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Interview with Pierre Vermeren: “It would be much more useful for everyone if the Middle East invested in Africa”

While the Middle East is gradually coming to Africa to invest, African countries are already tired of having their wealth managed by other international players from very different regions. The Middle East will have to rely on its strong capital and forge new links, almost on an equal footing. Historian Pierre Vermeren recalls the influence peddling in which the Middle East is involved.  

Interview by Yousra Gouja

We see that the countries of the Middle East, which started out as simple donors, are gradually becoming major investors in Africa. How can we explain this move?

It is a catching up after much delay. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa have long been polarized by Europe and increasingly by Asia. But at a time when Europe is seeking to do without hydrocarbons, it is normal for the Middle East to look for new and future clients. Africa is the place to be because it offers many possibilities: it is rich in raw materials and offers rapid growth. The Middle East can therefore bring its capital and skills to a region hit by both a lack of education and a brain drain of the most qualified people, which stalls development.

What exactly do Middle Eastern countries expect from Africa? And what will Africa gain from these new partnerships?

Firstly, energy for countries lacking it; secondly, capital, which is abundant in the Middle East; and thirdly, know-how, especially technical know-how (engineers, computer scientists, doctors, etc.). But competition is fierce everywhere, because Europe is absorbing some of the skilled workers, especially medical.  It is less a question of military cooperation than in the Middle East, where there is a real arms race, because most African countries are at peace. Except for the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. 

However, the countries of the Middle East are themselves in competition with the continent, where a war for influence is also being waged between the major powers (China, France, Russia and Turkey, etc.). Is this a sign of geopolitical change?  

We have to distinguish which countries. Historically, Gaddafi’s Libya and Algeria, to promote revolution and anti-imperialist struggle, and Saudi Arabia, to promote Salafism, are the most invested in Africa. Then there is Egypt, which has always polarized Islamic Africa towards Al-Azhar. Today, Algeria and Libya have disengaged to the benefit of Morocco and Israel; and Saudi Arabia seems to be less active there than Qatar or even Turkey, which for their part are promoting Salafism. The various countries of the Middle East have very different interests in Africa, and their fields of action are contradictory. There is no unity of action between Middle Eastern and North African countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Russia, China and the West also have different approaches, which in turn contradict the Orientals.

“African countries have understood this great world disorder very well, and they are creating their market by playing on these rivalries” 

In fact, one of the major problems in the region is the extreme weakness of a number of states, particularly in the Sahel, which complicates matters.

How can a rapprochement between Africa and the Middle East change the situation on the continent? And on the international scene in general?

That’s how it should be because everyone wants the Middle East to take its share of African immigration, investment and co-development in Africa. Instead of wasting hundreds of billions of Euros every year on the arms race and wasteful or luxury spending, it would be much more useful for everyone if the Middle East invested in Africa, as China does for its own benefit, but also as Europe does. This would be de facto solidarity for a more balanced, less polarized and ultimately more peaceful world. 

*Pierre Vermeren, Professor of contemporary Arab and Berber History at La Sorbonne University, Paris 1. Recently published « Le Maroc en 100 questions, un royaume de paradoxes Tallandier, » Paris, May 2020; and « Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine, » Nouveau Monde éditions, Paris, June 2022.

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