Sahel force funding shows Saudi serious on terrorism fight

French connection. Saudi foreign affairs minister Adel al-Jubeir (L) and French foreign affairs minister Jean Yves Le Drian ahead of the G5 Sahel Anti-Terror Coalition Summit in Paris, on December 13. (AFP)


2017/12/24 Issue: 137 Page: 3




Paris- Saudi Arabia’s hefty dona­tion to a new anti-terror force in West Africa’s Sahel region is a conspicuous at­tempt by Riyadh to show it is serious about fighting extremism, analysts said.

The G5 Sahel force pools troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Maurita­nia and Niger in an area of desert the size of Europe where extremist groups have been thriving.

Money had been a major obsta­cle to getting it off the ground, meaning Riyadh’s pledge of $118 million is a relief for for­mer colonial power France, which has spearheaded the project.

Saudi watchers say getting involved serves twin pur­poses for Riyadh: countering accusations that it finances extremism and consolidating influence in a region where it has invested for years.

“Fighting terrorism and extremism with zero toler­ance is our priority,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir told Le Monde news­paper on December 14.

The United Arab Emirates, also keen to demonstrate its commitment to fighting ex­tremism, has offered an ad­ditional $35 million to the fledgling force.

The cash puts total fund­ing past the initial nearly $300 million needed to get the force up and running following its maiden mis­sion in November in the volatile border zone linking Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The Saudi contribution is “very important,” said a source close to the talks where the donations were announced December 13 following a summit hosted by French Presi­dent Emmanuel Macron.

“The Saudis have always been suspected of financing terrorism. We’ve said to them: ‘Take part in some kind of multilateral coop­eration and that suspicion will be lifted,’” the source said.

Riyadh had accusations that it ex­ports a radical form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, by funding Quranic schools, mosques and charity groups around the world.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, howev­er, is seeking to rein in the influence of religious ultra-conservatives in the kingdom, which has been hit by multiple attacks blamed on extrem­ists.

Crown Prince Mohammed has presented himself as a champion of moderate Islam as he seeks to modernise Saudi Arabia. In November, he inaugurated a military coalition of 40 Muslim countries, vowing to “pursue terrorists until they are wiped from the face of the Earth.”

Riyadh is also a mem­ber of the US-led anti-ji­hadist coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria.

“Saudi Arabia has an interest both in combating violent ji­hadi movements and in being seen to do so,” said Jane Kin­ninmont, a senior research fellow at British think-tank Chatham House.

“This isn’t entirely new under [Crown Prince Moham­med].”

“Saudi leaders have been aware of the risks of transnational vio­lent Islamist movements for a long time — especially since 9/11 and since al-Qaeda start­ed to attack Saudi Arabia in 2003,” Kinninmont said.

Diplomatic interests are at play, too, in yielding to French pressure to join the project, Kinninmont said.

“France’s ties with the Gulf have been growing for years and as the UK prepares to leave the EU, France is likely to become the new best friend of the Gulf states within the EU,” she said.

Florent Geel, Africa director at the International Federation for Human Rights, said the Saudis, like Qatar, “have been investing a lot in the Sahel for ten to 15 years — in mosques, in social projects.”

He asserted this was a form of “Wahhabist expansionism to coun­ter Sufism,” the mystic form of Is­lam widespread in the Sahel, saying the Saudis had “financed a form of radicalisation.”

Nicolas Desgrais, a researcher at the University of Kent in England who specialises in military coop­eration in the Sahel, said Riyadh had been cultivating influence in Burkina Faso for years.

“In Burkina, the Saudis have been involved for many years via associations, free clinics, Quranic schools — to the point of replacing public policy,” he said.

Burkinabe authorities have been trying to crack down on Saudi influ­ence, he added, but the kingdom’s involvement in the Sahel force may provide fresh opportunities to in­crease its clout.

“This financial contribution from Riyadh to the G5 Sahel force could perhaps reopen doors that were closing,” he said.

(Agence France-Presse)


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