Where will UAE ambitions end in Africa?

TV5MONDE: How can we describe the politics of the United Arab Emirates on the continent since the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004 (Emir of Abu Dhabi and founder of the United Arab Emirates in 1971)?

Sébastien Boussois: It is an imperial policy. The aim of the United Arab Emirates is to ensure its survival, but also to form a zone of influence. The Emirates are often referred to as the new Sparta (city-state of ancient Greece, known for its military prowess) of the Gulf States. I would rather say that the Emirates represent a new Venice (city-state at the head of a trading and maritime empire between the 13th and 17th centuries, editor’s note). It is an ocean-facing commercial sea power that aims to exert its influence almost everywhere in the world and in all areas.

Mohammed bin Zayed is the strongman of the United Arab Emirates.<br /> ” title=”PA”/><span rel=

Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince and strongman of the United Arab Emirates, wants to establish an empire of the emirates. There’s some strategic interest, resource exploration, but also some form of megalomania. We are used to big countries of a given power being influential beyond their borders.

“MBZ”, the strong man of the country

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, President of the Emirates and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, has rarely appeared in public since his stroke surgery in 2014.

His half-brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, “MBZ”, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Defense Minister, is considered the de facto ruler of the country.

For a country the size of the Emirates, we are much less so. Cosmopolitan cities, counter-cities like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur have ambitions that match the size of their country. These ambitions are commercial and regional in nature. States like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar want to be present in all spheres of the earth, on land, on water, but also in space (in February 2021 they placed their probe “Amal” around the orbit of Mars and were the first to reach an Arab country such an achievement, editor’s note). Emirati ambitions appear disproportionate, gigantic and imperial in and outside of Africa.

The Emirates, a prosperous Gulf federation.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding, the state of the United Arab Emirates is an oil-rich Gulf country that has become one of the most influential in the region and a major economic and commercial center. The state consists of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ajman, Oum Al-Qaiwain and Ras Al-Khaimah.

Expatriates make up 90% of the country’s 10 million people. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, and in particular Dubai, airport hub and ultra-connected city, is home to the regional offices of thousands of companies. As the second largest economy in the Gulf after Saudi Arabia, the Emirates have developed into an important economic and trade center.

TV5MONDE: How is Mohammed Ben Zayed related to Africa?

Sebastian Boussois : From a spiritual and ethical point of view, Mohammed bin Zayed has no interest in Africa. It’s not about emphasizing the continent of origin. Neither “MBZ” nor Chinese officials see Africa as the cradle of civilizations. They do not care. The goal of the Emirati leaders is to unilaterally benefit from the development of the continent’s resources, often in defiance of international law, especially in the exploitation of mines in the DRC or in Guinea using child labor. Africa is there to ensure the survival of the United Arab Emirates.

In Africa, the Emiratis practice what is known as “land grabbing”, the massive purchase of agricultural land to ensure food security

Sébastien Boussois, specialist in the United Arab Emirates

However, the idea of ​​defending one’s interests first is not exclusive to the United Arab Emirates. Africa is a continent of opportunities. There, the Emiratis can practice what is known as “land grabbing”, the massive purchase of agricultural land to secure food resources. This is particularly the case in Sudan.

Since 2009, the United Arab Emirates have acquired around 1.3 million hectares worldwide. More than 400,000 hectares have been acquired in Sudan. The main promoter of all these “agricultural projects” is the National Holding, a company of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family. Food security must be guaranteed.

According to Mohammed bin Zayed, Africa is the drinking water reservoir of the United Arab Emirates.

Sébastien Boussois, specialist in the United Arab Emirates.

The United Arab Emirates are also striving for a drinking water supply. Seawater desalination is very expensive. The country suffers from water shortages. The United Arab Emirates are therefore trying to build political and economic influence on the countries on the banks of the Nile.

We can see an arc of Emirati influence spreading from Egypt through Sudan and Ethiopia. The United Arab Emirates want to become self-sufficient in drinking water. They have interests in the Renaissance Dam built by Ethiopia to hold back the waters of the Nile. According to “MBZ”, Africa is the drinking water reservoir of the United Arab Emirates.

Mohammed bin Zayed meets Egyptian President Al-Sissi on May 3, 2017.  Abu Dhabi is the most important political and financial pillar of Marshal Sisi's regime.<br /> The United Arab Emirates are thus financing the construction of the country’s new capital next to Cairo.  One of the city’s main thoroughfares is named after Mohammed bin Zayed.<br /> ” title=”AP/Ryan Carter”/><span rel=

The United Arab Emirates, one of the continent’s most important trading partners

The volume of trade between the Gulf State and Africa has steadily increased. Dubai has emerged as a financial platform for companies on the African continent. More than 21,000 African companies have a correspondent or an office in the Emirati city. The United Arab Emirates, a country of 10 million people, is the continent’s fifth largest trading partner behind the European Union, China, the United States and India.

TV5MONDE: Grabbing farmland or creating drinking water reserves, what other resources do the Emirates want to conquer in Africa?

Sebastian Boussois: Africa is indeed the continent of land grabbing. Over 40% of this global land grab takes place on the African continent. “Land grabbing” overlaps with the exploitation of minerals and in particular of so-called “rare earths” (rare earths are minerals from which high-tech objects such as lithium for batteries are assembled, editor’s note). These rare earths allow, for example, spatial ambitions. Without rare earths there are no technological ambitions. And Mohammed Ben Zayed wants to make the Emirates a space power.

The Emirates are present in the mining sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea. They also mine gold in Ghana around two Emirati companies, Emirates Gold and Kaloti Jewelery International, held by Indians and South Africans. They also have oil interests, particularly in Sudan.

The Emiratis come to look for workers in Africa. In July 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the deployment of 50,000 workers to “MBZ”: cheap, malleable workers for any future major projects in the EmiratesSébastien Boussois, specialist in the United Arab Emirates.

Resources in Africa are not just limited to land, agricultural goods, oil… The Emiratis come to look for workers in Africa. In July 2019, the Prime Minister in Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, announced the posting of 50,000 workers to “MBZ”: cheap, malleable, non-challenging workers for any future major projects in the Emirates.

TV5MONDE: What political influence do you have in Africa? What directs their diplomacy on the continent? The rapprochement with the regime of Marshal Al-Sissi in Cairo would be dictated by a form of contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood (Islamist movement born in Egypt and supported by Turkey and Qatar). What role does ideology play in their political decisions on the continent?

Sebastian Boussois : The United Arab Emirates never put their eggs in one basket. The United Arab Emirates have always presented themselves as great friends of Saudi Arabia. Since July 2019 they have been getting closer to Iran, they have resumed contact with Qatar. They have approached states that support the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, Abu Dhabi always strives to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. Everything can be scalable for these small countries. The UAE is currently closing in on Turkey by anticipating what could come after Erdogan. Alliances change quickly.

Emirates leaders have a hallmark, especially in Africa. They support military regimes and oppose democratic movements.
Sébastien Boussois, specialist in the United Arab Emirates.

However, they do have some ideological reflexes or trademarks. They support military regimes and oppose democratic movements. In Africa, they support the military in Sudan. They support the regime of Marshal Sissi. They support Haftar in Libya. By default, Qatar supported alternative forces, the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, during the Arab Spring. The Emirates had supported the military. Mohammed bin Zayed is a soldier. His personal preference is to support military regimes.

TV5MONDE: In Libya, the United Arab Emirates supported Marshal Haftar. They are now in retreat after Haftar’s military failure (failure to capture Tripoli in early 2021). Hasn’t your involvement in Libya shown the limits of your ambitions on the continent?

You can recover fairly quickly. This is the case in Sudan, where they were close to the regime of Omar El-Béchir. Omar El-Béchir is overthrown and today supports the soldiers in power of General Abdelfattah Al Buhrane. Where are the limits of Mohammed bin Zayed’s ambitions on the continent? So far I don’t see any.

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