Updated: Sep 20
In this issue, we are delighted to include a Q&A session with Wikistrat expert Anna L. Jacobs, on recent developments in North Africa.
Anna L. Jacobs is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a contributor to the North Africa Policy Initiative. She is a Doha-based political scientist focusing on foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. She specializes in the politics of North Africa, global and regional power competition, U.S.-China relations, and U.S. foreign policy. Previously, she was the senior research assistant at the Brookings Doha Center, where she managed the center’s research and publications. Her own work focused on Chinese and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa as well as governance and political economy in the Maghreb countries.
1. How have the fault lines in North Africa intensified since the 2017 boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt? And how has the encroaching Russian and Chinese presence in the region impacted these fault lines?
I think the 2017 blockade of Qatar solidified regional divisions that had been present for some time--especially since the 2011 Arab Spring protests. The blockade demonstrated how close the Gulf region could come to outright war, and it seriously escalated regional competition between the Qatar/Turkey axis on the one hand, and the Saudi-UAE-Egypt-Bahrain axis on the other. Much of this competition manifests through proxy wars, diplomatic disputes, economic competition, and maritime/port rivalries. There is a growing competition for spheres of influence across the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. This has been exacerbated by a security power vacuum left by an increasingly disengaged U.S.
North Africa, and Tunisia specifically, was the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Major protest movements erupted across Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and to a lesser extent, Algeria, which also spread across the Middle East and the Gulf region. The Gulf Arab states reacted differently to these protests. The Saudi-UAE axis saw this a direct threat to regional stability because the protesters were pushing for democratic reforms and an end to authoritarian rule. They also viewed the electoral wins of Muslim Brotherhood parties and affiliated actors as a security threat for the region, and for their own regimes, given the influence of opposition Islamist/MB parties in Gulf countries like Saudi and the UAE. These perceptions and calculations pushed the Saudi-UAE axis to take an aggressive role in supporting the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt in 2013. Gulf Arab states like Saudi-UAE find themselves on the opposite side of Qatar and Turkey in regional proxy wars, as we see most vividly in Libya. The 2017 blockade against Qatar intensified regional competition and further demonstrated the aggressive ambitions and foreign policy of Gulf actors like Saudi Arabia and UAE, emboldened by a new US administration that seemed content to outsource the region's security to rising regional powers. North Africa and the Mediterranean has become another theatre for regional conflict because of the legacy of the 2011 Arab Spring, power vacuums in conflict zones like Libya, the growing geopolitical importance of maritime routes and port operations, and competition over valuable energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
North Africa, and especially the Libyan conflict, is becoming a major flashpoint for both regional rivalries and great power competition. The presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya has been cited as a national security direct threat by AFRICOM. The military presence of Russian mercenaries along NATO's southern flank should indeed be a cause for concern, not just for the United States and European allies, but for the countries of North Africa. Russian mercenaries are directly contributing to the fighting in Libya and provide invaluable support for General Khaftar (who also benefits from the support of US allies like UAE, Egypt, and France). Russia's role in Libya sabotages international efforts for conflict resolution. It is the large number of foreign actors providing funding, mercenaries, and weapons that stymie any genuine peace efforts in Libya. Libya's conflict is contributing to regional instability across North Africa.
Russian and Chinese foreign policies are very different, and their presence impacts North Africa's fault lines in very different ways. Russia's hard power, aggressive approach to foreign policy makes the country a major defense player in North Africa while also aggravating the region's fault lines for its own geopolitical benefits.
China embraces soft power in its foreign policy, preferring to focus on cultivating economic ties through its flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative. China is quietly becoming a top trade partner to nearly every North African country (and notably Algeria and Egypt) and pursues a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of partner countries. In my opinion, China is a more strategic, and long-term foreign policy actor. Their priorities in North Africa are to cultivate economic relationships, increase trade and investment, and to pursue the region's vast oil and gas resources to meet their own growing energy demands. The Mediterranean coastlines are integral to China's expansion of both the land and sea routes of the Belt and Road Initiative. North Africa's strategic location at the intersection of European and African markets is a major attraction for Chinese businesses. China isn't seriously intensifying the fault lines in North Africa's regional conflicts or the domestic politics of these countries, but I do think China's presence along the southern shores of the Mediterranean is concerning the United States and Europe, which view China's growing economic presence along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, coupled with Russian military presence, as an encroaching geostrategic threat right on NATO's doorstep.
2. How do you see the impact of Emirati-Qatari tensions on regional politics in North Africa?
A major element of Emirati-Qatari tensions relates to the role of Islamist parties and actors, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Emirati foreign policy is often guided by the perception that Islamist parties are a threat to regional stability, as well as a direct threat to Abu Dabi and other Gulf monarchs. Qatar's foreign policy is more open to Islamist political actors; Qatar hosts several well-known leaders from Islamist parties and associations, ranging from Hamas leaders to Egypt's Yousef El- Qaradawi. Qatar and the Emirates have both offered significant financial support to political parties and leaders in North Africa. The Emirates support actors that counter Islamist and other opposition parties, ranging from financial support for militaries in Algeria and Sudan to support for politicians like El-Sisi in Egypt, anti-Islamist political actors like Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia, and the Moroccan monarchy. Many Islamist political parties won electoral victories starting in 2011 after Arab Spring protests spread quickly across the region. In North Africa, Islamist and/or MB affiliated parties like the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were ushered into power through the ballot box in 2011 and 2012. Emirati-Qatari tensions over Islamist parties and movements does bleed into the domestic politics of many North African countries--especially the ones with the strongest and oldest Brotherhood parties, such as Tunisia and Egypt. These Gulf tensions and battles for influence is less pronounced in countries that saw the continuation of the pre-2011 status quo. This is the case for Morocco and Algeria for example. Even though an Islamist party is relatively popular in Morocco, the monarchy remains the main powerbroker and elections are more facade than substance. In Algeria, the military has remained firmly in power despite major protests, elections, and cabinet reshuffles.
These two Gulf states have both used economic statecraft to cultivate better bilateral ties that serve their own geopolitical ambitions. I think the citizens of North African countries are overwhelmingly resistant to foreign influence in domestic affairs. Media reports have surfaced about Gulf states attempting to offer funding and gifts to political elites of various political parties. Reports of Gulf state influence peddling in Tunisia, for example, contributes to already very critical perceptions of Gulf states across North Africa. The intervention of Gulf states in the Libya conflict, as well as Saudi-UAE support for regime change in Egypt, entrenched negative perceptions and mistrust of Gulf states across North Africa. However there are important linkages between Gulf and North African states thanks to a large diaspora of North Africans living and working in GCC states, as well as significant investment and foreign aid. This means that Gulf states will continue to influence regional politics in North Africa to some degree.
3. In what ways do you see the signing of the Abraham Accords as “the growing alignment of the strategic interests of the United States, Israel, and some Gulf Arab states”? Do the Abraham Accords change anything in the foreign policy preferences of North African states (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco)
I should specify that I viewed the Abraham Accords as a growing alignment of interests for the Trump administration, Israel, and Gulf Arab states like UAE. What I mean by this is that the Trump administration is looking for foreign policy wins, and they sold the normalization of ties between Israel and states like UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan as successful peace deals essentially. This is misleading in my opinion because these normalization deals do not address the root barriers to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I agree with Biden's foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken's assessment that the Abraham Accords were more of a quid pro quo so that UAE could become the second country in the region after Israel to obtain F-35s. I think some Arab states are considering normalization with Israel because of how it can help secure their own strategic interests. For example, I would argue that Morocco could be the next country to normalize with Israel, likely in exchange for support from states like UAE and Israel for Morocco's control over the disputed Western Sahara territory. UAE already became the first Arab country to open a consulate in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, giving more diplomatic legitimacy to Morocco (I discuss why this matters here). There have been various reports in the last several months about back-channeling between Morocco and Israel. Israel likely promised to lobby the Trump administration to officially back Morocco on the Western Sahara issue, in exchange for normalization. Now that the Trump administration is on its way out, I think the strategic calculations may have changed. With the recent eruption of fighting between Morocco and the Polisario after a 29-year ceasefire, the Western Sahara conflict could become a more pressing flashpoint in regional influence peddling between Morocco, Algeria, European, Gulf states, and Israel.
4. How do you think that a Biden Administration will impact North African states? Would a change in the White House have any impact on regional politics in North Africa?
I think the Biden administration will be overly preoccupied with domestic affairs, and the little time it can spend on foreign affairs will likely coalesce around reversing many of the Trump era policies and developing a clearer strategy on China. The point of entry regarding Middle East policy will likely be Iran and trying to rekindle and expand upon the JCPOA. Regarding North Africa, I think the point of entry will likely be Libya, a country that has become the flashpoint for regional conflict and proxy war across the Middle East. The Biden administration could play a very important role in Libya's peace efforts at minimal cost if it expands the US diplomatic role and applies more pressure to US allies on both sides of the Libyan war to abide by the Berlin Process and especially the UN arms embargo. Overall, the Biden administration has signaled that it intends to embrace a more values-based foreign policy that gives greater priority to supporting democracy, human rights, and civil society. This could translate, for example, to greater financial support for Tunisia's burgeoning democracy, as well as civil society and protest movements in countries like Morocco and Algeria. They could also tie foreign aid more directly to human rights practices, which could signal a reassessment of US support for Sisi's authoritarian regime in Egypt. Overall, I think that a chance in the White House will have an impact on regional politics in North Africa.