Dollar, the upcoming BRICS Summit could be a major stepping stone towards De-dollarization and one of the most important steps of the world policy after Bretton Wood conference.
It is the call for the BRICS to derive an integrating scheme that goes beyond the exclusively economic, although at the official base is the principle of an economic alternative to present leading institutions in the world.

The Chinese-led project would face a stiff resistance from the US, which are really worried to lose the economical hegemony (and political influence) and multiplied the initiatives and contacts with the potential, disclosed or not, adherents to the BRICS in order to disrupt the project and antagonize the equivalent size powers, like India, against Beijing as major antagonist.

The Dark Side of the Moon

A dozen poor countries are facing economic instability and even collapse under the weight of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign loans, much of them from the world’s biggest and most unforgiving government lender, China. Those countries, the most indebted to China—e.g., Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia, Laos and Mongolia—have found paying back that debt is consuming an ever-greater amount of the tax revenue needed to keep schools open, provide electricity and pay for food and fuel. And it’s draining foreign currency reserves these countries use to pay interest on those loans, leaving some with just months before that money is gone.
This is originated by the stubborn resistance of Beijing to forgive debt and the extreme secrecy about the amount and terms of the loans. Zambia and Sri Lanka, are already in default, with serious impact on the domestic stability with political and public turmoil, exhaustion of currencies reserves, rise of costs and inflation.

In Pakistan, the textile industry sector has been shut down because the country has too much foreign debt and can’t afford to keep the electricity on and machines running, while Kenyan government stopped to pay the salaries to the civil servants in order to save cash to pay foreign loans.

The persistence of this tough line from Beijing will originate more defaults and will impact negatively on the perspective of the credibility of a financial system, alternate to the US dollar, hegemonized by Beijing. Zambia, which borrowed billions of dollars from Chinese state-owned banks to build dams, railways and roads, boosting the country economy but also raised foreign interest payments cutting deeply any public expenditure. Countries like Zambia, Pakistan and Congo-Brazzaville and other countries, like Indonesia, Laos, Uganda in the past, even, with tough conditions, from IMF, WB (and regional development banks and countries) got deals to forgive some debt.

All of it is roiling domestic politics and upending strategic alliances. In March, heavily indebted Honduras cited “financial pressures” in its decision to establish formal diplomatic ties to China and sever those with Taiwan. Chine firmly rejected the allegations to strangles its clients and underlined that has forgiven 23 no-interest loans to African countries; however independent sources stated that these actions are focused to very older loans and less than 5% of the total that was lent.

The future, as usual in the international relations is uncertain, and in this time, more than ever. The described picture shows that the ambitions of several actors would worsening the fate of minor and/or weak partners.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a retired UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations). This paper was presented at the 53rd Conference of the Consortium of the Revolutionary Era, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 2-4 February 2023.

What Next for Türkiye?

On May 14, 2023, the citizens of Türkiye will head to the polls in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, which promise to be the most critical and contentious since the country’s first free and fair elections in 1950. The outcome of possible change will shape the country domestic and foreign policies for the coming years, in a turmoiled international landscape.
Polls show a very close run between two main blocs: Erdogan’s People’s Alliance—which include his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) (conservative), the allied ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and a number of smaller, mostly far-right parties—and the National Alliance, the six-party opposition, led by the leftist, social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its long-time leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the legacy of the Kemalist parties.

In the coalition, together with CHP, there is the centrist Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), the center-right Democrat Party (DP), the nationalist, center-right Good Party (IYI)—the only other major faction besides the CHP— and two small groups, the conservative Future Party (Gelecek; GP), and the political Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet; FP). Also known as the “Table of Six,” the Nation’s Alliance poses the greatest challenge to Erdogan in nationwide vote since his AKP triumphed in November 2002 (and in the ongoing elections).

A third electoral bloc, led by the liberal, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—and accompanied by an array of leftist and far-leftist parties—is informally backing Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race, though competing for seats in the parliamentarian vote.
This clear political landscape changed with the recent entry of the former Republican People’s Party (CHP) high ranking Muharrem Ince as the third candidate for the presidency could further boost the incumbent and reduce the margin of victory for Kilicdaroglu. While the coalition supporting Erdogan will struggle to break the 45 percent barrier, let alone the 50 percent necessary to win the presidential seat in the first round on May 14th, Ince’s rise could block Kilicdaroglu primary victory, forcing him to a second electoral vote on May 28th.

At the center of the political, but also institutional, economic, cultural aspects of the challenge is the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his model which has impacted the country since the beginning of the 1980s, when he first entered political life.

The main aim of the National Alliance (and associates) is to dismantle the institutional architecture and the related aspects progressively installed by Erdogan. They look to use the next presidential and parliamentarian mandate as transition time, and to re-build the Kemalist (as well as post-Kemalist) outlook for Türkiye—namely, political leadership for the prime minister; reduction of the role of the president; re-establishment of the prominence of parliament in the legislative mechanism; laicization of the laws and society, reintegration of the country in the international system; reassessment of the country relations with its allies and partners, prominence of generally accepted principles of law in the justice system, with the banning of opinion crimes; protection of individual liberties; rights of minorities and groups. What appear to have vanished from their project of Turkish society is the guarantor role of the country’s secularism played by the armed forces, already progressively erased in Erdogan’s tenure. So, in case of victory the National Alliance will work to bring an old/new architecture and posture for the country.

But Erdogan is an experimented and determined political leader and will fight to the least breath to remain the undisputed leader of the country and, for the electoral campaign, without bringing new elements, he will emphasize some of the institutional points of his policy. However, some external factors will pose a severe challenge. The most visible being the economic recession (with inflation reaching as high as 85%) and the disastrous earthquake which hit Türkiye in February (causing around 50.000 deaths) and which affected his image because of the alleged ties between some of the controversial real estate business and the President’s party. Also, the inefficiencies of the rescue operations and rebuilding activities have hurt him (this is unavoidable considering the extent and gravity of the earthquake).
Erdogan’s strategy, as mentioned, is based on three pillars, and he later added a fourth, after the February earthquake.

The first pillar is the use of foreign policy to boost domestic popularity. In pursuit of this goal, Erdogan, for a couple of years now, normalized the relations with his Arab neighbourhood, affected by the impact of the Syrian war and the related changes of Ankara’s stance; and, thus, early this year, brought a large inflow of financial resources, estimated at 20 billion of dollars from GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. As well, despite a controversial history of relations with Moscow, Erdogan successfully secured a much-needed cash injection from Russia, amounting to nearly $10 billion, through the Akkuyu nuclear power plant construction project (till now Russia was very prudent in sharing her nuclear technology with third countries and even with a long-standing ally, like Algeria, an agreement on this issue has not been reached). This approach allowed Ankara to keep a control over the health of the local currency, limiting the negative impact of the economic fluctuation.

The second pillar is related to Syria, involved in a bloody civil war since 2001. Thanks to Russian mediation, starting in August 2022, Erdogan has been working on returning as soon as possible the four million Syrian refugees, a source of growing discontent among the Turkish people.

In this light, and to promote national pride, came the launch, in April, of the first locally made Turkish aircraft carrier (though of Spanish design). The Anadolou will have the capacity to carry the naval version of the US/international built fighter F-35 Lightning II, in its array of deadly UAVs of domestic manufacture. There are plans to build a second such carrier, the Traki. These vessels counter the embargo slapped on by the US to punish Ankara for its purchase of the Russian-made SAM system S-400 Triumph.
The third pillar, related to the recent cash in-flow, is the increase in wages and social benefits for the population, affected, not only by the economic crisis, but after February also by the earthquake (economic growth and the increase of purchasing power of each household has long been a dogma of the Erdogan doctrine, one at times contested by various economists who pointed to the intrinsic fragility of the projects. as well with a massive recruitment campaign in the enlarged public services sector. In this regard, Erdogan (and his party, the AKP) encourage every initiative that promotes a national endeavour in the economy, science, R&D, and tourism.

As mentioned, the earthquake is a tragic new element in the country’s political landscape, and this introduced the fourth pillar in the campaign of the President’s party, which is now focused on recalling the achievements of the past, not only the past economic growth but also the profile that the country obtained in the international and regional scene with the firm, influential and assertive stance of Erdogan in dealing with crises and countries (e.g., in Ukraine, the unique stance with Russia and the grain agreement with UN), NATO (for the addition of Sweden and Finland to the Alliance), Greece (for the delimitation of border waters and aerospace, the Cyprus issue, the exploitation of hydrocarbon in the Mediterranean basin), EU (the management of migrants), US (the refurbishment and modernization of the current fleet of F-16s).

But for Erdogan’s coalition (and for the opposition even more), there is the pending unresolved issue, which has run through the country’s history since the foundation of the republic (and as well before), and that is the management of the Kurdish issue, which is not only an identity and domestic question but also a serious regional and international one, given the co-presence of divergent interests, such as the support of Washington of the Syrian-Kurdish forces, which Ankara consider allied to the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), labelled as a terrorist movement and responsible for a tough armed and popular resistance in the Turkish eastern regions. Now, the Kurdish presence, though not formally, in the anti-Erdogan coalition of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is a serious political problem, given the hostility of the vast percentage of the electorate against the idea of concession of any sort of autonomy (cultural and even less administrative) for those areas. According to the polls, such concession would be crucial in defeating the Erdogan’ coalition, and this is an easy win for Erdogan who simply have to reject concession. Certainly, this will mean that they will not get the Kurdish vote, but there are also no strong reasons to actually given concessions.

According to plans of the National Alliance, the return to a Turkish parliamentary system would go more smoothly if they won the presidency as well as the parliament with a three-fifths majority—a prerequisite for a constitutional amendment necessary to restore the country’s former political system. However, the most recent election law changes make such a scenario difficult to achieve it.
Two scenarios could therefore emerge in May. First, given the wide executive powers of the presidency under Turkey’s new political architecture, Erdogan’s loss of position would be a huge blow for his party and its popular base. Hence, Erdogan could negotiate an agreement to divide leadership for personal and political guarantees. In case of defeat, Erdogan could be planning to build a powerful opposition exploiting an unstable governing alliance facing not only institutional changes but also the heavy legacy of economic reconstruction and earthquake-related struggles. Also, it should be noted that the opposition could lose both races (presidential and parliamentarian) thus assuring the grip of the AKP on Turkish society.

It is interesting to observe that in neighbouring Greece, the elections are planned one week after the Turkish ones, and inevitably their outcome will influence the vote in the country. But it is clear that Türkiye remains a pivotal country in the Euro-Atlantic security system, not only for the addition of Sweden and Finland (the latter is now added, while the former, it is widely believed, will be finalized after the election and before the NATO Summit of Vilnius, planned for July 11-12, 2023, along with policies for the neighbouring countries, given the fragile situations in Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbajian (and the Nagorno-Karabach conflict).

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a retired UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations). This paper was presented at the 53rd Conference of the Consortium of the Revolutionary Era, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 2-4 February 2023.

Ukraine and the Gulf: Agreements and About-Face

The Russo-Ukrainian war—and the long list of potential global conflicts that could erupt, such as in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Kuril Islands, North Korea and Iran—represents a rude awakening for the strategic landscape for several countries around the world, suggesting that the international order after this war (and potential others) will never be as it was before. But this is equally valid for already existing conflicts, such as those between Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Palestine, Kurdistan (Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian), Sahel, Somalia, Mozambique, etc. etc.

A new multipolar order of a different nature and contours to those that previously existed has begun to appear on the horizon, prompting countries to reevaluate their economic accounts and political alliances. Indeed, many nations are redefining (or trying to do so) their geopolitical interests to adapt and be self-sustaining and stable amid complex global crises with no clear goals (and no clear consequences), identifiable or controllable. This is especially true for the so-called Arab-Islamic states community and even more so for the Arab-Persian Gulf sub-region.

Among these states, particularly, for those adhering to the bizarre (in the sense that it is unclear how it is really governed given the very deep divisions hidden behind lavish meetings and very long final communiqués) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), these revaluations seem to be increasingly articulated, considering current geopolitical developments. Will the alliance with the United States continue to coincide with the present and, above all, future interests of the Gulf States? How are these nations trying to diversify their alliances with emerging powers like China, Russia (and others) in the fields of security, finance and energy?

But between these two horns of dilemma is a third, very delicate one, namely the construction of a balance between US interests on the one hand and Chinese and Russian interests on the other (not counting the weight and interests of states such as Iran and Turkey)? Identifying a path to follow is of the utmost importance, for the West and for Europe, in view of the important energy capacity (the Gulf states produce 40% of the world’s total energy) and consequently, enormous financial resources.

Before examining the options and choices available to these states, however, there are several key points that need to be highlighted as factors in Gulf states’ assessments of their interests and alliances.

Firstly, the Gulf States do not seem to ignore the signals coming from an important strategic alliance formed by the complex of international architectures alternative to the system of Euro-Atlantic political, economic and security architectures (like EU, NATO, G7, G20, etc.) represented by a consolidated reality like the Shangai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes Russia, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and other various countries both as observers and as partners, including Saudi Arabia), a very robust BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and one in progress, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and several others interested in join.

Similarly, the Gulf states are aware of the important role of Russia and China in controlling Iranian excesses, especially if Teheran, despite some recent declarations of goodwill (probably dictated by the need to mitigate its isolation which has grown due to the brutal repression of civil protest movements), were to replicate North Korea’s nuclear scheme. Furthermore, the GCC states, despite the obvious needs, are unable to develop a common policy due to the aforementioned interstate divisions and rivalries and divergent needs.

But what is more important is that the link between the subregion and the United States, which began with the meeting between President F. D. Roosevelt and the Saudi king, Ibn Saud aboard the cruiser USS ‘Quincy’ in the Suez Canal in February 1945, if historically fluctuating according to the Washington administrations, in recent years it has become more unstable due to the ideological polarization of the US leadership (not to mention Trump’s insulting manners towards his local interlocutors).

Finally, the repercussions of the Ukrainian war still remain unclear and unpredictable in terms of security and economics, especially with regard to global energy prices, but have shown world leaders that, compared to China, Russia increasingly looks like the junior partner of Beijing. As a result, the Gulf states, while holding the energy blackmail card to the West, are understandably reluctant to give up major oil customers, such as China, especially in the perspective that all their customers (Beijing included) are turning to less dependence on hydrocarbons, and that their infinite gains will have to be reduced.

Given the current international conditions, the GCC leadership is faced with a number of options for defining a new strategic approach in the coming years. The diversification of international partnerships seems an obligatory choice, given the current context. However, diversification is an important issue, given the GCC’s ties to the US and its allies, which incidentally have significant military assets deployed in the area. The difference is whether to increase strategic cooperation with Beijing and Moscow and take on a harsh hostility from the West or maintain it, albeit at a more reduced level that allows for good business, which appears to be the only raison d’etre for many Western countries, and maintain a high context of economic, political and military contacts with the West.

This option could make it possible to balance geopolitical interests between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other (but up to a certain point, in the case of the Washington/Brussels confrontation, Beijing/Moscow go to extremes). If they adopt the second option, the Gulf states could become a channel of communication, understanding and balance between US, Chinese and Russian interests on various global issues, especially energy and trade.

In particular, the UAE could play an important role in this option building on the vital international role it already plays (it is precisely in March that units of the UAE land forces exercise with US Army in the United States) and also to mark the difference with the cumbersome partner that is Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman could also manage complex issues between the United States, China and Russia, given their long experience in complex negotiations. For example, Qatar successfully brokered a deal between the Taliban and the US in 2020 (the problem was the fragility of the Afghan government that collapsed in front of the Taliban, thanks to the corruption of Kabul political and military leadership) and Oman successfully brokered several deals between Iran and the United States, including the 2015 nuclear deal.

A Red Line

In the perspective of Washington and Brussels, the red line would be military agreements with Beijing and/or Moscow. This hypothesis, so far distant, however could be in view, after the recent agreement for the normalization of relations between Teheran and Riyadh, sponsored by China; and it is useful to remember that since 1988 Saudi Arabia has acquired Chinese Dong Feng 3 missiles (with a range of 3,000 kilometres). But those were different times and the sale did not constitute a problem, given that this type of system was not produced by Western industries and those missiles were perceived as a deterrent against Iran.

Furthermore, the cooperation between the GCC states, Russia and China should not damage the interests of the United States and EU especially in the energy fields (and also if not clearly stated, also those of Tel Aviv). The GCC should, if it were in a position to do so, assure Washington and Brussels that cooperation with Russia, or even China, does not lead to the growth of their influence in the Persian Gulf region, potentially triggering a hostile response from USA, NATO and the EU, such as the further acceleration of energy policies independent of hydrocarbons, with dire consequences for the GCC states (and in fact to it, albeit through OPEC and OAPEC, such as Iraq).

The agreement to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered and sponsored by Beijing, seems to be the first sign of this new approach (but maybe not); at any rate since it involves the leading nation of the GCC (albeit disputed) and has vast influence and influence over other Arab-Islamic nations (with some notable exceptions).

In any case, referring to the above, despite a not particularly positive climate between Riyadh and Washington, with a timing worthy of a better cause, the Saudi crown prince MBS (Mohammed Bin Salman) announced the finalization of a massive contract for the purchase of 121 Boeing airliners for the newly formed Riyadh Air and Saudia just after the international notification of the Beijing-sponsored agreement. The contract was commented on by a warm statement from the US State Department which underlined the solidity of bilateral relations (excusatio non petit). The negotiations for this contract took time to be finalized, also for technical reasons, but they probably would have started some time ago would have started some time ago, probably coinciding with Beijing’s first diplomatic approaches and, equally clearly, it represents an assurance that Saudi Arabia wants to give Washington and a nice injection of money for the US aeronautical industry, a symbolic and strategic axis of the USA.


The latest developments, such as the promise to re-establish diplomatic ties and normalize relations between Riyadh and Tehran, promoted by China, have a potentially very wide range of consequences, both regionally and in the near (and not) abroad. At first glance, the Iranian-Saudi-Chinese deal could be seen as another affront by MBS to the US. If it is, it is surely a partial aspect of the complex bilateral relations that bind the two countries. Fears of Riyadh’s possible departure from Washington ties are mitigated by Saudi Arabia’s continued dependence on US military capability, not to mention the flow of spare parts for the Saudi arsenal.
However, the US irritation towards Saudi Arabia on the subject of human and civil rights and for the barbaric murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 remains intact. The White House, meanwhile, downplayed differences with Saudi Arabia, saying Riyadh was in close contact with Washington for conversations with Beijing and Tehran, given that the United States and Iran have no direct diplomatic contacts.

The real reason for Riyadh’s agreement with Iran seems to be dictated by the increasingly urgent need to get out of the quagmire of war in Yemen, which began in March 2015, with enormous expenses, poor results and significant damage to the image of the suffering of the civilian populations, not to mention the military humiliation of theoretically very powerful armed forces, the Saudi ones, in fact blocked by the militias of the Yemeni-Shiite-like Houti, who have come to hit Saudi Arabia and the UAE in depth, with missiles supplied from Tehran. Furthermore, due to the aforementioned human rights problems in Saudi Arabia, Biden, with the support of Congress, ended American assistance for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen.

Also, here too enters the increasingly fierce domestic ideological political dispute in the US, where Republicans criticize Biden for pushing Riyadh closer to Beijing, saying Democrats have alienated a key Gulf partner, lost another battle in the competition against China and jeopardize the opportunities to establish ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the possibility of reconstituting (on different bases and adherents, obviously) the ancient alliances and understandings promoted by Washington in the 1950s in the Middle East (Baghdad Pact, CENTO, METO).

Saudi Arabia has however said that opening ties with Israel is conditional on progress towards a Palestinian state. This condition constitutes a serious problem for Netanyahu, who, with his hard hand towards the Palestinians, has put himself in a corner in this perspective, given that Saudi Arabia’s accession to the anti-Iranian coalition, is seen by Israel as a strategic necessity, would unblock the expansion of this agreement almost all the states of the region, with the excepted self-exclusion of Syria, Algeria, perhaps Iraq and Lebanon (in these two for the massive presence of populations of the Shiite rite), but Saudi officials have asked for guarantees for a constant flow of armaments and placing this area outside of political differences, a commitment to the defense of the kingdom and help in the construction of a civilian nuclear program.

The countries of the region, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, continue to prefer Republicans negotiating partners to Washington, both for ideological reasons (both reactionary/conservative) and economic proximity, given the proximity of the US oil industry to the Republican party and proof of this, it would suffice to observe that the Saudis, before the mid-term elections of 2022, cut oil production despite the opposition of the USA, with the aim of driving up the price, damaging the electoral chances of the Democrats and helping the Republicans.

This distrust of Democrats is ancient, originating from the attention they give to issues that the Saudis find unbearable, such as the protection of human rights, but the turning point came in 2015, when US President Barack Obama gave the green light for a nuclear deal with Iran without consulting the Saudis. He then insinuated that Saudi Arabia is a “free rider” and argued that the situation in the Persian Gulf “requires us to tell our friends and the Iranians that they must find an effective way to share the neighborhood”.

According to many observers, the Iranian-Saudi-Chinese agreement would be a “tactical affront” by Saudi Arabia towards the Biden administration, but the perturbations of relations at the political level almost never have repercussions on the military-military level and the possibilities of further slides of the countries of the region towards the purchase of Chinese weapons is low (and the Russian one is very low, given the poor results provided of the Moscow weapons systems by the war in Ukraine) and more generally, there is strong dissatisfaction with goods and services supplied by companies and Chinese, while the United States and Europe maintain a undisputed advantage with the quality of the material, after-sales services, training, education and support.

A Different View

It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia and Iran will keep the commitments made in their trilateral declaration signed with China, such as the reopening of their embassies and the exchange of ambassadors within two months. Saudi Arabia and Iran also agreed to implement a decades-old security cooperation agreement, first established in 1998 and expanded in 2001, and to cooperate on the economy, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sport and youth (agreement that remained a dead letter).

A new restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, is barely enough to overcome the long-standing hostilities of these two countries. Far from representing a regional realignment, ultimately it is more likely to appear as a further sign that Beijing is trying to make inroads in international diplomacy and that in its perspective the results, if any, can be seen in the medium term.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter adversaries with a centuries-old history of enmity and mistrust. On that basis they are extremely unlikely to suddenly become friendly neighbors. But it is not clear in what terms and for how long MBS will be able to validate this result. The new deal is not like the Camp David deal (which effectively ended the war between Egypt and Israel); nor is it even comparable to the wishful thinking Abraham Accords (which established relations between Israel and Arab countries that had never joined a war against it and which Israel now hopes to extend to other participants in an anti-Iranian fashion).

Rather, the deal promises little more than a resumption of normal diplomatic ties; without more concrete steps towards reconciliation, underpinned by external guarantees and oversight, the Chinese-brokered deal could simply represent an interregnum of calm before a possible next phase of bilateral tensions, as the underlying reasons for resolving and/or remove the suspicious mortgages, mistrust and fears have not been addressed, as far as is known.

The two states have a contentious relationship history. Iran severed ties with Riyadh in 1944 after the Saudis executed an Iranian pilgrim who had accidentally desecrated a rock at the shrine in Mecca. They reconciled in 1966. But then, in 1988, the Saudis cut ties after Iranian political demonstrations during the pilgrimage to Mecca the year before left at least 402 dead. Relations were then resumed in 1991, before being suspended again in 2016, when Saudi Arabia beheaded a Shiite cleric, leading protesters to storm his embassy in Tehran.
Most of these swings have been driven by regional and global dynamics. In 1966, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular and pan-Arab rhetoric prompted the Saudis to approach the enlightened dictator, Sha Reza Pahlavi (then Washington’s protégé). In 1968, the exit of Great Britain from the Gulf, following the decision to suspend all military presence east of Suez, shuffled the cards. OPEC’s worldwide energy blackmail following the Yom Kippur War begins to give endless financial resources to that region, further igniting pre-existing rivalries. In 1991 both countries feared Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Today there is no common threat to both countries.

The accord is more like a temporary ceasefire, one of many promoted by regional leaders and all of which ended agonizingly, such as the accord promoted by Nasser between Lebanon and the PLO in 1969, giving the Palestinians a fixed area of operations against Israel. But six years later, the Palestinians were at war with Lebanon’s Christian factions, igniting the civil war between local religious-political factions and setting off repeated and deadly Israeli actions; or how in February 1994, King Hussein of Jordan brokered a deal between feuding Yemeni leaders; but by May of that year a faction had split off, causing a new civil war.

As an aspiring hegemonic and regional player, China hopes its new diplomatic clout will bolster its military power and presence in the region (and sub-region). But there is an important American military presence in the Persian Gulf. The US Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, CENTCOM (US joint central command which has jurisdiction and operates in an area ranging from Egypt to Afghanistan) has its advanced operational command in Qatar and Saudi Arabia itself hosts nearly 3,000 US military personnel (and a huge, but unknown, number of ‘contractors’).

But GCC states remain on the top of US-led interest (politically and financially). Saudi Arabia, Qatar were classified among the top 10 global arms importers from 2018 to 2022, according to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on March of this year. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second-largest arms importer during that period and received 9.6% of all arms imports, second only to India at 11%, according to SIPRI’s ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers 2022’. Riyadh received the 78%, of its imports from the US, which included the delivery almost 100 combat aircraft, hundreds of land-attack missiles and over 20,000 guided bombs. UAE and Kuwait got the majority of their imports at 66% for the UAE and 78% for Kuwait from US as well.

After these notes, which may appear reassuring with regards to the connection, perhaps forced by Saudi Arabia (and these parameters are also transferable to the other small states of the GCC), to the political-economic and military system of the West, it is useful to recall that Riyadh, which seems to be looking for its own space, recently flatly refused to participate in the recapitalization of the collapsing Credit Suisse. The amount, which is important but not insurmountable for Saudi finances, should make us reflect on how much it can really count on a partner who seeks to silence doubts and fears by monetizing them (i.e. by signing large contracts of all kinds).
Of course, each state has its own priorities and needs, but sometimes such moves leave client states in the open, which had aligned their policies on Saudi ones, such as Morocco. Rabat in solidarity with one of its major donors, had a very hard line with Iran, recently accused of providing military assistance to POLISARIO through instructors of the Iranian Hezbollah and more recently, of giving in to the movement fighting for independence of the former Spanish Sahara, drones to attack his troops deployed on the sand wall that divides the former colony of Madrid.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations). This paper was presented at the 53rd Conference of the Consortium of the Revolutionary Era, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 2-4 February 2023.

The First Schleswig-Holstein War: The Beginning of Military Interposition

1848 was a turbulent but critical year in the modern history of Europe, which saw the major crisis of the so-called “Vienna system,” with politically and socially originated revolutions and revolts across the continent.

Within this context, the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were caught between rising nationalism and the will of the German-speaking people for unification.

The case of Schleswig and Holstein remains a minor part of that momentum, overshadowed by other major events, while also overlapped by the first Prussian-Danish war. Thus one of the first neutral interposition operation in Europe has been marginalized and largely forgotten.

The majority of Schleswig-Holsteiners were German speakers (despite a prominent minority of Danes), who believed that the inclusion of their territory within the German Federation, with its own constitution, was the optimal option for their own future.

In this light, they naturally looked to Prussia.

In Denmark, as in many other European countries, the call for a democratic constitution was initially triggered by the February riots in Paris against King Louis-Phillipe of Orleans.

The Danish Crown, in crisis, constitutionally and in terms of monarchical succession, wished to keep a firm hand on the southernmost duchies and sent military forces to crack down on the insurgents and the Prussian forces that supported them.

During the conflict, a truce was established, and a Swedish-Norwegian force, supported by a British naval squadron, was dispatched to the region, with the mandate to garrison one part of the disputed area.

This could be considered the first interposition experiment carried out by a neutral actor.

This force often at the center of skirmishes and clashes, anticipated similar situations in peacekeeping operations in the 20th century.

Finally, also, the withdrawal of the neutral force saw many clashes.

The Region

The Schleswig-Holstein situation, one of the most intricate grids because of ethnic and dynastic reasons in all of entire Europe, was seemingly solved by way of another conflict in the second half of the 19th century, and was finally resolved with a plebiscite, carried out under the joint auspices of the Allied and Associate Powers and the League of Nations after WWI.

The Schleswig-Holstein represented, as mentioned above, one of most complicate situations, due to the ethnic and dynastic quagmire of contrasting trends and interests, both local and regional.

This conflict was the mirror of several ongoing mutations in the political, economic and social landscape of the European continent.

Denmark, like many other countries in Europe, was caught in the broader transition between absolute monarchies to a constitution-led state model.

In this already complex scenario, emerged a new military model—the use of neutral force between warring parties.

In the past, there had been some cases (Italy, during the “Salt War” and in Switzerland); but the case of Schleswig-Holstein represented, for the time, one of the most coherent experiment.

It should be noted that the deployment of Swedish-Norwegian troops in Schleswig-Holstein was the transformation of initial, planned deployment in support of Denmark, into a neutral-intended intervention, representing a major change in the political stance of Stockholm.

The Political Landscape

The German communities, who lived in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, governed from Denmark, revolted, in April 1848, against the Copenhagen rule, inflamed by similar revolts which swept across all of Europe.

The German Federation, an organization which brought together all states of the post-Vienna Congress Germany, inflamed by self-determination and national unification principles, mandated Prussia to support the insurgents.
Facing a serious threat, Copenhagen asked help from Great Britain, Sweden-Norway and Russia.

The three foreign parties brought in their own international and regional interests to the crisis as well as their broader worldviews.

Stockholm, in one of the first examples of Nordic solidarity, and on the request of Copenhagen, sent a contingent, in May, to Denmark (4.000 out of the 15.000 men deployed in Scania), ready to intervene, supported by a large naval force.

Aside from the deployment of troops, not involved in clashes, and aside from Danes against pro-Germans and Prussians, Sweden sent to Prussia a declaration, stating that any further action against Denmark would lead Stockholm into a direct intervention into Copenhagen, a city considered vital for the strategic security of Sweden.

The mere presence of Swedish-Norwegian troops, which landed in Fyn, blocked further progression of pro-Germans forces and Prussian elements up towards the north.

However, it should be said that Sweden-Norway also asked Denmark to refrain from any action that might lead to a worsening of the crisis, like launching counteroffensives against Schleswig-Holstein, under control of the pro-Germans and Prussians.

London, following her traditional approach and policies, sought to avoid any possible change in the balance of powers in the continent, as much as possible.

The strategic position of Denmark, a key area between the North Sea and the Baltic, made the request for assistance from Copenhagen, a matter of strategic interest for Great Britain.

Russia, which since the Napoleonic wars considered Prussia her protégé, did not appreciate the liberal shift ongoing in Berlin and interpreted the move for Schleswig-Holstein, not coordinated with St. Petersburg, as a sign of political independency.

For St. Petersburg, this initiative risked dismantling the legitimacy of the political system ongoing in the continent, set up with the so-called “Vienna System.”

On British initiative, in the month of May 1848, peace negotiations were organized in London, between Prussia and Denmark, with Britain as mediator.

In the talks, it was proposed to split the territory between Schleswig and Holstein, but which was not accepted by the Danes.

Despite this initial failure, Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, insisted on continuing the negotiations in Malmoe, Sweden.

The negotiations, coupled with the provisional halt to military operations, led to the signature of the first cease-fire signed in Malmoe, under the auspices of London, St. Petersburg and Stockholm.

The issued ceasefire put Berlin in an embarrassing situation, given that the German League Parliament, seated in Frankfurt am Main, did not ratify it. Consequently, the King of Prussia did not ratify it, either—while Denmark did ratify the ceasefire.

Then, a rift took place. The pro-German forces, refused to accept the ceasefire, reflecting the ambiguous stance of Berlin and Frankfurt.

In this regard, Denmark, despite talks ongoing since mid-July, on the 24th of that same month, declared the temporary armistice null and void.

Copenhagen, though it did not resume ground operations against the pro-Germans and Prussians, established a rigid naval blockade of Baltic coasts, enjoying the support of London, St. Petersburg and Stockholm, and was strongly hostile to Berlin’s refusal to ratify the truce.

A new truce was signed in Malmoe on 26 August 1848. During this truce, lasting seven months, no political results were obtained.

At the expiration of the truce, fighting erupted again between the Danish forces on the one side and the Prussians and local insurgents on the other; but this time it saw the dominance of Danish forces, testified by the Battle of Fredericia on 7 July 1849.

The Neutral Force

In Malmoe, with the reopening of war, a new session of negotiations was immediately promoted by Norway-Sweden, Russia and Great Britain, and in July 1849 led to a result.

Russia and Great Britain were strongly interested in normalization, given that their commercial trade with Prussia was heavily affected by the Danish naval blockade.

This led to a new truce for six months, which was extendable for a further six weeks.

Despite fierce resistance, Denmark accepted the idea of partition of the disputed territory (an option that emerged during talks between the other stakeholders) as the only way to solve the issue.

Prussia signed the armistice on 10 July and Denmark on the 17th.

Prussia provisionally administered Southern Schleswig and Holstein, inhabited mostly by German populations, and garrisoned the area with 6.000 troops.

Northern Schleswig, with a stronger ethnic mix, was administered by an international commission, directed by a British diplomat, along with a Prussian and one Danish deputies, thus setting up a tripartite administration, based in Flensburg.

The international commission was assisted by a force of 4,000 Swedish-Norwegian soldiers, supported by a British naval squadron and one (much smaller) Swedish-Norwegian naval force.

The Swedish-Norwegian troops arrived in Flensburg on 27 August 1849, and they policed the area, disarmed the pro-German forces and monitored the withdrawal of Danish troops back into Jutland.

The Force Commander was the Commanding Officer of the Värmland Regiment (one of the oldest units of the Royal Swedish Army), Colonel O. A. Malmborg, who for this duty was promoted Major-General.

The international presence was constantly punctuated since its arrival by serious incidents and clashes, especially with pro-German insurgents, and in-between those with the Danish-speaking irregular armed elements.

The surveillance of the line separating northern from southern Schleswig was very problematic due to the nature of the area.

The Southern Schleswig remained the base for pro-independence militias, which despite the heavy losses in the war against Denmark, remained ready to fight.

The Prussians, who were tasked to disarm them, instead supported their raids in the north.

In January 1850 a Swedish-Norwegian detachment was attacked by 800 armed units in a heavy battle, south of the demarcation line, southeast of Flensburg.

The international troops, in a recce mission, following an incursion of pro-German units, was forced to cross the demarcation line and engage the insurgents in clashes, and thus defeating them.

The mandate of the international force expired in January 1850, but was extended for other six months, as in Berlin a decisive phase of the negotiations between Prussia and Denmark, ongoing since December 1849, was taking place.

The talks required many weeks; and only on 2 July was there reached a final agreement, in which Denmark returned to exercising sovereignty over the Duchies, but with the commitment not to conduct unfair policies and/or reprisals in the German minority.

During the spring of 1850, Russia suggested that the Swedish-Norwegian force should also garrison Southern Schleswig, replacing the Prussians forces.

The proposal was rejected by Sweden, on the ground of a substantial risk of even greater involvement in dealing with a hostile, pro-German, population.

On 2 July 1850 peace was signed in Berlin between Denmark and the Prussia and German League.

The agreement allowed the withdrawal of Swedish-Norwegian and Prussian forces from their areas of responsibilities.

In late July, the Scandinavian troops left the territory. The operations of re-embarkation were characterized by incidents, heavy gunfire and several fallen among the troops and the German separatists.

At the same time Prussia withdrew its forces from southern Schleswig and Holstein. As soon as foreign forces were withdrawn, the duchies were re-occupied by the forces of Copenhagen, according to the peace treaty.

The Danish forces crushed in few days another uprising of the pro-German armed groups, which exploded immediately after the arrival of the troops of Copenhagen.

Although little known, this mission contains within itself the harbingers of future peace support missions: interim administration, approval of the parties involved in a conflict with regard to the deployment of a neutral military force, disarming of irregular military formations, and patrolling the lines of demarcation.

The other point which led this operation to a success, and often forgotten when there is an analysis of the achievements of a peacekeeping operation, the existence of a serious political will in supporting the forces on the ground.

Finally, a politically-minded observation. The role of London, Stockholm and St. Petersburg, even if appearing as neutral, in reality, none of these were “honest brokers,” given their political interests and/or strategic imperatives; and these kinds of dynamics should be analyzed for a proper interpretation of third parties in international crisis.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations). This paper was presented at the 53rd Conference of the Consortium of the Revolutionary Era, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 2-4 February 2023.

Featured: Danish Soldiers Returning to Copenhagen, by Otto Bache; painted in 1894.

Algeria: The New Actor in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa

The war in Ukraine continue to impact on many regions of the world. This is specially true in Northern Africa, where, aside from the old and established rivalries between the states of the area, there crisscross new trends, such as the increased need for new energy sources (far, not only geographically, from the flow coming from Russia), and the search for the influence of Moscow, Beijing, Brussels (NATO and EU), Washington, Paris, Rome, Ankara and others.

Algeria, a baricentric country, is involved in a complex action of positioning, faithful to firm principles of non-alignment and anti-colonial sentiments, in a changing international context.

The growing influence of this North African country increases its attention to the eyes of USA, NATO, the EU and other states, as well as being a reason for vigilance by consolidated partners, such as Russia (since 1962, the year of independence, the USSR) and China. All this, as the 2022 energy crisis gave this nation a boost of wealth and political clout in the region.

This attention is not without pressures. In fact, in September, some members of the US Congress invoked the 2017 CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), asking for the imposition of sanctions against Algeria for purchases of arms from Russia. This appeal followed that made by Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Marco Rubio is known for being very close to Morocco, Algiers’ historical adversary, and for his support that Rabat’s sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, whose pro-independence cause is instead defended by Algeria.

While the Spanish MEP Susana Solís Pérez, of the Renew Europe group, in early February asked the European Commission if it continued to consider Algeria a reliable partner in terms of energy supply and asked the European institution if it was evaluating the possibility that Algeria “acts at Russia’s request to aggravate the energy crisis” and warned against the use of gas by Algeria as a “political weapon” against the interests of Spain, Portugal and especially Morocco, considered as a “strategic partner” (in the light of recent developments, like Qatargate and Moroccogate, such declarations, especially from European elected officials, should invite in-depth reflections about the real meaning of ‘lobbying’).

Since the days of the Cold War, Algeria has remained outside the orbit of the West; close (but never enslaved, as some say, poor in knowledge but rich in bad faith) to Moscow, while favoring national liberation movements; and this pitted it against its western neighbour, which instead supported the dictatorial government of Mobutu in Kinshasa and the racist one in South Africa (violating the arms embargo declared by the UN, by buying, for example, among the few in the world, 6×6 wheeled protected infantry vehicles “Ratel”). However, it must be added that the common understanding about Morocco, described as always aligned with the West, is of a showy oscillation (which began with Hassan II, the father of the current king), with the most recent trips to both Moscow and Beijing, made by King Mohammed VI. This was becuase of, in the eyes of Rabat, the tepid Western support for Mohammad’s territorial claims on the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, considered by the UN General Assembly as part of the non-self-governed territories (colonies, in other words), which today number seventeen.

The persistent tension with Morocco, which attacked Algeria in 1963 (Algiers had just achieved independence from france, after a terrible war of independence that began in 1954 and ended in 1962) to attempt to annex western areas of the neighboring country, claiming their re-appropriation for unjust borders inherited from the colonial era—which led Algiers to set up a massive military apparatus, financed by its enormous energy resources, purchasing in full and for many years, its equipment from the Soviet Union and, since 1991 , from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, China, with occasional and ready presence of Western weapons systems in the bid to acquire substrategic weapons.

Thus, between 2014 and 2017, Algeria activated 4 regiments of the “Iskander” E surface-to-surface missile system (each missile regiment is made up of over 50 vehicles and 48 missiles: 12 launch vehicles, 12 missile carriers and loaders, 11 command control vehicles and other logistic and support vehicles). This equipment has significantly strengthened Algeria’s regional prominence in the volatile Middle East and North Africa.

This situation has progressively changed in the last ten years, with an increased presence of Chinese, but also German (wheeled Armoured Infantry Combat Veichles TPZ “Fuchs”), Italian (helicopters and a large amphibious assault unit and other systems lined up), aling with Moscow-based equipment.

This situation of tensions with Morocco has been accompanied by a generalized worsening of the security situation for Algiers, starting with the Libyan crisis, the vulnerabilities in Tunisia, Mali and Niger, and ending with the Turkish, Qatari, Emirates, Saudi, Israeli and Iranian diplomatic (and not only) intrusions in the region, and increased activity of NATO (with which Algeria also collaborates in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue since 2000).

With this in mind, on 22 November 2022, the National People’s Congress (the lower house) adopted the finance bill for the year 2023 by a majority in the plenary session. The text of the of the bill includes a series of provisions concerning, inter alia, measures regarding investments, taxation, purchasing power, etc. But the flagship of these new measures is undoubtedly that which concerns the national defense budget, which provides for the allocation for defense a total amount of 3,186 billion dinars, (or more than 22 billion dollars). A military budget more than double compared to last year which amounted to 1,300 billion dinars (9 billion dollars). In numerical terms, the budget of the National People’s Army (which includes the three principal services, but also the national gendarmerie and the coast guard) for the year 2023 will increase by 1.886 billion dinars, or almost 13 billion dollars. This represents a 145% increase. This unprecedented reassessment of the defense budget was made possible by the sharp increase in oil export revenues in 2022. “The increase in hydrocarbon prices is helping to strengthen the recovery of the Algerian economy after the shock of the pandemic. The windfall revenues from hydrocarbons have eased pressure on public and external finances,” stated the latest IMF report.

To some extent, the reasons for this increase have been outlined above. But there are others, such as the need to update the weapon systems purchased during the great 2007 agreement with Russia, and the desire to acquire new ones, in particular for combat aircraft (Sukhoi Su-75 “Checkmate”), submarines (with the expansion of the number of exisiting “Kilo” class submarines with new ones, capable of launching the “Kalibir” cruise missiles and updating others in service), and anti-aircraft defense systems (with additional S-400 “Triumf” and the brand new S-500 “Prometheus”), with an eye to the challenging reinforcement of the Moroccan Air Force (which is expanding its fleet of F-16s in service and upgrading those already in service to the 70/72 standard). Much of the Algerian arsenal does require a mid-life overhaul, but it remains to be seen whether Russian firms, involved in the support of the quagmire in Ukraine, will be able to comply with any Algerian demands, both for modernization and for new systems.

But there are also other reasons for the increase in the defense budget, such as the revaluation of the pensions of retired military and paramilitary personnel.

In the context of the new constitution of 2020, which has opened the door to the possibility of operating with its armed forces abroad (reversing a basic concept of the Algerian political and constitutional discourse), there is the growing involvement of the Algerian armed forces in the Sahel, through collaboration with neighboring armed forces, such as Niger and Mali; and it is believed that Algeria is gradually moving towards creating a sort of permanent aid scheme to the Nyamey armed forces to deal with the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, while trying to reduce the French influence in its “southern flank” and the revitalization of the CEMOC (Comité d’Etat-Major Opérationnel Conjoint), an Algerian-led multinational command, based in Tamanrasset and which includes delegates from Mauritania, Niger, Mali. CEMOC’s Algerian chairmanship meeting of last October was personally chaired by President Abdelmajid Tebboune. Furthermore, security issues in the Mediterranean represent a major challenge for the Algerian authorities, especially after the recent, further deterioration of relations with neighboring Morocco due to the profound disagreements on the issue of the Western Sahara and the diplomatic and military rapprochement between Rabat and Israel. This event, in August 2021, led Algeria to severe diplomatic relations with Morocco and close the airspace to flights by Moroccan airlines and/or other companies originating from, or going to, Morocco.

But Algeria, in its new dynamic of international relations, is in talks with China to acquire the new short-range ballistic missile system (SRBM) SY-400. To do this, an Algerian delegation travelled to NORINCO (North Industries Group Corporation) at the Zhuhai Airshow 2022 last November. The purchase of the SY-400 SRBM will integrate the Russian-made “Iskander” E ballistic missile system and China’s YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles (a 2014 Pentagon report calls the YJ-12 the “most lethal anti-ship missile that China has ever made”).

The Algerian Ministry of Defense initially planned to acquire a coastal battery of Russian anti-ship missiles (3K55 “Bastion”), but then chose the YJ-12B, which completed the deployment of another hypersonic cruise missile of Chinese manufacture, the ASCM CX-1, which the Algerian Navy acquired in 2022, after more than 10 years of negotiations.

Algerian diversification is not just military. In fact, Algiers has signed a new five-year strategic agreement with China to deepen its bilateral relationship in all areas, strengthening economic ties, already strong, but expanding further, such as the opening and exploitation of a huge iron mine in the Tindouf area (Der Djebilet).

The Gray Area

However, some changes have recently taken place which require reflections on the future international and regional position of Algeria.
Despite the pressure and numerous high-level visits by Russian delegations, which intensified after the aggression against Ukraine, Algeria seems to be progressively distancing itself from Moscow. In fact, the Algerian defense ministry suddenly canceled the joint military maneuvers planned in November at Hammaguir, in the province of Béchar, about 50 kilometers from the border with Morocco. The anti-terrorism exercise (sic) of the special forces of the two countries, in which about 80 Russian soldiers were supposed to participate, was named “Desert Shield.” The exercise was announced last April 5, by the HQ of the Southern Military Rrgion of the Russian Army, after a first joint preparatory meeting held between staff officers of the two countries in Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, the same area where between September and October 2021, an Algerian unit took part in an exercise with Russian troops). The Algerian Ministry of Defense has not confirmed, but has not denied, this announcement, but it is being widely reported by the Algerian and foreign press. A sober statement read on ENTV public television channel announced the cancellation, without further explanation.

The cancellation of the maneuver has stunned the Moroccan press and those close to it (such as the once prestigious Jeune Afrique, which is allegedly part of a financial holding owned by the Moroccan royal family) who tried to sell the story that Rabat, due to its proximity to the West and for having hosted the much larger “Africa Lion” exercise in the summer of 2022 (a US-led maneuver that has been taking place since 2004) in southern Morocco, was threatened by Russia and Algeria and, for this commitment, the whole of the West must accept Morocco’s claims (and annexation) of Western Sahara, ban Algiers once and for all from the international community, force it to stop supporting POLISARIO, and accept the condition of inferiority vis-à-vis Rabat.

Another indication of the possible distancing of Algiers from Moscow could be the cancelation of Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s official visit to Moscow, which would have deepened the “strategic relationship” between the two countries. Originally scheduled for July this year, the trip was reportedly postponed. The Russian ambassador to Algeria, Valerian Shuvaev (recently transferred from Rabat) told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Tebboune would visit Moscow by the end of the year; according to unofficial Algerian sources, this visit was postponed without providing new dates. The ineffectiveness of the Russian army and its weapon systems, the evident weakening of the Kremlin as a political ally and the EU’s insistence on strengthening energy ties with Algeria could be among the reasons that pushed President Tebboune to a new dynamic, even if there are large gray areas (and difficult choices) in Algerian security policy (foreign and defense, but not only).

On November 7, Leila Zerrouki, Algerian high representative in charge of partnership with international organizations (former magistrate and deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General for MONUSCO [peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]) announced that Algiers had requested the joining BRICS, an trade organization formed by China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. Within this club, which also has aspirations of becoming a full-fledged international organization, Russia is, for now, the one that has the most ties with Algiers (but there is also China, which is growing rapidly). Perhaps for this reason it was the deputy Foreign Minister of Moscow, Mikhail Bogdanov, a highly experienced and capable diplomat, specialist in the Arab world, who publicly welcomed Zerrouki.

But a gray area remains, confirming Algerian prudence. In fact, interviewed by the prestigious newspaper Le Figaro, President Tebboune (in addition to announcing a state visit to France in 2023), expressed an opinion on the presence of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries in the Sahel, saying: “The money for costs this presence would be better spent and more useful in developing the Sahel.” And regarding his relations with Vladimir Putin he said: “I can only say that I will soon go to Russia. I do not approve or condemn the Russian operation in Ukraine. Algeria is a non-aligned country and I want to respect this philosophy. No one will ever be able to turn Algeria into its satellite. Our country was born to be free. Furthermore, it would be good if the UN did not just condemn the annexations that are taking place in Europe. What about Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights or Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara?”

As mentioned above, the initiative of the pro-Moroccan US deputy Marco Rubio (and of 26 others elected with him), is supervised by Algiers, although aware that the CAATSA is a highly politically-motivated tool, which Washington sometime waves, as needed, to put pressure on other states, but which the US sometimes does not find convenient to use. For example, it had been pushed forward with India; but New Dehli, which Washington would like to involve more closely in its strategy of containment of Beijing and Moscow in the Indo-Pacific, did not care for it; and also due to Indian uncertainties on the dubious effectiveness of the S-400s and the serious Russian delays in the delivery of the promised systems (India had signed a huge contract with Russia in late 2021). And do, Washington silenced the threat of sanctions.

US Ambassador to Algiers Elisabeth Moore Aubin revealed, however, that she has asked Algerian authorities to reduce their imports of Russian arms, adding at the same time, Algeria is a strategic partner for Washington and that she has “advised partners who buy weapons from Moscow to diversify their suppliers with non-Russian suppliers,” and to have had assurances to this effect. The US diplomat’s conciliatory language can be explained (in part) because now that the French military has withdrawn from Mali, the United States needs a solid militarily partner, like Algeria, in the fight against jihadist groups destabilizing the Sahel.

Even if Algeria seems to be cooling its ties with Russia, its armed forces, the second-largest in Africa after those of Egypt, possess such quantities of weapons manufactured in that country that should keep the maintenance and training contracts signed with its military industry for several years.

But the growing difficulties of the Russian defense industry represent a further threat to the military capacity of Algiers, which risks finding itself in a short time with a huge mass of unusable materials.

All these options represent serious unknowns for Algiers, impacting on its security policy choices, more for operational, training and logistical reasons than merely financial, given that at the end of 2022, Algeria had over $60 billion in financial reserves and has no foreign debt.

Against the backdrop of tensions with its Western-aligned North African neighbor, Algiers has emerged in 2022 as a renewed regional player whose importance extends beyond the region. As the global energy crisis continues amid the West’s standoff with Russia in Ukraine, Algeria in the first five months of this year alone, has seen its energy revenue grow by more than 70%, to a total of 21.5 billion dollars.

This comes after a long period in which Algiers closed in on itself due to the institutional standoff that hit the country when in 2013 a cardiovascular attack seriously damaged the health of President Abdelaziz Boutefllika, who took office in 1999 (he was forced to resign in April 2019 and died in September 2021). Since 2013, the ruling group around Bouteflika, has worked to maintain its power. This standoff has left plenty of room for Morocco which has objectively strengthened its regional and international position with respect to the Western Sahara question, called the “national cause” and, much less prosaically, the prism through which Rabat sees and interprets all its policies, including cultural and sporting ones, both at home and abroad.

The long and painful parenthesis of Bouteflika’s lengthy illness, which formally ended with the election of Abdelmajiid Tebboune to the presidency in the summer of 2019, were signs that the armed forces, the pillar of the country policy-making, have resumed the previous situation.

Today, tensions are simmering again between the North African leaderships due to the emergence of new dynamics, especially since Morocco has decided to normalize (only officially, given that the confidential ones have been solid since the 1960s) ties with Israel due to pressure from the administration of then outgoing US President Donald Trump. This normalization is perceived by Algiers as a threat to its national security (while for Morocco it is a kind of insurance) and is intertwined with an arms race, which has existed for some time, but which has developed further since 2015.

Along with ongoing attempts to make the most of new economic advantages at the national level, Algiers also seems determined to have its own impact on regional affairs. As the nation has severed ties with neighboring Morocco, in part due to ties to Israeli intelligence and military influence, as well as support, according to press sources not just verbal, Moroccan support for the Berberophone separatist groups of Kabylia and radical Islamist movements, such as Rachad.

Algeria, the third largest gas supplier in Europe, has attracted considerable interest this year, now becoming the first energy supplier for Italy, as military ties also appear to be intensifying.

While it has to keep a careful balance, both regionally and internationally, Algeria has emerged this year as a key player in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. It forced President Emmanuel Macron to change estbalished and hostile French rhetoric against Algiers and turn the page on the unresolved post-colonial and memorial issue, and paved the way for the abandonment of French in the national education system and the choice to adopt the English language instead, further eroding the influence of France.

Another major issue: Algiers is very involved in Palestinian reconciliation, hosting a series of meetings between rival factions Hamas and Fatah in order to bridge their differences and develop a platform from which to support the joint Palestinian political initiative . This was also a central theme at the Arab League summit last November, when Algeria attempted to strengthen its position at the regional level by hosting the meeting, thereby taking away space from Morocco, which through the role played by the king, president of the Al Qods Committee (Jerusalem) set up by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, had tried to increase his influence within the Muslim community, in view of the role that Jerusalem plays for it. However, the official normalization (the concrete, but clandestine one that has existed for decades) of relations with Israel has deeply irritated Moroccan public opinion, which, although not anti-Semitic, is strongly pro-Palestinian, creating embarrassment, beyond the self-congratulations typical of the official narrative, for the institutions of Rabat.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).