The aftershock caused by the execution of the outspoken Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, by the Saudi government earlier this month continues to reverberate as a host of Muslim majority countries have announced they are cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia have joined the Gulf nations of Bahrain and UAE in taking diplomatic actions against Iran in a show of solidarity with Saudi Arabia. It is a gesture that marks a next level escalation in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as it increasingly turns into an all out Sunni-Shia confrontation. By drawing the Muslim world at large into what had been a regional power struggle and recasting it as sectarian war for the soul of Islam, the Saudis seem confident that they can prevail. This confidence is based on a number of factors, namely: it´s massive wealth; its position as the guardian of the holiest sites in Islam; and the fact the majority of the world´s Muslims are Sunni.
This last factor may have provided the entry point for Saudi diplomacy with in Africa, but the first two factors are likely to have sealed the deal.
Apart from state aid, the Saudi royal family is very generous when it comes to giving personal cash gifts to other heads of state. Look no further than the Prime Minister of Malaysia who was cleared of graft charges when the Attorney General found that the $681 million deposited in his personal bank account by the Saudi royals was a donation. Najib’s positive regional role in fighting terrorism, especially as part of the anti-ISIS coalition was overshadowed by these allegations. Indeed, question swirled over the ultimate purpose of the funds, but according to an unnamed source close to the Saudis, the money was approved by the former King Abdullah himself and was intended to help Najib win the last general election and keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. This last bit should further incentivize African heads of state to keep their good relations with Riyadh: as Malaysia showed, having Saudi Arabia on your side can be the difference between stamping out extremists or being overrun by them.
Take Sudan, for example, since its Islamic revolution in 1989 it had been closely allied with Iran. Despite Sudan being overwhelmingly Sunni, theological differences never prevented them from receiving Iranian military training and equipment. In return, the Sudanese government allowed Iran free reign to smuggle weapons through Sudan, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This longstanding partnership, which had always been blind to sectarian differences soured suddenly in 2014 when Sudan ordered the closure of Iranian cultural centers in Khartoum and expelled Iranian embassy officials. It is thought that these actions were taken to protest the alleged Shia proselytizing among the Sudanese youth. Skip forward one year and Sudanese troops, which had for the last three decades been trained and armed by Iran, are now fighting against Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen on the Saudis’ side.
Whereas for Iran Sudan was largely a conduit through which it could funnel support to Hamas and Hezbollah, the loss of Djibouti and Somalia´s support will hit much closer to home. If as recently as November 2014, the Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani was praising Djibouti as “a friend and brother” and Iranian architects were unveiling the country’s new National Assembly, after the war in Yemen broke out, Saudi Arabia weaseled its way in. Djibouti denied access to both an Iranian plane and an Iranian ship carrying aid bound for Yemen, showing the debilitating effects of Teheran losing access to Djibouti’s main ports. Similarly with Somalia’s ports, Iran’s ability to project military muscle in the Gulf of Aden has been dealt a mortal blow.
Coincidentally, on the same day that Somalia expelled Iranian diplomatic staff, accusing Iran of meddling in Somali affairs, the Somali government received $50 million in aid from Saudi Arabia. Denying that there was any connection between these two events, it nevertheless suggests at some of the persuasive power that Saudi may have brought to bear on the governments of Djibouti and Sudan also in their decisions to cut ties with Iran.
Until Iran is in a position to compete with that kind of munificence it is no surprise that African countries and their leaders are turning towards Saudi.
Another thing with which Iran cannot compete are the cultural and economic connections between African countries and Saudi Arabia. Somali, Sudanese and Djiboutian migrants working in Saudi and sending back vital remittances to their families; devout pilgrims from these countries making the journey to Mecca and the holy sites every year; these are relationships in which the Saudis hold all the power and the Africans are at their mercy. Iran has no cards to play. Another important part of the picture from which Iran is missing is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This political and economic alliance between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – some of the richest countries on earth – is a market that poor African countries would not want to jeopardize their access to.
Given the current balance of power, it is no surprise that allegiances are shifting from Iran to the Saudi.