Arabs and Africa: Lonely Efforts, Little Benefits

Abdelkader Zaoui
Abdelkader Zaoui

Arabs and Africa: Lonely Efforts, Little Benefits

The Arabs should not look at their relations with African countries in the same way they look at relations with any other continent or international group because the African continent represents a natural geographical extension of the Arab world and a strategic depth for its national security.  Moreover, two-thirds of Arab citizens are Africans distributed among ten countries extending from the northern west of the continent to its far east.

​For this reason, it is natural that relations between the two groups with old and continuous cultures have undergone all forms of communication and interaction throughout history. 

The relationships have also witnessed some tensions and conflicts, but most of the time they were characterized by a spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.  It resulted from various aspects of cooperation in the commercial, cultural and spiritual fields, especially after the spread of the Islamic religion into vast African regions at the hands of the Arabs of the north of the continent.

If Western colonialism caused a kind of rupture in the relations of the two parties, rebellion and liberation played a major role in re-weaving their relations again at the bilateral level between countries from each side.

Arab countries such as Egypt contributed after the July Revolution of 1952 while, after its own liberation, Morocco played a major role in helping most of the African liberation movements to gain the independence of their countries. 

A Moroccan initiative with Egyptian support took place in Casablanca in January 1961, which was the first practical step in establishing the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

The political solidarity that laid the first building blocks for cooperative relations between Arab and African countries after independence was further embodied by the support provided by most African countries to the Arabs in their struggle with Israel. 

In a remarkable show of solidarity, most of the countries of the African continent cut their diplomatic relations with Israel after the June 1967 aggression.

The African position in support of the Arab stance during the October 1973 war had an effective impact on the two parties’ tendency to seek to expand their cooperation to other economic, commercial, investment, cultural, educational and other fields and to provide a collective framework for that through the creation of a joint mechanism for consultation and coordination between the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity (the African Union after 1999).

In this context and in response to the calls for the creation of the hoped-for framework for cooperation, the first Arab-African Summit was held in Cairo in March 1977.

That Summit went beyond merely issuing ambitious statements to establishing a set of mechanisms to follow up and implement the political decisions and development projects that had been agreed upon. 

The most prominent of these mechanisms, after the joint summit of leaders, was the Ministerial Council among foreign ministers, and then the Permanent Committee consisting of 24 members sitting as equals.

However, the enthusiasm that followed the Cairo summit soon subsided as a result of political maneuvering by Arab parties that tried either to exercise a kind of guardianship over the African side and monopolize speaking in its name, as was the case of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, or to exploit joint institutions as an arena for plotting by some Arab countries against others, such as the attempt to include and impose the Polisario Front among the representatives of the African side as a defiance against Morocco and against the decisions of the League of Arab States which had refused to recognize this separatist movement.

This apathy was reflected in the regularity of the meetings of Arab and African cooperative mechanisms, as the joint summit meetings were not  held from 1977 in Cairo until 2010 in Tripoli. They have been held since then. In turn, the Follow-up Committee stopped meeting from 1986 to 2001 after abandoning the illusion of forcibly involving the Polisario in Arab-African meetings.

This lethargy that plagued the joint collective mechanisms between the two parties and also affected the proposed cooperative programs was compensated by the development of many bilateral relationships between the two groups.

This trend gained great momentum after what was observed in the international rush for economic and commercial expansion in Africa by major countries such as China as well as countries neighboring the Arab world such as Iran and Turkey that used their religious commonalities with African countries, in addition to the commercial and investment dimensions.

Despite the enormous efforts made unilaterally by most Arab countries with the countries of the African continent, the results of cooperation between the two parties remain below the level of expectations. 

The trade exchange between the two parties does not exceed 5 percent of the volume of foreign trade in Africa and the value of Arab investments in non-Arab African countries did not exceed 4 billion dollars in 2015.

The African side does not hesitate to criticize what some countries receive in terms of Arab aid and donations, considering them to be meager.

There is no doubt that part of the lack of trade exchange between the two sides is due to the competitive nature of the economies of a number of African countries with the economies of their Arab counterparts, especially countries that depend on the export of raw materials.

But most of the reasons lie in the ineffectiveness of the mechanisms established for collective cooperation, which requires abandoning a narrow perspective and acting with a sincere will in order to seriously search for new formulas for integrated cooperation in many fields. 

For example, the African continent can be a source of food security for a number of Arab countries as it contains about 60 percent of the world's fertile lands, of which only about 10 percent are exploited due to the absence of investment to develop the rest of the lands and make them productive.

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