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.