The inaugural Saudi-Arab-African Economic Conference was held in Riyadh on 9 and 10 November and drew high-level delegates from across the continent, including dozens of heads of state. Over 50 agreements were signed during the conference between Saudi, Arab, and African governments. This notably included financing agreements by the state-owned Saudi Fund for Development totalling US$533 million. This is primarily to help fund infrastructure development on the continent as exemplified by the US$158 million financing agreement to fund the development of hospitals and dams in Mozambique which was the largest of the Saudi Fund for Development’s agreements.
The summit clearly marked an increased interest by Saudi Arabia in Africa. The kingdom’s Prime Minister and de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, took advantage of the conference to hold direct meetings with various heads of African states on the sidelines. The Kingdom also sought to illustrate the potential financial clout it could bring to Africa, confirming plans to invest over US$25 billion over the coming decade and to finance and insure US$10 billion worth of exports until 2030 at least. The Arab Coordination Group (ACG) – which comprises development banks and funds from several Arab states – also pledged to invest up to US$50 billion in Africa over the next ten years. The bulk of this will likely be Saudi Arabia’s US$25 billion commitment.
The Saudi-Arab-African Economic Conference potentially marked a fundamental shift in Africa’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The wealthy oil-rich kingdom has historically played a limited role in Africa’s affairs, especially compared with states such as the United States (US), China, Turkey, and even the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bin Salman clearly sees economic and political benefits in increasing Saudi Arabia’s engagement and the country has the resources to become a major player in African affairs.
Increased Saudi involvement could be impactful in Africa itself. First and foremost, higher rates of investment and additional development financing options from a wealthy petrostate will help boost development efforts. This is particularly significant given that China has slowed the rate of easy low-interest financing that it provides to African states as the East Asian giant focuses on its own domestic challenges and comes to terms with poor debt repayment rates by African states.
An active Saudi role in Africa will be particularly welcomed by states which have poor relations with Western powers such as the US and the European Union (EU), especially those with poor human rights and democratic records that leave them ineligible for assistance from these powers. Saudi Arabia has typically had few issues doing business with undemocratic states with poor human rights records. As such, Saudi Arabia could potentially become the development partner of choice for countries such as Eritrea, Mali, and Niger.
Saudi Arabia also has distinct comparative advantages in building bilateral relations, especially in North, West, and East Africa. These include geographic proximity, and similarities in religion, language, and culture given. As the holy cities of Mekka and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is often well regarded in Muslim-majority African states, many of which have large Arab populations.
However, bin Salman clearly views Saudi Arabia’s potential relationship with Africa as more than just an economic opportunity. This was illustrated by the fact that one of the concluding acts of the summit was to issue a statement expressing concern over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to call for an end to “military operations in the occupied Palestinian territories.” This is a position shared by the majority of African states in attendance at the summit but is also a key foreign policy position of the Saudi government. Bin Salman is aware that Africa comprises an influential voting bloc in major global bodies and establishing strong relations with African states both on a bilateral and multilateral basis could help him drive his foreign policy agenda.
In order for the true potential of the Saudi-Africa relationship to be realised, Saudi Arabia will need to make the Saudi-Arab-African Economic Conference a regular summit and one that is marked by major development and trade pledges. This will elevate the kingdom to the ranks of other major development partners such as the US, China, and Japan all of which have similar multilateral summits aimed at boosting trade and economic relations with African states. Should bin Salman pursue this, Saudi Arabia could emerge as a major influence in the continent.