The hospitality extended toward the leaders of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea during their recent state visits to Riyadh was not just about protocol. It reflects a Saudi goal of strengthening relations with countries in the Horn of Africa, which Iran has used to expand its influence to the rest of the continent.
In recent years, Tehran fortified its naval fleet in international waters near the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb. It also cultivated strong security relations with Sudan, which Iran used to supply weapons to Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip via the Sinai Peninsula.
These expanded relations beyond the Middle East have political and security dimensions, especially amid Iranian expansion toward Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.Hassan Al Mustafa
Sudan’s participation in the Arab alliance to support the legitimate Yemeni government, including sending soldiers to Yemen, came after agreements between Riyadh and Khartoum that resulted in Sudan decreasing its military and political cooperation with Tehran.
Observers believe solid diplomatic ties between Riyadh and countries in the Horn of Africa can enhance regional and naval security in the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, limit piracy and the movement of terrorist groups by sea, and control arms-smuggling to Yemen and other conflict zones in the Middle East.
Yemen is important vis-a-vis Riyadh’s relations with these countries, especially that Saudi Arabia is geographically close to Yemen, and there are historical, cultural and commercial ties between them. In addition, many Yemenis reside in Saudi Arabia as merchants or refugees who fled ongoing conflict in their country.
Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh told Al-Riyadh daily: “The role of our country has been made clear since day one as we support Operation Decisive Storm and Renewal of Hope in Yemen. Our stance in supporting the legitimate Yemeni government represented in President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi [had been made clear] before Decisive Storm was even launched.”
South East Asia
According to African sources, Riyadh will also host Somali and Chadian official visits. South East Asian Muslim countries are another vital zone of Saudi interest. In the past few days, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Indonesia and Malaysia - the two countries with the largest Muslim populations - as well as Singapore.
A Saudi analyst says Indonesia and Malaysia are regionally important, and Riyadh is presenting itself as an economic partner and investor in mutually beneficial developmental and industrial projects. Riyadh has offered the same to the countries in the Horn of Africa. According to the analyst, this policy is based on equality and respect.
These expanded relations beyond the Middle East have political and security dimensions, especially amid Iranian expansion toward Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. These countries provide geopolitical depth to Tehran.
However, they suffer from unrest, as well as economic and sectarian problems. Therefore, some analysts say Riyadh’s efforts to develop ties with more stable countries will allow the kingdom to achieve its goals of official partnerships based on international law.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hassan Al Mustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in Middle East and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters.