2013 Conference concept note

In whose interests: Exploring Middle East involvement in South Africa

Burgerspark Hotel, Tshwane, South Africa

4-6 November 2013

The Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) will convene an international conference from 5 to 6 November 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa, which aims to examine the nature and extent of the penetration of Middle Eastern states into Africa. The conference is framed within Africa’s history of colonialism and of African states and non-state actors being used as proxies on an African battlefield during the Cold War. It will explore the nature of the relationship that exists between both that of state and non-state actors on the continent and the Middle East.  Aside from responding to the paucity in research around the penetration of the Middle East into Africa, and what this means for the continent, the conference further looks to explore ways of enhancing balanced and mutually beneficial relations between Africa and the Middle East region. 

Brief historical background

Africa has a long and painful history as a site of colonial and imperial exploitation, mainly by western states. The continent has also been a site for ideological and other battles during the Cold War, making its state and various non-state actors proxies in the struggle between the USSR and USA. Certain European countries and the USA continue to assert their influence through political, military, economic and development mechanisms.

Africa’s colonial past and the implications of a postcolonial world defined by neoimperialism and neoliberalism continue to manifest in the socioeconomic reality of the majority of Africans. The recent assertiveness of Africa on the global stage, growing markets, diverse geography, geostrategic importance, and vast natural resources continue to attract the attention of global powers. China, for example, in its unquenchable quest for resources and global partners, turned its focus on Africa, and has succeeded in becoming the continent’s largest trading partner. The past three decades have, however, also seen the entry of new players into Africa, such as India and Brazil. Some of these states share experiential colonial histories as well as similar development experiences and challenges with countries on the continent. This interaction has facilitated the emergence of South coalition blocs such as the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum, to promote cooperation amongst these states.

In a postcolonial era, however, the attention that Africa attracts is uneven, sometimes paternalistic, and often under the guise of development, aid and humanitarian assistance. This has often seen the evolution of asymmetrical political and economic relations between African states and these external powers.

Of course, Africa is not a singular monolithic and homogeneous entity.  On the whole, however, it has often been the disadvantaged partner in exploitative relationships.

 The Middle East in Africa

Apart from states that are well-known for their involvement in Africa, such as the USA, China, Brazil and India, the continent has also been targeted by a number of states whose role has garnered relatively little attention. These include states from the Middle East whose strategic involvement in, and outreach to, Africa range from extending their sphere of influence to pursuing ideological interests, and includes economic, business, political, military and religious relations. In particular, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states have set their sights on Africa. Certain non-state actors from the Middle East have also looked to Africa to export their ideologies. This manifests in diverse forms: from religious and ideological education projects to involvement in civil or interstate conflict, such as in the Sahel region and Somalia.

Relations between the Middle East and Africa have a long history going back centuries. This has seen beneficial as well exploitative exchanges for Africa. Due to their geographical, cultural and religious proximity to Africa, there is a centuries-old flow of people, ideologies, and sociopolitical undercurrents from countries in the Middle East into Africa, particularly North Africa, East Africa and the Sahel region.

The objectives of the various Middle Eastern countries involved in Africa are numerous, diverse, yet also converge as they jostle to increase their dominance over each other. Due to Iran’s global isolation, Iran sees resonance in Africa, with the continent’s own experience of marginalisation. Africa thus holds the potential to reduce the isolation forced on Iran by western sanctions. Turkey’s revitalised foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has seen it extending its global influence. Since 2002, Africa has become part of its revamped foreign policy that looks to see Ankara develop and strengthen ties with countries which Turkey previously had neglected. Today, Turkey has the largest foreign diplomatic and business components in Somalia compared to any other state. With the world’s attention drawn to Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel has attempted to win favour from African countries through its use of soft power under the guise of development, and the sharing of agricultural and technological expertise.  Israel has also recently agreed to provide certain African states with assistance in exchange for the transfer of African refugees from Israel. Tiny Qatar, aside from seeing the opportunities that the continent’s physical expansiveness offers, hopes to extend its global clout and sphere of influence through Africa. This has seen it involved in mediation in African conflicts, for example between Sudan and Darfur rebels. It has also attempted to insert its influence through involvement in the NATO-led overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Objectives of the conference

  • The conference will explore the nature and extent of the penetration of Middle Eastern states and non-state actors into Africa. In particular, it will look at Iran, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The conference will examine whether the Middle East penetration into Africa benefits or harms African states. It will explore ways of enhancing balanced and mutually beneficial relations between Africa and the Middle East region.
  • The conference will consider the possibility of stronger strategic relationships between the African Union and the League of Arab States.

Target audience

The conference will target key policy and decision makers in South Africa, with a particular focus on government, political parties, civil society and academia.

Date and venue

Conference will be held from 5 to 6 November 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa.

About the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC):

AMEC is a Johannesburg based think tank that looks to understand and enhance relations between Africa, particularly South Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa region.  AMEC seeks to shape public discourse and engage decision makers on issues affecting the region. It further looks to produce and disseminate the highest quality of research on the Middle East, and on issues related to the Middle East and North Africa.

Last modified on Friday, 20 February 2015 08:09

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