South-south economic, political, and security ties between the Middle East and Africa are growing at a rapid rate with significant opportunities on the horizon. With today’s official launch of PANGEA-RISK, an intelligence venture that will provide country risk analysis and forecasting across both regions, we explore the nature of the involvement of some of the Middle East’s key players – namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel – in Africa in this special report.

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The Middle East’s interests in Africa are deep rooted and significant, with recent interest driven by both economic and political push and pull factors.

On the one hand, Africa poses significant trade and investment opportunities for many Middle Eastern businesspersons as they look to tap into regional growth expectations. By 2025, for example, almost one-fifth of the world’s population will be living in Africa, while many countries across the continent are expected to be some of the world’s fastest growing in terms of GDP. Even with the arrival of COVID-19 this year, African countries will make the cut with some of the fastest growing economies set to include Egypt, Benin, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.

On the other hand, competition among Middle Eastern heavyweights in Africa has also been pushed by political disputes and rivalries back home. One of the most prominent forces has been the split within the Gulf from 2017 onwards that has pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey. A second driving, inter-related factor has been tensions among Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In both those struggles, the main rivals see Africa as a new arena for competition and building alliances.

Three years into the Gulf Crisis

Three years ago, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, and imposed a sea, land, and air blockade on the nation, claiming it supported “terrorism” and was too close to Iran. Several other countries such as Jordan, Djibouti, and the Maldives followed suit, while some like Somalia resisted pressure to support the blockade.

Tensions with Qatar have generally revolved around its alleged support for political Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as complaints about the Al Jazeera Media Network, which is based in Doha. Qatar has continued to reject these claims, saying there is “no legitimate justification” for the severance of relations. There has been little progress towards a resolution since 2017: Qatar and the UAE remain locked in a battle at the International Court of Justice after Doha filed a racial discrimination case.

The Middle East’s focus on Africa naturally comes with both opportunities and challenges for African countries. Our latest analysis briefing unpacks the economic and political interests of five key Middle Eastern states in Africa – namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel – as well as the implications of their involvement. We also unpack the challenges facing future Middle Eastern investors in Africa as they compete with other global players for influence.

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The UAE is currently the most important economic partner from the Middle East into Africa. According to the EY Africa Attractiveness Report of 2019, between 2014 and 2018, the UAE was one of the top ten largest investors in Africa, coming in fifth for the number of projects and jobs created as well as capital invested across the continent (see Table 1). Moreover, recent reporting from the UAE Ministry of Foreign Trade, suggests that the UAE may have shifted into fourth place this year even amidst the pandemic, surpassing South Africa.


Beyond FDI, the UAE was also sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth largest trading partner in 2018, with UAE-to-Africa trade estimated at about USD 22 billion that year, according to a Standard Chartered 2019 report. Major non-Arab African countries with which the UAE trades are Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tanzania. These trade links are also expected to grow with recent reporting from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry forecasting that trade with Africa could see an annual increase of up to 10 percent over the next five years, following the implementation of the much-anticipated African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

When looking at UAE engagement in Africa, however, focus must be given to UAE investments in the continent’s ports, primarily through Dubai Ports World (DP World), a global giant of port management linked to the Emirati ruling families.

The UAE’s scramble for East African ports and influence

Over the last decade and a half, the UAE has gradually increased its presence across Africa by investing in ports, logistics and trade developments via DP operations which currently has assets in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, and Somaliland. While DP World operates across the continent, much focus has been given to ports in the Horn of Africa over the last half decade as the UAE has competed with Iran, Qatar and Turkey over influence in the Bab El-Mandab Strait by the Red Sea. Such competition increased following the outbreak of war in Yemen in 2014 and the Gulf Crisis in 2017.

The UAE’s first major port interest in the region began in 2008 when DP World opened Doraleh Port in Djibouti; however, this asset was later nationalised. More recently, in 2016, DP World allegedly obtained a 30-year concession to develop the Eritrean port of Assab, where the Emirati navy and air force had already deployed some units for incursions into Yemen. DP World also recently took over the port of Berbera in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland with a USD 442 million investment, after ties with Somalia deteriorated at the time following the Gulf crisis. The Emiratis also built a parallel military airport in Berbera, which could later be turned into a civilian facility. Thereafter, in 2017, DP World signed a similar contract with the Puntland state government, northeastern Somalia, to expand and manage the port of Bosaso, located in northeastern Somalia, in another blow to the Somali government.

The UAE’s overtures in this region have naturally prompted its adversaries to follow suit. In 2018, for example, Sudan signed a USD 4 billion contract with Mwani Qatar to modernise the port of Suakin whilst that same year, Somalia announced a joint Somali-Qatari investment to build a port and a free zone in Hobyo, some 500 kilometres northeast of Mogadishu. This investment was coupled with the donation of 68 Qatari armoured vehicles to the Somali government. Turkey has also since entered the competition, securing rights to lease the port of Mogadishu in Somalia in 2014 and the port of Suakin in Sudan in 2017. Turkey also has the right to station military forces at these ports.

The development of Africa’s port infrastructure naturally brings major windfall investments to some of the continent’s least developed nations whilst simultaneously opening these economies up to more trade over the medium to long term. However, as a result of such competition among Middle Eastern heavyweights, a clear division of influence in the region has emerged.

On the one hand, countries like Eritrea, Somaliland, and Puntland have clearly opened themselves up to support from the UAE, while countries like Somalia and Sudan are more aligned with Qatar and Turkey. Of particular concern is the fact that deployment of Middle Eastern military assets also frequently accompanies such port control, as indicated above, raising the prospects for regional instability and proxy wars.


Saudi Arabia has also demonstrated a keen interest in Africa. However, its economic engagements are still in the early stages of development. Key investments typically focus on northern and southern Africa and include interests from the state chemical company, SABIC, which has offices and subsidiaries in Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa, and Saudi Aramco, which is currently in discussions to develop an oil refinery in South Africa. The Saudi private company, Acwa Power, has also invested in renewable power stations in South Africa (Bokpoort and Redstone, as well as a coal station in Khanyisa), in Morocco (Noor I, II and III and Ouarzazate), and in Egypt (Benban).

However, one sector in which Saudi Arabia is looking to expand its influence to the rest of Africa concerns its investments in agriculture driven by an economic necessity back home.

Saudi Arabia aims to feed a growing nation

Less than one percent of land in Saudi Arabia is reportedly suitable for farming, and with the country also suffering from extreme levels of water stress, agricultural production is costly and inefficient. As such, in 2008, the Saudi government made the strategic decision to focus on alternative ways to preserve water whilst simultaneously meeting rising demand for food. This strategy has involved investing in agriculture in Africa to acquire arable land to meet these objectives.

As early as 2011, the Arab Kingdom’s Manafea Holding unveiled plans to invest USD 125 million in developing a five-thousand-hectare farm in Zambia’s Northwestern Province to grow pineapples and other fruit for export to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also has invested heavily in Ethiopian agriculture through companies such as Saudi Star Agricultural Development. The firm pledged to develop a rice farm in the Gambella region on ten thousand hectares of land leased for sixty years and rent a further 290,000 hectares. The Kingdom has also has sizeable interests in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa as part of the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad, which was launched in 2009 in an attempt to encourage Saudis to buy land overseas and help overcome food and water shortages in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Middle East country to have adopted this strategy given water security issues across the entire region. The UAE, which imports about 90 percent of its food, was one of Zambia’s top export destinations in 2017, accounting for USD 313 million, for example. The country has also recently turned its attention to Uganda where it has proposed establishing the world’s first agricultural free zone. Under the plan, the 2,500-hectare free zone will allow companies from the UAE to invest in agricultural production and development in Uganda and export produce to the UAE on favourable trade terms. Qatar has also invested in agriculture in Africa. Last year, Hassad Food, a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign investment fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, pledged to invest USD 500 million in Sudan’s agricultural and food sectors over the following three years.

In another clear demonstration that Saudi Arabia is looking to enhance its standing across the continent, in January 2020, Saudi Arabia helped establish what is known as the Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden amongst five East African nations (Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypt) and three Middle Eastern ones (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Jordan). Despite its name, not all littoral states were invited as Israel has been excluded.


The Council reportedly lays the groundwork for what Saudi officials hope will become a new cooperative regime for the area. Its stated objective is to increase trade and security along and within this important waterway that has choke points at each end–the Suez Canal in the north and Bab el-Mandeb in the south. However, Saudi Arabia’s interest in maintaining influence over this region is driven by the same political and economic push factors mentioned above and while unspoken, the Pact will be aimed at keeping Turkey, Qatar and Iran’s influence in the region at bay.



In the last few years, Qatar has also sought to strengthen its economic and political ties with Africa. As it has sought to compete with those Gulf countries that marginalised it, it has enhanced its own footprint across the continent. Investments in port infrastructure and agriculture has been a key focus area, as mentioned above, as has the LNG sector. In 2019, for example, Qatar bought up stakes in LNG exploration blocks from Total and assorted other oil companies in South Africa, Mozambique, Morocco, and Kenya, for example. However, when looking at Qatar’s economic expansion in Africa, significant attention must be given to its head-to-head competition with other Middle Eastern giants in the aviation market.

Qatar looks to the skies

Propelled by the Gulf Crisis, which has been characterised by a land, sea, and air blockade, Qatar has moved to compete with other Gulf countries for dominance in Africa’s ports (as indicated above) but also its skies. To this end, it has not only invested in airline projects around the world that have extensive routes throughout Africa, such as Air Italy, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, International Airlines Group (Aer Lingus/British Airways/Iberia), and LATAM, but it has also invested in African airlines themselves. In one of its boldest moves, it recently bought a 60 percent stake in Rwanda’s Kigali Airport and a 49 percent stake in RwandAir. Qatar is also reportedly considering investing in or partnering with Royal Air Moroc and Angola Airlines.

Qatar Airways has also expanded its offering to Africa, recently adding Abuja, in Nigeria, to its itinerary. By mid-December, Qatar Airways is expected to fly to around 20 destinations in Africa, including Accra, Addis Ababa, Cape Town, Casablanca, Dar es Salaam, Djibouti, Durban, Entebbe, Johannesburg, Kigali, Kilimanjaro, Lagos, Luanda, Maputo, Mogadishu, Nairobi, Seychelles, Tunis, and Zanzibar.

As with port infrastructure and agricultural investments, a number of other Middle Eastern countries have also demonstrated a keen interest in Africa’s aviation sector. For example, last year, Emirates announced a massive route shake up that saw it exiting several Australian destinations in favour of African alternatives such as Casablanca, Accra, and Abuja, among others. More recently, in February 2020, the UAE even expressed interest in investing in Nigeria’s Ibom Air. Turkish Airlines also currently flies to around 60 African destinations, adding even more competition in the space.

Qatar’s political and security involvement in Africa has also been driven by the Gulf Crisis and tensions with its own region. As noted above, it has supplied military equipment to the government in Somalia, stepping in after the administration’s fallout with the UAE. Further north, in Libya, Qatar also formed a military alliance with Turkey, jointly funding Government of National Accord (GNA) militias for years after the overthrow of Qaddafi. Qatar also played a meddlesome role in funding Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist government in Sudan for years; however, with his downfall in 2019, Qatar eventually lost out when the transition government backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt came to power.


Turkey has long prioritised its engagements with Africa, first formulating its strategy towards the continent in 1998. However, the relationship took shape in 2005, which it declared the Year of Africa, and has continued to grow ever since. According to reporting from the Turkey-Africa Economy and Business Forum that was held in October 2020, for example, Turkish-Africa trade has increased from USD 5.4 billion in 2003 to reach USD 26.2 billion in 2019 with a new goal of USD 50 billion set for the next few years. Countries such as Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa, and Kenya are among the 17 target countries set by the Turkish Trade Ministry for 2020-2021, as are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania. The total value of investment projects undertaken by Turkish companies across Africa has also reached approximately USD 70 billion.

Ultimately when looking at Turkish involvement in Africa, particular attention must be given to the Turkish government’s priority to engage with Africa which has helped facilitate the growth of these business and trade relations.

More than diplomacy

Turkish companies’ economic activism has been supported by the Turkish government’s proactive policy towards Africa. While Turkey has often been seen to be competing side by side with Gulf countries in Africa, it has stressed that it has been active in the region for longer and that its engagement with the continent has amounted to more than just “check book” diplomacy favoured by its counterparts. As famously declared in 2013 by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “Africa belongs to Africans; we are not here for your gold”.

Indeed, Erdoğan has reportedly visited the continent almost 40 times since 2005 whilst in the last 11 years, the number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased from seven to 42 stations. Moreover, since the first Turkey-Africa Summit was organised with the participation of 50 African states in 2008, this summit has been organised every four years alternately in Africa and Turkey. As a result of these summits, Turkey joined the African Development Bank in 2013, becoming the 78th member state of the institution. In addition, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey has made an annual financial contribution of USD 1 million to the African Union since 2009.

Development support has also become a priority in Africa in recent years, as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), has become one of Africa’s biggest development partners. With 20 offices in Africa, TIKA conducts development projects across almost all of Africa with priority given to capacity building for health, education, agriculture, environment, and infrastructure projects. TIKA has so far carried out numerous projects such as building hospitals and schools, most notably in Somalia and Darfur, in addition to various agricultural projects.

Despite this soft power approach, Turkey’s involvement in Africa has not been without its own overt political and security agendas. In Somalia, for example, what began as a principally humanitarian initiative in response to the 2011 famine has grown into a more comprehensive policy where Ankara has assumed a leading role in shaping the state-building agenda, including opening a sizable military facility to train Somali government soldiers. Today, Turkish firms operate Mogadishu’s air and seaports, while Turkish Airways flies direct to the capital city—the first major international carrier to do so. Much like with Qatar, its presence in Somalia has grown as a result of the Gulf Crisis as Middle Eastern states compete for primacy in this region.


Such posturing is also evident in Libya where along with Qatar, it has supported GNA militias pitted against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is backed by the UAE. Such foreign meddling in Libya has only perpetuated the conflict and has stalled negotiations since Haftar first launched his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. As such, Middle Eastern involvement in this country has directly contributed to greater instability in North Africa.


While much attention has been given to the countries involved in the Gulf Crisis, Israel has also emerged as an interesting economic and political partner for Africa following many years of tense relations between the continent and this Middle Eastern country.

Such tensions were primarily driven by the global south’s alignment with the Palestinian cause and the Israeli-Arab War of 1973 which saw the continent choosing to side with Arabian countries. While relations started to normalise in the 1990s, Israel has been on an extensive charm offensive across the continent in the last half decade. Indicative of this, in 2016, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Africa in 30 years following trips to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia at the time.

This rapprochement has resulted in greater economic ties where Israel has signed several trade agreements and investment programmes in Africa. Particular focus seems to have been given to West Africa and the Sahel with programmes aimed at enhancing African infrastructure and technology in the agriculture and energy sectors but also increasingly in defence.

Springing to their defences


Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as an attractive market for Israel’s defence technology. Security threats posed by extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups, have increased demand for such security innovations. Chad, a Muslim-majority country that is one of several African states engaged in a fight with Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area, has acquired Israeli weapons and equipment to help battle rebels, for example. Other countries in the region that have acquired Israel defence technologies include Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

While Africa only accounts for around four percent of Israeli arm purchases, compared to 41 percent in the Asia Pacific and 26 percent and 25 percent in Europe and North America respectively, business has been growing. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, Israeli defence exports to Africa increased by 70 percent to reach USD 275 million with a key focus on supply of unmanned aerial vehicles, loitering weapons, communications systems, and radars. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers database also notes that over the last several years, Israel has supplied armoured vehicles and other equipment to Africa. This has included five Musketeer armoured vehicles and 16 Thunder armoured personnel carriers to Cameroon; 11 RAM armoured vehicles to Chad; 75 Thunder APCs to Ethiopia; and 55 RAMs to Senegal.


As with other Middle Eastern countries involved in Africa, Israel has its own political agendas. Key among these is the recognition of Jerusalem’s status in favour of Israel. In 2017, only two African countries supported the US Jerusalem proposition – Togo and South Sudan – prompting Israel to subsequently court this very strategic voting bloc at the UN. Secondly, Israel is also looking for support from Africa – specifically Muslim countries – for Washington’s so-called peace project. To achieve this, Israel has sought to engage with African countries through intermediary states with the most successful example being the normalisation of relations with Sudan with mediation support from the UAE. As such, Gulf countries – notably the UAE and Saudi Arabia – have played an active role in opening political elbowroom for Israel in Africa as they too are keen to counter Iran’s ambitions in the region.


While Africa may mark the next frontier for Middle Eastern political, economic, and security interests over the coming decade, its increased involvement comes at a time when several global players are already competing for primacy across the continent. Indeed, governments and businesses from all around the world are rushing to strengthen diplomatic, strategic, and commercial ties. Beyond the involvement of more traditional and colonial players like the UK, France, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, Africa has enjoyed increased attention from other key players over the last decade as well, including from China, India, and Russia, among others.

According to the Economist, between 2010 and 2016, for example, 320 embassies were opened in Africa, in what has been deemed the biggest embassy-building boom in history. Turkey alone opened 26 embassies during this period. Commercial ties have also been upended. Where the US was previously Africa’s biggest trading partner, China now holds the top spot whilst its investments in African infrastructure as part of Belt and Road Initiative are unparalleled. In terms of defence, Russia is now the biggest supplier of weapons to Africa, accounting for half of the region’s arms market pie, more than twice that of China and the US.

Such engagements with Africa naturally stand to benefit the continent should its nations manage to handle this scramble wisely. For investors looking at the continent for new opportunities, it is imperative that they remain cognisant of the country risks associated with doing business in Africa to best harness these opportunities. PANGEA-RISK offers a full suite of risk advisory, due diligence, and consulting services to assess the risk outlook for Africa and the Middle East.