What’s behind Saudi Aid to Sahel Nations’ Military Force?

Last week, the French President called on Saudi Arabia to help fund foundation of a joint African military force gathering together the Sahel region’s counties of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger. He made the call during a Paris conference hosting the five countries, Saudi Arabia, and also the United Arab Emirates.

The funding is needed to help the upcoming military force, dubbed G5, fight the growing wave of terrorism in the Sahel region in West Africa. The Sahel region, stretching from west to east of Africa, covers parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, southern Niger, and southern Sudan.

At the end of the Paris summit, which was aimed at accelerating the foundation of the joint African army containing troops of the five regional countries, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million in funds to the military force. The UAE, another invitee, promised to contribute to the counterterror army with $300 million.

The military force are said to be meant to combat the terrorism and end the security and political challenges the Sahel nations are grappling with. They have suffered resounding security challenges in the past few years as a result of destabilization stemming from the expansion of activities of extremist militant groups.

Riyadh’s major goals behind donation

Over the course of past decades, Saudi Arabia has been widely recognized by the international institutions and public opinion as a sponsor of radicalism. The Arab kingdom, an absolutely-ruled and authoritarian regime, has long been the promoter of the Wahhabi ideology, the fruits of which are terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. The pessimism to Riyadh grew sharper when ISIS conducted terror attacks in a set of European countries in past few years. This, along with the Western condemnation of the human rights conditions in the monarchy and Riyadh’s aids to the Takfiri groups in Syria and Iraq, have pushed the new generation of the Saudi rulers, spearheaded by the young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to seek to burnish the image of the oil-wealthy kingdom and present a moderate face of it to the world via a set of show measures like reforming the economy, cracking down on the ruling family members’ corruption, and attracting foreign investment. These steps were accompanied with social reforms and a clampdown on the religious extremism. So, this financial support of the G5 army is meant to improve the regime’s face on the world stage and especially in the eyes of the West.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, in fierce influence competition with Iran, is growing serious concerns about Iran’s expansion of influence regionally and internationally. The Saudis, seeing apparent transformation of balance of power against their interests and to the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance’s advantage especially after eruption of the Arab uprisings in 2011, are doing their best to bar the Iranian Islamic Revolution’s discourse from reaching the Africa’s Muslim nations, and instead allure them into closeness to the kingdom. Riyadh finds financial support to the poor African nations the suitable instrument to this end.

Over the past years, the Islamic Republic has drawn on the soft diplomatic power to increase political, economic, cultural, and defense relations with West African states. Last year, the Bloomberg news agency in a report on the Iranian influence in West Africa, quoting the Pentagon spokesman Christopher Shroud, said that Washington was watching closely the Iranian activities in Nigeria and West Africa. He further said that Saudi Arabia was worried about heightening levels of relations between the two and Tehran’s growing popularity in Nigeria.

And now the Saudi rulers are responding positively to the French demand of fundraising for the African force in a bid to cut the Iranian military and spiritual influence despite Riyadh’s apparent budget deficit. France has recently been a critic of the Iranian missile program and bemoaning Tehran’s regional influence.

Other Saudi goals

In past few years, Saudi Arabia has been under fire from a spectrum of regional and international sides for its destabilizing regional approach. In early November, the published a bitter critical report on the Saudi war against neighboring Yemen, saying Saudi Arabia is using impoverishment tactic to press the unyielding Yemenis. Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war in March 2015 shut down Sana’a International Airport and the seaports on the Red Sea coasts in the south of the country as part of an all-out blockade on the already-impoverished Yemeni economy. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on December 10 in a blunt language told CNN: “I believe this is a stupid war”, adding that what Yemen needed was “a political solution.”

“I think this war is against the interests of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates… (and) of the people of Yemen,” he further said.

But perhaps the most significant warning to Saudi Arabia came by the American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who at Paris summit called on the kingdom to be “thoughtful” about “the consequences” of its actions in the West Asia.

“With respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences,” Tillerson said

Tillerson’s call came after referring to the Saudi handling of Qatar crisis, Yemen war, and Lebanon internal affairs. Amid such sizeable criticism, the Saudi leaders are hopeful that they can ease the pressures on Riyadh by contributing to the regional alliance G5.

Moreover, the under-pressure Riyadh desperately needs supportive votes of West African states on the international platforms to shrug off the complaints against the kingdom in the international judicial institutions and to pursue its agenda in the regional and international organizations.

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