London's new African best friends

Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania are to form “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” with the UK. But this odd collection of new partners has one thing in common: all have oil or gas deposits.

“I want to get away from the narrative of coups and corruption,” Britain’s African Minister, Mark Simmonds told businessmen, as they tucked into a full English breakfast at Simpsons on the Strand.

It was the Minister’s chance to provide the first glimpse of what is being described as “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” in Africa. A full launch will take place (this evening) at Glazier’s Hall, on the bank of the Thames, appropriately looking North to the City of London. The initiative is being sold by the Foreign Office as a “cross government initiative”. Led by the Foreign Office it will include the ministry’s commercial arm, UK Trade and Investment and has the backing of the development ministry, DFID.

The government has singled out are Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania for this treatment. Each has agreed to put up a named minister with whom Britain can link up, to develop trade and investment.

So what about London’s traditional "best friends" on the continent – Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa? “We have a big footprint there already,” a spokesman told the New Statesman. “The idea is to work with business to develop new markets.”

This odd collection of new partners has one thing in common: all have oil or gas deposits. Angola has long been a major partner for BP. Ghana is important for London-based Tullow oil. Mozambique and Tanzania both have gas fields. So too does Cote d'Ivoire. As the North Sea runs down Africa is becoming an important source of hydrocarbons and an excellent place for Britain to sell its oil expertise.

The list also raises other questions. What role will DFID play in these relationships? Justine Greening, Britain’s development minister, will be at the launch. The suggestion that aid money would be used for military ends has already raised eyebrows. Should it now be channelled into winning new markets?

And what of the choice of partners? Mozambique is facing a fresh challenge from the Renamo rebels, who have begun attacking government targets. Mark Simmonds said this morning that he’d personally phoned President Armando Guebuza, calling on him to spread Mozambique’s wealth more evenly and allow room for dialogue.

Angola, which is reputed to be among the most corrupt and least equal country on the continent, also presents difficulties. There is little room for dissent and journalists have been routinely beaten up and jailed. Responding to the news that Angola was to be on the list, Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch tweeted: “Angola?? Presumably the criteria for the partnership doesn't include transparency or respect for media and civil society.”

Tanzania and Ghana present fewer government issues, but Cote d'Ivoire is just emerging from an appallingly divisive civil war. Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s former president, is now in the Hague, facing charges before the International Criminal Court.

Africa has grown rapidly in the last decade and there are certainly greater opportunities for trade and investment. This has been seized on by China, which is moving rapidly to shoulder older partners from Europe and the United States out of the way. Developing a “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” backed by diplomatic muscle and with the wheels oiled with aid funding is David Cameron’s answer to this emerging challenge.

An oil platform off the Angolan coast. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.