The Muslim Middle East and Northeast Africa: The Interaction of Geopolitics, Economic Interests, and Regional Rivalry

Michael B Bishku. Journal of Global South Studies. Volume 36, Issue 1. Spring 2019.


Over the last few decades, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have become very active in Northeast Africa. In addition to developing bilateral relations with countries in the region, they regard the area as the gateway to connections with the rest of the continent, although they are guided by different motivations. Turkey’s expansion of its interests in Africa is both a reaction to the European Union’s rejection of its membership and an opportunity to expand its trade, which has been hindered by instability in the Middle East in recent years. Like Saudi Arabia, it views Northeast Africa as a place to extend its cultural influence with that region’s indigenous Sunni population. Saudi Arabia has used its wealth to curtail Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in the region, while Turkey has provided on-the-ground technical assistance to enhance its political and economic connections in the region. In recent years the two countries have been drawn together by Iran’s involvement in Yemen, although Turkey has sought to avoid becoming involved in local political disputes. Rather, it has served in multinational peacekeeping efforts and actions to prevent piracy in the sea lanes off the coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. However, since the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the latter country’s relations with Iran that began in June 2017, some tension has arisen between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While Iran also wants those sea lanes to be freely open to traffic—as they were during the time of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi—it also wants to counteract Israeli involvement in Northeast Africa. Turkey has made great inroads politically and economically in Northeast Africa in recent years, while Saudi Arabia has gained the upper hand in its rivalry with Iran.

Historically there have been many political, economic, and cultural connections between the core area of the Middle East (Egypt and Southwest Asia) and Northeast Africa (Sudan, South Sudan, and the Horn of Africa—Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia). Especially since the end of the Cold War, the countries on the periphery of the Horn in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) have been involved to varying degrees in both the political affairs of that region and issues related to maritime safety. These three countries share one other thing: they have been of interest to countries in the Middle East. While Egypt and Israel have been extensively involved in this part of Africa since the Cold War, their actions are far too complex for this study and have been dealt with elsewhere.

This article focuses on countries that have been most actively involved in Northeast Africa and its periphery in recent years: Turkey and Iran, each of which has its own agenda, and Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in both a geopolitical and sectarian rivalry with Iran in recent years that has extended into Africa. These middle powers, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can portray themselves as important actors in the region by supplementing the assistance the major powers provide, which may come with restrictions that countries located in Northeast Africa and on its periphery are reluctant to accept. Iran is not as able financially and/or technically as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to provide such aid, but it needs to counteract diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Particular attention will be paid to analyzing the respective countries’ motivations for pursuing foreign relations in Northeast Africa and to assessing how they have fared.

Until the post-Cold War period, Turkey’s interest in the African continent was largely focused on the Arab states of the northern part of the continent and Ethiopia. Since then, especially under the Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party government which came to power in 2002, Turkey has paid increasing attention to Africa for political and economic reasons and because of its cultural connections to Sunni Muslim populations. Turkey has been evolving as a middle power that is eager to exert its influence beyond the Middle East, where the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has brought instability to those countries and its neighbors and disrupted Turkish investments and trade. Both Turkey and Iran regard Northeast and East Africa as gateways to expanding relations with the rest of the continent. Under the rule of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), Iran developed close relations with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie (ruled 1930-1974) and South Africa. However, since its Islamic Revolution, Iran did not regard Africa as a high priority until the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). Ahmadinejad saw forging ties with African countries as a way to counter western attempts to isolate the Islamic Republic and Israel’s awakened interest in redeveloping relations with countries on the continent. After Iran signed nuclear agreement with Russia, China and the western powers in 2015, it has had strategic and economic motivations for its involvement in Africa. While Saudi Arabia has recently gained the upper hand in terms of influence in Northeast Africa, Iran seeks to develop stronger economic relations with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, countries that have been expanding their ties, including security connections, with Israel.

Modern Historical Connections between the Regions

In 1896, the Ottoman Empire’s Abdül Hamid II (ruled 1876-1909) and Ethiopia’s Menelik II (ruled 1889-1913) established diplomatic relations between their two nations. The Ottoman Empire, a power on the Red Sea, set up a consulate-general in Harar, Ethiopia, located within about 100 miles of the borders of both British Somaliland and French Somaliland (Djibouti), in 1912. By 1933, the western and secular-oriented Republic of Turkey, the successor state to the Ottomans, and Ethiopia had established embassies in each other’s capitals. Ethiopia, one of just three independent states located in Sub-Saharan Africa before World War II (the others were Liberia and South Africa) was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, who first served under a regent from 1916 to 1930. In 1934, Haile Selassie established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia’s King Abd al-Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud; ruled 1932-1953) and Yemen’s Imam Yahya (ruled 1904-1948), leaders of the only independent countries on the Arabian Peninsula, as the other territories were British protectorates. This was in part in response to fascist Italy’s diplomatic moves in those two countries and the military threat it posed to Ethiopia from its colonies in Eritrea and its portion of Somaliland. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Saudi Arabia and Yemen remained neutral. Ethiopia was eventually liberated during World War II through British intervention. Ethiopia reestablished diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1948, while its embassy in Turkey never closed, despite the Italian occupation. Iran did not establish diplomatic relations with Ethiopia until 1950. Mutual distrust of the intentions of Egypt’s president Nasser subsequently helped Iran and Turkey develop a closer relationship with each other. Eritrea, which the United Nations joined with Ethiopia as an autonomous region in 1952, was annexed nine years later. This annexation triggered Eritrea’s struggle for independence, which it won in 1991. Eritrea was admitted to the UN in 1993.

Turkey was one of the first countries to open an embassy in Khartoum following Sudan’s independence from Britain and Egypt in January 1956. This move was connected with Turkey’s interest in North Africa, particularly Egypt, one of its rivals for influence in the Middle East. Sudan joined the Arab League and developed relations with other Arab states but did not play an important role in Middle Eastern politics. Until 1972, it was preoccupied with a civil war in the south with rebels who were supported by Israel and were supplied through Uganda and Ethiopia. The major oil producers of Iran and Saudi Arabia were concerned about maintaining the political stability of countries in the Arabian Peninsula and in Northeast Africa and of the shipping routes off their respective coasts. Also, they regarded Nasser’s promotion of Arab nationalism as a challenge to their political interests in those regions. Close ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran had developed earlier through their cooperation in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1970) in opposition to Nasser’s Egypt. When Nasser died in 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s relations improved with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and increasing Soviet naval activity in the Indian Ocean, Iran decided to expand its “security perimeter” into the latter body of water. In Oman’s Dhofar province, Iran became militarily involved in quashing a rebellion supported by Marxists in neighboring South Yemen, while conservative Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Sadat’s Egypt, provided the Omani government with financial and military training assistance. In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution brought an end to its pro-western alliance with conservative Arab states. However, some five years earlier, a Marxist Revolution in Ethiopia had changed the dynamics of the impact of Cold War in the Horn of Africa. In 1976, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and France established the so-called Safari Club, which sought to check the spread of communism in Africa. Consequently, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran supported Somalia in the 1977-1978 Ogaden War against Ethiopia by providing arms. Saudi Arabia paid Egypt to provide Soviet arms worth $75 million, while Iran sent German-made mortars acquired from Turkey. In 1974, Somalia joined the Arab League, while Djibouti became a member when it achieved independence from France in 1977.

The Post-Cold War Era


From January 1993 to February 1994, Turkey participated in the Unified Task Force/United Nations Operation in Somalia II, contributing a mechanized company of 300 personnel whose main task was to protect Mogadishu airport. Lieutenant-General Çevik Bir was the overall commander of that operation from April 1993 to January 1994. The operation was a reaction to an ongoing famine and to a civil war that broke out in Somalia following the January 1991 overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had been in power since 1969. In December 1992, the UN Security Council in cooperation with the Organization of African Unity authorized a multinational military force led by the United States to establish peace and security in Somalia and to make it possible for humanitarian relief to reach the Somali people. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates also contributed personnel to the operation.

In the post-Cold War era, Turkey was concerned with demonstrating its strategic value to its western partners in the NATO alliance. It therefore participated in the US-led international coalition in 1990-1991 that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The government and the public in Turkey were concerned about the war in Bosnia, and participating in an international humanitarian mission offered Turkey the possibility of gaining more influence in UN activities in the Balkans. After Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia signed the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, ending the Bosnia conflict, Turkey felt sidelined with regard to influence in Bosnia.

In 1998, the Turkish government adopted an action plan for expanding its political, economic, and cultural relations with African countries. This was part of Foreign Minister İsmail Cem’s initiative to develop a multidimensional foreign policy in response to the European Union’s decision the previous year not to accept Turkey’s application for membership. The Turks were seeking new economic markets and greater political influence in regional and world affairs. They portrayed themselves as having shared historical experiences with the Africans. In an article on Turkish policy in Africa published in 2000, Numan Hazar, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs officer who had previously served at the Turkish embassy in Nigeria, pointed out that in the sixteenth century, “the Ottoman Empire was in Eastern Africa to check the Portuguese colonialism. In North Africa the Turks played an important role to prevent Spanish penetration. In Northern Sub-Sahara, the Ottomans were part of the balance of powers system[,] having friendship and alliance with Kanem Bornu.” Hazar also asserted that unlike the imperialist actions many European states carried out, “Turkey has no bad reputation as a colonial power.” Those sentiments are reiterated in the current statement of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Turkey-Africa Relations, which offers the following points:

  • Historical relations with North and Northeast Africa have an exclusive place in the memories of our peoples.
  • It wouldn’t be possible to understand the role Turkey is playing before [acquiring] thorough knowledge about its historical involvement in the continent and in East Africa in particular.
  • Being an Afro-Eurasian state, Turkey’s policy of opening up to Africa is not just the reflection of a transient political and economic expectation.
  • On the contrary, it is the product of a process with strong historical and cultural aspects.

Furthermore, Turkey’s relations with countries in Africa have at times converged with, diverged from, or have had fairly limited or no impact on the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia on the African continent.

In the decades before Cem’s action plan, Turkey had closed down diplomatic missions in Ghana, Somalia, and Tanzania for economic reasons. However, by 2002, when the AK Party came to power, Turkey still had twelve embassies in Africa, most of which were in North, Northeast and East Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya). The AK Party pursued Turkey’s action plan with greater effort and added the element of religion, that is to say, ties with Sunni Muslim populations in Africa. In November 2006, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs hosted a conference in Istanbul that African Muslim religious leaders from twenty-two countries attended. This event created “for the first time a platform for sharing religious experience and knowledge between Turkey and Africa.”

Turkey’s presence in Africa increased during this period. A year earlier, in 2005, the African Union (AU) had accorded Turkey observer status and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had visited Ethiopia and South Africa. Also in 2005, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (Türk İşbirliği ve Koordinasyon Ajancı; TİKA) had established an office in Ethiopia, its first on the continent. In 2006, Ethiopia, reopened its embassy in Turkey, which it had closed in 1984. In 2007, Erdoğan addressed the AU. In 2008, Turkish prime minister Meles Zenawi served as co-chair of the Turkey-Africa Summit in Istanbul. Also in 2008, TİKA began its African Agricultural Development Program in thirteen countries, including in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Turkey also provides extensive training each year for a small number of Ethiopians at its national police academy.

Erdoğan visited Sudan in 2006, and Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir traveled to Turkey twice two years later. The two countries had established an interparliamentary friendship group in 1999. Turkey also provided training to Sudanese at its national police academy. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted al-Bashir in March 2009 for his role in crimes against humanity in the conflict against non-Arab tribal inhabitants in the western province of Darfur, the Turkish government opposed the decision, arguing that western countries were interfering in Sudan’s internal affairs. In addition, because Turkey wanted to make sure that Sudan remained unified initially contributed forty unarmed police to the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Erdoğan elaborated further on the al-Bashir indictment in November 2009 when the Sudanese leader, perhaps not wanting to place the Turks in an awkward situation, chose not to attend an economic summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, a group whose members also include Iran, Uganda, and all members of the Arab League. In an interview for Turkey’s state-run television station TRT, Erdoğan, who had visited Darfur in 2006, asserted that “we could not find evidence of genocide there. … It is not possible that a man who has committed himself to our religion, Islam, commits genocide.” He went on to criticize Israeli military action earlier in that year in Gaza.

It was also during 2009 that Turkey began deploying half a dozen frigates as part of the US-led Combined Task Force 151’s anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, a multi-nation partnership that has included ships and personnel from Pakistan, Singapore, and many western allies in Europe and Asia. It is one of three task forces; 150 (which deals with maritime security to counter terrorism and other illegal activities in the western Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Gulf of Oman) and 152 (which deals with maritime security in the Persian Gulf) are the others. In August 2011, Erdoğan became the first non-African head of state to visit Somalia since 1991. Following that symbolic trip to Mogadishu, a nationwide campaign in Turkey raised close to $300 million for assistance to Somalia and some 500 Turkish development and aid workers set up operations in that city, where they built hospitals and schools. The following year, at a summit in London dealing with Somalia, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu portrayed Turkey’s involvement in that country as a “humanitarian obligation[,] not as a result of strategic interests.” However, one cannot dismiss the latter motivation, as Erdoğan stated on a visit to Ethiopia in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that Turkey “had fought terrorism for forty years, we are totally against this violence no matter who commits it, where and under what pretense.” He stressed the need for a “united approach and fight [of all countries] jointly against all terrorist groups.” Erdoğan then referred to “an act of terror in Somalia today. … If they say it was committed in the name of Islam, there is no such thing in Islam. A true Muslim would not commit suicide. Who are the killed people? They are Muslims, too.” Erdoğan also visited Djibouti and Somalia during that trip.

Somalia has been satisfied with Turkey’s approach. In June 2012, Interim Prime Minister Abdulweli Mohamed Ali asserted that “you can create peace and stability by working on the security side, but also on the development side at the same time. That is what Turkey is successful at.” When Saudi Arabia established the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in 2015 of more than thirty countries to coordinate efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other “extremists” in Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti were members, as was Turkey. Turkey has also stated its support for the Saudi operations in Yemen, though it has not committed troops.

In recent years, Turkey has entered economic relations with African countries below Northeast Africa. Its bilateral trade with all the countries on the continent has increased at least threefold since 2003, reaching a total of $19.5 billion in 2015. On Erdoğan’s recent official visits to Africa, which included an entourage of large numbers of Turkish businessmen, he stopped in countries in Northeast Africa and its periphery—Kenya, Uganda, and Somalia in June 2016 and Tanzania, Mozambique, and Madagascar in January 2017. In March 2016, he visited the West African states of Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. In fact, since 2005, Erdoğan has made more than thirty visits to African countries, more than any other non-African leader. Turkey also opened new embassies in Africa in the first two decades of the twenty-first century: in Tanzania in 2009, in Uganda in 2010, in Somalia and South Sudan in 2011, in Djibouti in 2012, and in Eritrea in 2013. It is only Middle Eastern country with representation in all the countries in Northeast Africa and its periphery. In fact, by 2016, it had embassies in thirty-nine African countries. Turkish Airlines flies to more destinations on the continent of Africa than any other international airline. Also, in early 2017, there were about 5,000 African students studying in Turkey, of which some 200 were from Ethiopia.

In December 2017, President Erdoğan signed a bilateral agreement with Sudan that provided for the restoration of the ruins on the Red Sea island of Suakin, located some 261 nautical miles from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, who are disturbed by Turkey’s defense of Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia over Qatar’s continued cooperation with Iran, which began in June 2017, have accused Turkey of wanting to establish a military base at Suakin. The Saudi newspaper Okaz asserted that this development and the fact that Turkey opened a large overseas base in Somalia in September 2017 to train the Somali military proved that “Turkey’s greed on the African continent seems to have no limits.” While Turkey has sought to avoid becoming involved in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Africa, further tension with Saudi Arabia could develop. Egypt, which is closely aligned with the Saudis regarding foreign relations in the Arab and Islamic worlds, is especially sensitive to Turkey’s involvement in Sudan.

Revolutionary Iran

During the mid-1980s, Sudan was the largest recipient of US economic and military assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa. Then, in June 1989, General Omar Hassan al-Bashir seized power in Sudan in a coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Sudan subsequently faced economic malaise which allowed for Iran to increase its political influence in that country. Iran’s president Hashemi Rafsanjani made two official trips to Sudan, one in late 1991 and another in 1996, while al-Bashir made a visit to Tehran in 1997 to participate in a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. At the time of Rafsanjani’s visit, Sudan had a foreign debt of about $13 billion and was suffering from hyperinflation and the second civil war in the south (1983-2005) was draining its treasury. The World Bank ceased payment on Sudan’s loans in 1993, while the Arab Monetary Fund refused to grant new ones. Exacerbating the situation, Sudan’s economy was unable to benefit substantially from oil revenue until 2003. Meanwhile, Sudan received oil and army vehicles from Iran and $300 million worth of arms from China. In 1992, David Ignatius reported in the Guardian newspaper that Iran sent 800 of its Revolutionary Guards to Sudan to provide military training at three camps in the eastern part of the country. Sudan allowed jihadis to set up camps on its territory and provided moral, material, and financial support to jihadis fighting in Bosnia, Somalia, and Chechnya. For four years, Sudan gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and members of al-Qaida before it decided in 1996 that doing so was a liability. Bin Laden (and his followers) returned to Afghanistan, where he had fought with the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Naturally, during the 1990s, Sudan faced condemnation and sanctions from western countries for its support of terrorist organizations.

In 2004, Iran’s president, Muhammad Khatami, made a visit to Khartoum, and two years later, al-Bashir visited Tehran. Khatami’s visit came at a time when the UN Security Council was losing patience with Sudan over its use of Arab militias to commit atrocities in Darfur. Sudanese foreign minister Mustafa Ismail saw Khatami’s visit as an opportunity to “further strengthen ties and cooperation … in the commercial, economic, cultural and political fields.” By then, Iran and Saudi Arabia no longer viewed these ties as jeopardizing the state of their own bilateral relations because Khatami had engaged in rapprochement with the Saudis; in 1999, he became the first Iranian president to visit Saudi Arabia since the Revolution. Khatami’s successor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, traveled to Sudan in 2008 and 2011. Ahmadinejad’s minister of defense, Mustafa Muhammad Najjar, referred to Sudan as “a cornerstone of Iran’s strategy in the African continent” and indeed, Iran’s ties with that country were the closest it had with any state on the African continent. In 2008, the Iranian and Sudanese governments signed a military cooperation agreement. Iran (along with China) has made it possible for Sudan to become the third largest arms manufacturer on the continent, behind Egypt and South Africa.

China, Sudan’s largest trading partner, has invested heavily in Sudan’s oil infrastructure, including the pipelines to Port Sudan and several refineries. Sudan exported about two-thirds of its oil exports to China in 2011, when South Sudan, which accounted for 75-80 percent of a united Sudan’s daily output, received its independence. That was also the first year of the Arab Spring, during which time the US government claimed that Iran was behind an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of fomenting violent protests by Shi’a Muslims in its Eastern Province and in Bahrain. Iran subsequently sent troops to Syria in 2015 to bolster President Basher al-Assad’s regime, which the Saudis opposed. It also gave support to the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels who took control of northern Yemen in 2014, forcing that country’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was allied with the Saudis, to flee the capital city of Sanaa. The Houthi forces were reportedly receiving military supplies from Iran through Djibouti in return for minimal aid to that impoverished country. A few years earlier, in January 2009, during the first war between Israel and Hamas, Sudan acted as a staging point for an attempt to smuggle 120 tons of Iranian arms and explosives, including rockets, into the Sinai so that that the Palestinian organization could smuggle them into the Gaza Strip. Israeli aircraft bombed the 23-truck convoy in the Sudanese desert. In October 2012, Iran sent a destroyer and a helicopter carrier to Port Sudan a week after the Sudanese accused Israel of bombing an arms factory in Khartoum.

Ahmadinejad signed economic cooperation agreements with Sudan and Djibouti in 2009, and by 2011 Djibouti was cooperating with the Iranian navy to deal with piracy and smuggling and was receiving naval training in return for providing repair and maintenance facilities. Since 2005, Iran has also paid a significant amount of attention to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Ahmadinejad also visited Kenya in 2009 and Uganda in 2010, while in 2008, Iran’s foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, traveled to Ethiopia to attend an AU summit. As a representative of a country with observer status in that organization, he also met with the leaders of Sudan, Djibouti, and Tanzania, among others.

Iran agreed to cooperate with Somalia in activities designed to combat piracy off the Somali coast and to provide $2.2 million to the Transitional Federal Government established in Kenya in 2004, which took up residence in Mogadishu three years later and ruled until a more permanent government was set up in 2012 but controlled only portions of the country. Later, in 2013, Yemen accused Iran of providing arms to al-Shabaab (the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia that was established in 2006) through the northern autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland. According to the American global intelligence company Stratfor, in 2008 Iran established a naval base at the port of Assab and the following year its Export Development Bank transferred $35 million to Eritrea, while Israel had a smaller military presence further north along the coast at Massawa. While Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki always denied that his country had any foreign military bases, a Stratfor report noted that Eritrea’s decision to accommodate those countries “is not an ideological choice. It is way for a small and insecure nation to meet its economic and security needs.”

Besides security concerns, especially in the countries of the Horn of Africa mentioned above, Iran has taken actions in Northeast Africa and its periphery to counterbalance Israel’s influence. Ethiopia and Kenya historically have had close connections with Israel, while Uganda did so during the early reign of Idi Amin and has resumed those ties in recent years. Iran is also interested in developing trade with countries in this region. In December 2016, Ethiopia’s president Mulatu Teshome told Iran’s outgoing ambassador, Ali Bahreini, that his government would continue to “provide all the necessary support for Iranian businesspersons investing in the country,” while the Iranian ambassador replied that Ethiopia was “one of the exemplary countries with regard to development issues” and was pleased with the “meaningful and useful [bilateral] cooperation that has been established,” especially in science and technology. In 2005, Ethiopia and Iran signed an agreement for institutions of higher education to jointly carry out scientific and technological research. In East Africa, Iranian companies have engaged in building both a hydroelectric and a gas-powered plant in Kenya and a tractor assembly factory in Uganda. Iran’s major export to the region has been oil, while it imports tea. It is one of the ten largest tea-consuming nations; it buys tea from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania sold through the Mombasa auction, the world’s largest market for leaves. In November 2016, the Iranian navy’s Forty-Fourth Flotilla docked at the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam during a mission to safeguard its oil tankers and other vessels traveling along maritime routes in the western Indian Ocean and through the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandeb strait. Iran has engaged in anti-piracy patrols since November 2008 and its navy made calls in Dar es Salaam in June 2014 and March 2016.

Saudi Arabia

In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia ended its support of the Eritrean independence movement following the victory of the Marxist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front over the Arab-aligned Eritrean Liberation Front. The former group eventually won the war against Ethiopia in 1991, moving away from Marxism and transforming itself with a different name into Eritrea’s ruling political party in 1994, following independence. Especially after 1987, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of Ethiopia’s military junta, known as the Derg, faced stiff resistance from both the Eritreans and other factions within Ethiopia. After losing support from the Soviets, Mariam and the Derg drifted away from doctrinaire Marxism and sought reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and the conservative Arab states. In return for not taking any unilateral action regarding the use of Nile waters, Egypt and Saudi Arabia continued their detachment from Eritrea and took no actions to support Somalia, which coveted the Ogaden even though Ethiopian forces assisted by the Soviet Union had driven it out of that territory. In 1990-1991, Mengistu provided diplomatic support for the international effort to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, for which Saudi Arabia was very appreciative.

This was near the same time that Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown (January 1991) and Somalia was plunged into civil war. Also, during the 1990s, the Arab world shunned Sudan, but over the next decade the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development began to provide loans to Sudan again, while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States made investments in Sudan’s economy, mostly in Khartoum. Saudi Arabia and Egypt allowed al-Bashir to visit their countries following his indictment by the ICC in 2009. Despite Sudan’s oil wealth and foreign investment in that country, the Sudanese people, especially outside the country’s capital, faced economic hardships and Sudan’s economy was not very productive. In 2005, Sudan’s annual gross domestic product per capita was a mere $640. By 2017, it had risen to an estimated $4,600. For Djibouti, the estimated figure was $3,600; for Ethiopia, it was $2,200; for Eritrea, it was $1,600, and for South Sudan, it was $1,500. In contrast, the estimate for United States was $59,500, for Saudi Arabia, it was $54,800, for Turkey, it was $26,900, and for Iran, it was $20,200. By 2012, Sudan’s foreign debt had ballooned to about $38 billion. Sudan’s loss of oil revenues due to disputes with South Sudan in 2012 and a subsequent civil war that began in South Sudan the following year forced the Sudanese government to stop subsidizing the price of oil for its citizens in 2013, triggering protests. Saudi banks ceased operations in Sudan in 2014, which affected thousands of Sudanese workers on the Arabian Peninsula who regularly sent home remittances. These pressures and the hope of massive financial aid contributed to Sudan’s pivot toward Saudi Arabia. In January 2016, Sudan and its Arab League neighbors Djibouti and Somalia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following an Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the Saudi’s execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had been convicted on terrorism charges.

In October 2015, Sudan sent a battalion of troops to the port city of Aden in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition that included other Arab states and Senegal against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. Brigadier General Ahmad al-Assiri, a military advisor for the Saudi minister of defense, stated in a March 2016 interview that “peace and stability in the Horn of Africa is very important for us. This is why we coordinate with Eritrea, with Djibouti, with Ethiopia, with Somalia, with the legitimate governments of Yemen and Sudan, to make sure that this area is controlled and secured to avoid … trans-border crimes.” Although Eritrea, which may have previously provided facilities to Iran, did not join the Saudi-led military coalition, it has allowed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to use an airbase in the Red Sea port city of Assab as a logistics hub for the war in Yemen, while the UAE and Eritrea share intelligence. Naturally, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia have benefited financially from their diplomatic and logistical (and, in the case of Sudan, military) support of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in defense of Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia reportedly gave $50 million to Somalia’s government following Mogadishu’s announcement that Somalia was severing diplomatic relations with Iran. The Saudis deposited $1 billion in Sudan’s Central Bank when Khartoum agreed to join the multinational coalition against the Houthi rebels in August 2015. In February 2016, Saudi Arabia also provided Sudan with $5 billion in military assistance and it has since “intensified” investments in Northeast Africa, especially in the agricultural sector, particularly in Sudan and Ethiopia.

A report on Ethiopia-Saudi Arabia relations issued by the Ethiopian embassy in London states that besides agriculture, Saudi investments hotels and tourism, construction, mining, manufacturing, and education have been growing in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the two countries “share interests in the security of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, which links rather than divides Africa and the Middle East.” The report also pointed out that many Ethiopians live and work in Saudi Arabia, as do citizens of other countries located in Northeast Africa and its periphery. Thus, Saudi Arabia has a great deal of political leverage in the region. According to Helmi Sharawi, the director of the Arab and African Research Center in Cairo, Saudi Arabia sees itself as “assuming a leadership role in [Northeast Africa and other areas of the continent], as the biggest power in the Middle East, particularly at the economic and military coordination level.” In the process, Egypt, which also has interests in the region, especially over the use of the Nile River, has felt sidelined and somewhat disappointed by what it regards as the absence of a unified Arab vision and of Saudi support for Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project. Egypt is concerned that Ethiopia might use the dam for agricultural purposes, not just to generate electrical power, and that this will greatly reduce the amount of water flowing downstream.


The Horn of Africa and its periphery, which lies along key international shipping lanes, continues to be one of the most important strategic areas of interest for outside parties on the continent of Africa. During the Cold War, it was the object of a rivalry between the Western Alliance and the Soviet Bloc. Both Nasser’s Egypt and Israel regarded the Horn of Africa and its periphery as their prime area of interest and rivalry outside the Middle East. Therefore, it is no surprise that Saudi Arabia and Iran view that African region as an extension of their recent rivalry in the Middle East, largely due to the current conflict in Yemen. At the same time, Iran has sought to counteract Israeli influence in the area. However, recent developments in the Middle East, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its attempts to spread Shi’a influence throughout the region, have driven Saudi Arabia and Israel to share similar strategic concerns regarding the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia also sees Iranian cultural centers in Northeast Africa as an attempt to spread Shi’ism in that region. Turkey, which has pursued its African initiative as a means of seeking greater influence in the Middle East and in its relations with the European Union and other countries, has not wanted to engage in the rivalry for influence in the Horn of Africa. However, political developments in the Middle East since the Arab Spring generally tended to draw Turkey closer to Saudi Arabia, at least until Saudi Arabia fell out with Qatar over that country’s relations with Iran, which began in June 2017. Since then, Turkey has come to the defense of Qatar. Time will tell how this dispute will affect relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia regarding their respective interests in Africa. Nevertheless, both countries have used Sunni religious connections and financial and/or technical assistance as a means to enhance their relations with the African states in the Horn and its periphery. Saudi Arabia was able to get predominantly Sunni Muslim countries in the Horn to break off relations with Iran in a show of solidarity following its execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. However, the religious angle has also brought complications. In a cable dated July 2009, U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto warned that “indigenous Muslim culture has come under attack since 9/11 by Wahhabi missionaries engaging in what amounts to ‘cultural imperialism’ against Ethiopian Islam.”

As can be noted, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have fared much better than Iran, although all three countries are appealing options for the countries of Northeast Africa in terms of South-South relations. In terms of balance of power in Northeast Africa, Iran is at a disadvantage as it does not have the technical wherewithal of Turkey or the financial resources of Saudi Arabia. However, Iran can cause problems, especially for Saudi Arabia’s attempts to maintain stability in Northeast Africa or use the region as a logistical base in its proxy war in Yemen. Turkey’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia is primarily connected with Saudi actions toward Yemen because the Turks feel the need to cooperate with Russia and Iran to a certain degree regarding Syria, given the current political and military situation in that country. Turkey also opposes the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s political and economic support for President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt. Despite these limitations, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had success individually in enhancing relations with Sudan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim-populated state, and in developing cultural connections among Sunni Muslim minorities in other countries in Northeast Africa and its periphery, which far outnumber Shi’a indigenous populations.