Middle East’s leaders cross the Red Sea to woo east Africa

Published on The Guardian, by Jason Burke, Africa, Sept 12, 2016.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others are seeking favours in Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia as old alliances in the region falter.  

For Nairobi’s commuters, summer has brought more woes than usual. Along with the demonstrations, road accidents and downpours that frequently cause gridlock in Kenya’s capital, there has been an almost weekly shutdown as foreign VIPs fly in. “Of course people are annoyed … but some rather like it. We are getting the feeling that we are finally returning to centre stage,” said Charles Onyango-Obbo, a publisher and journalist.

Many of the visitors have been from the US, China and other nations long seen as players in the region, but an increasing number are from the Middle East, their visits underlining a dramatic twist in the centuries-old battle between foreign powers for influence, trade, resources and military assets in a strategically sensitive part of the world.

In five weeks over June and July, Kenya received Iranian ministers, delegations from Gulf monarchies and the leaders of both Turkey and Israel. Other states in east Africa have seen a similar flow of high-level officials … //

… One of the most active of the new players in east Africa is Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the rightwing prime minister, has led a push for better relations across Africa, particularly in the east, where he has reinforced ties with old allies such as Kenya.

Nimrod Goren, of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said that Israel’s efforts in Africa were part of a broader desire to look for “non-traditional” allies. A recent recognition that African nations could be a source of support – not inevitable opposition – at the UN is one key factor. “It is not a new phenomenon that [Middle Eastern powers] are engaged in Africa. What is a new phenomenon is that Israel is able to play the game as well,” Goren said.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, reported last week that Israel was lobbying the US and Europe to improve relations with Sudan following its shift against Iran.

Though the new dynamic is changing the region, commentators warn against writing off the major players such as China and the US just yet. “For 10 years I’ve been driving past the US embassy on my way to work. The queues [for visas] never get any shorter. Until … all the other guys have those kind of queues, they are not going to win this,” said Onyango-Obbo.

(full text, related links).


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