As tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated Thursday, a growing number of Muslim countries in East Africa have started to choose sides. Sudan, Djibouti and now Somalia are standing by Riyadh and cutting ties with Tehran, a move that signals a shift away from Iranian influence in the region and a firm alignment with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni kingdom.
But while these African countries will likely lose out on modest aid, arms deals and other support from their relationships with Tehran, political and religious experts said Riyadh might be offering incentives in return for their allegiance.
“Cutting all these ties will definitely have economic implications, and of course someone needs to come in and fill that void,” Terje Ostebo, director of the Center for Global Islamic Studies and an associate professor in religion and African studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “There’s probably an economic package behind this. I would not be surprised if there were promises of financial support in return for severing ties with Iran.”
The regional struggle for political and religious influence between Saudi Arabia and its foe Iran has played out for years. The two Middle East powers are supporting opposite sides in Syria's civil war, and Riyadh blames Tehran for the conflict in Yemen. Their relations took a turn for the worse Monday when Saudi Arabia announced it was severing ties with Iran following an attack last weekend on its embassy in the Iranian capital, Tehran, during protests against the execution of a Shiite cleric. Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia followed suit, but the shift away from Iran is sharpest in Khartoum.
“Perhaps no other country in Africa has the decline of Iranian influence been more dramatic than in Sudan,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
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Until recently, the government in Sudan's capital Khartoum was closer with Tehran than with Riyadh. Sudan enjoyed arms deals with Shiite-led Iran for many years. Iranians trained Sudanese intelligence forces and helped Khartoum build its own weapons industry.
In return, Iran manufactured weapons on Sudanese soil and used the Sunni majority nation as a channel to ship arms to Shia Islamic militant groups in Gaza and Lebanon. As a result, Israeli war planes allegedly bombed Sudanese military targets numerous times in 2009 and 2012, according to Sudan’s government, though Israel hasn’t officially confirmed the attacks. Khartoum also hosted Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic group Hamas for training in 2013.
Around that time, Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia barred Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir from flying over its territory on his way to Tehran, and some Saudi banks suspended dealings with Sudan. Since then, Sudan has shuttered Iran’s cultural centers in Khartoum and provincial capitals, and Bashir joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Sudan broke off relations with Iran the same day Saudi Arabia made its announcement. Khartoum’s move marks the final break with Tehran and most likely the end of any remaining arms deals, political experts said. Iran may provide weapons, but Saudi Arabia houses more than half a million Sudanese expatriates who represent millions of dollars in remittances, a vital source of hard currency to an African nation deeply entrenched in poverty.
“Iran’s ability to use diplomatic missions as a chance for nondiplomatic activities in the region will certainly be very much hampered,” Pham said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Djibouti came next, following in nearby Sudan’s footsteps Wednesday. “Djibouti cut its diplomatic ties with Iran out of solidarity with Saudi Arabia,” Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf said, according to Iran’s Press TV. The tiny, predominately Sunni country in the Horn of Africa is a strategic port on the Gulf of Aden situated at the mouth of the Red Sea across from Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are supporting rival sides in a deadly civil war.
In exchange for minimal aid and trade agreements, Tehran has used Djibouti as a conduit to transport supplies to the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group that took control over Yemen’s capital in 2014 and forced the Saudi-backed Sunni-led government into exile. By aligning with Saudi Arabia, Djibouti will serve as a key position for Riyadh on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and it may get economic deals in return. Saudi Arabia is already a top export destination of Djibouti.
“It’s an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to extend its influence further into the Red Sea area,” Ostebo said.
Somalia announced its decision Thursday to cut diplomatic ties with Iran, ordering all Iranian diplomats and embassy staff out of the country within 72 hours. Somalia’s foreign minister did not mention the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia but said the step was taken “in response to the Republic of Iran’s continuous interference in Somalia’s internal affairs,” the Associated Press reported.
Bordered by the Gulf of Aden to the north, Somalia is located along one of Iran’s primary shipping routes and has received modest aid from Tehran. In recent years, Iran has docked its navy in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia to curtail piracy and protect Iranian shipping. While Iran has tried to gain a stronger foothold in Somalia, political experts said relations between the two countries have remained minimal and not without conflict. Mogadishu has repeatedly accused Tehran of supporting Islamic insurgent groups in Somalia.
“The Somali national government has enjoyed modest aid from Iran and loses that if ties are cut, but little else,” said Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist at North Carolina’s Davidson College who focuses on the Horn of Africa.
Somalis, who are almost entirely Sunni Muslims, have also had a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest site. Many live in or frequently travel to the desert country, so Mogadishu residents were likely not surprised by the announcement to cut ties with Iran.
“Somalis like Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of Somalis live in Saudi Arabia, not Tehran,” said Hussien Mohamed, a freelance journalist based in the capital city. When asked about his position on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Hussein said: “I’m neutral.”