Introduction: A Transregional Approach to Africa and the Middle East

Hisham Aïdi, Columbia University, Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS, Zachariah Mampilly, Baruch College

Africa and the Middle East have been artificially separated into distinct regions in American political science and most area studies. Each region has its own professional associations, its own journals, its own disciplinary preferences and trends.  This division of analytical labor has had significant implications for the ability of both fields to grapple with major real world issues.  The Middle East Studies analysis of the 2011 Arab uprisings, for instance, was so struck by the novelty within the Arab world of Tunisia’s successful revolt that it failed to appreciate the African context of nearly a decade of episodes of major political contention.  The African Studies analysis of wars and contested transitions in countries such as Sudan and Libya failed to appreciate the changing patterns of interventionism which had evolved in the post-uprisings Middle East and how that would affect the trajectory of those cases.

On February 28, 2020, just ahead of the COVID-19 global shutdown, a diverse international group of scholars focused on Africa and the Middle East convened at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to address these questions. The papers, published in this collection, ranged widely over issues connecting West Africa, the Horn, the Sahel and North Africa thematically, politically, militarily and culturally.  The day’s discussions ranged more broadly, exploring the possibilities for systematic and rigorous thinking across artificial regional divides.  Together, they represent an initial foray into conceptualizing a transregional political research agenda.[1] The goal of this volume is to get American political science to break down the barriers between academic subfields defined by regions and open the fields to new questions raised by scholars from and across Africa and the Middle East.

The impetus behind this is both intellectual and practical.  As our framing essay explains, the fields of Middle East Studies and African Studies emerged out of very different ideological and scholarly circumstances, and evolved in very different ways in the decades since.  Where African Studies grew out of the legacies of European colonialism and American racial politics, Middle Eastern Studies evolved from European Orientalism, the American Christian interest in the Holy Land, concern for Israel, and the intensity of Cold War strategic interests. Each area studies field passed through revolutionary moments, before moving into today’s professionalized, methods-driven and more disciplinary focused modes of political science. The divides between these fields are striking. Scholars within each field are far more likely to be conversant with and to draw upon research in that field than to reach out to the other for insights or comparative cases.  Little effort is usually made to justify regional boundaries which are in fact quite arbitrary.  Why, for instance, are the historical connections between the Horn of Africa with Yemen and Oman less significant than those with the African continent?  The artificiality of this division is especially clear with the definition of African Studies in terms of Sub-Saharan Africa, which has left North Africa, Sudan and the Horn in an uneasy position relative to contemporary area studies.

This has real costs. Many present-day issues require a transregional approach to the study of Africa and the Middle East, as this volume demonstrates. The decomposition of the Libyan, Syrian and Iraqi states have strained assumptions about the supposedly higher capacity of Arab states which underpinned one political science claim of why North Africa was different than sub-Saharan Africa.[2]  The spectacular rise in the permeability of borders, non-state ideologies, privatization of state capacities, and proxy wars in Somalia, Libya and Yemen have all highlighted the interconnections across these ostensibly distinct regions.  Each region has nurtured literatures which could better inform analysis in the other. The rise of cross-border non-state financial and ideological networks in Africa, which have produced what Alex de Waal calls a rentier political marketplace, could benefit from a Middle Eastern comparative perspective.[3]  The state failure often associated with Africa below the Sahara, and the rentierism said to afflict Middle Eastern politics, are now widespread across both regions. So too are religious political movements, urgent questions of migration and population displacement, legacies of extreme violence, and the effects of global economic and environmental trends. All of this, and more, calls for a new approach that can make sense of such transregional dynamics without sacrificing depth of area knowledge and grounded research.

A transregional approach that rejects artificial boundaries can highlight the interconnections between labor, goods, capital, security, people, ideas and political dynamics across proximate space, while still recognizing the cultural, historical and economic differences between regions that shape such interactions. In such an approach, North Africa and the Horn become modal sites of study rather than unwanted outliers. Breaking down the divide between regions is not necessarily a progressive move. The War on Terror and the wars in Libya and Mali have brought the Sahara into the purview of American policymakers almost exclusively in security terms. As Islamist networks have expanded into the Sahel and Sahara, American, Britain and French drones and counter-insurgency operations have followed. Thinking through the connections between regions from within the same security-centered frameworks is likely to reproduce many of the problems with existing approaches.

The essays collected in Africa and the Middle East: Beyond the Divides touch upon a wide range of such themes. Together they represent a beginning rather than a culmination of a research agenda. Several themes emerged across the papers:

     1. “The New Great Game”

There is a growing degree of cross-regional intervention in North Africa and the Horn which demands analysis that can take equally seriously the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics and local politics on the ground.  As Federico Donelli describes, in recent years, a new security competition has been playing out in the region, involving the Gulf states, Turkey, and Iran, as well as China (as discussed by Lina Benabdallah), Russia and the United States. Their involvement layers new rivalries and ideological quarrels onto preexisting post-colonial conflicts that have yet to be resolved. For the purposes of this collection, the most intriguing development is the Middle Eastern scramble in the Horn of Africa – and increasingly into north and central Africa. The long-running Saudi/Iranian conflict has in many ways been overtaken by an intra-Sunni and Gulf quarrel (pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar and Turkey).

These rivalries are playing out not only across the Red Sea, where Gulf states have come to see the Somali coastline as their “western security flank” and an integral dimension of their disastrous war in Yemen, but also in North African states such as Libya and Tunisia. These regional geopolitical struggles driven by security considerations, ideological commitments and commercial interests – and aggravated by global warming and food and water insecurity – have spurred a wave of investment in military bases, ports and infrastructure in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. As Samar al-Bulushi describes, the United States, which controls the majority of the world’s foreign military bases, is facing stiff competition in the Horn as an “archipelago of military bases” expands across the region. But the Middle East scramble for Africa is also shaping civil wars, state formation and democratic transitions in, respectively, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.

This is not completely new. During the 1960s, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel were actively involved in African politics, with Nasser supporting liberation movements and socialist governments, and King Faisal, in line with US policy, backing opposition movements (like the Eritrean independence movement) that fought Soviet-sponsored regimes in East Africa. Egypt’s African role faded after Sadat came to power and the “Arab Cold War” ended, although Cairo remained intensely interested in water issues related to the Nile. When King Salman assumed the throne in 2015, the African continent returned to the “priority list,” as Riyadh began looking for new theatres to push back against Iranian influence and as Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought strategic depth for the war in Yemen by building alliances along the Red Sea corridor.[4]

Qatar began to play a role in the Horn of Africa initially as a mediator during the Darfur conflict in the mid-2000s. Once the crisis with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi erupted in June 2017, Doha was increasingly isolated on the continent as Mauritania, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, Niger, Djibouti and Eritrea sided with the Saudi-Emirati axis and downgraded diplomatic relations with Qatar. Shortly thereafter Qatar launched a diplomatic initiative targeting West Africa (the emirate already had strong ties with Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya.) In December 2017, the Qatari emir traveled to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana opening several embassies. The intra-Gulf conflict has prompted a shift in alliances across Central and West Africa.

Turkey has also increasingly intervened in the Horn – mostly economically, as Ezgi Guner shows.  Ankara was one of the earliest investors in Somalia. During the famine of 2011, Turkey was offering humanitarian aid, with Turkish civil society groups building schools and hospitals. When the Shabaab retreated from Mogadishu in 2011, Turkish businesses began appearing. In 2011, Erdogan visited Mogadishu – the first non-African leader to visit since George Bush in 1993. Shortly thereafter, Turkey re-opened its foreign embassy, establishing full diplomatic relations with the Federal Government of Somalia in August 2012. Ankara, like the Gulf states, is scrambling to gain a foothold in the Horn, which it views as an entry to the wider continent and its markets. Turkey is also trying to export its economic development model of “Organized Industrial Zones” to African states.  Its recent military intervention in Libya against forces backed by Egypt and the UAE shows a harder edge to this soft power initiative in Africa.

This Middle Eastern interventionism into the Horn and Northern Africa signals the growing interconnections in security and political dynamics between the regions. Those interventions reflect Middle Eastern power and ideological struggles which may not map well onto African realities but which must be well understood by analysts seeking to make sense of those cases.

     2. Land & Water

Land acquisition has been a critical aspect of the Middle Eastern scramble for Africa.  Nisrin Elamin examines how, in the early 2000s, the Bashir regime in Sudan, while planning for a post-oil economy and the secession of South Sudan, began allowing foreign investors to lease Sudanese land.  Saudi and Emirati companies would come to control over a million acres of land. Nowadays these companies ‘own’ more Sudanese land than all of Sudan’s domestic investors combined. The land-grabbing was accelerated by the intra-Gulf crisis. After June 2017, to shore up its own food security, Qatar began acquiring land in Sudan and Ethiopia. The Sudanese Revolution brought the question of “land justice” and dispossession to the fore as rural demands for land reform and urban calls for economic security converged. Similar concerns have been heard in numerous African countries about Gulf states’ acquisitions of fertile land.

The Nile is also a coveted resource for the Gulf states and “upriver” countries interested in tapping the river for water and electricity. Upriver countries (in particular, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya) are seeking to overturn the 1959 accord between Egypt and Sudan that gave Egypt the lion’s share of Nile water. Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – which is partly financed by China – have been rising as Beijing and the Gulf states are expanding into the Nile Valley, building dams to generate electricity and irrigate industrial farms to produce crops for export to the Middle East and China.[5]  Tensions over the use of the Nile River have been the focus of intense diplomacy in recent years, bringing Egypt more fully and aggressively into the politics to its south.

     3. Civil War and Democracy:

Gulf states have played a positive role as a mediator in tamping down some regional conflicts: Qatar playing a mediating role in Darfur, and helping to negotiate a deal between Eritrea and Djibouti; Saudi Arabia facilitating the peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea, signed (memorably) in Jeddah in September 2018.[6] The financial resources available to the oil states positioned them uniquely to support international mediation initiatives. But their preference for autocratic rule and the escalating conflicts over the role of Islamist movements in politics have raised questions about their role. The internationalization of the Gulf conflicts has had a negative effect across many cases.

Sudan, Somalia and Libya each suggest different pathways for such impacts. As Jean-Baptiste Gallopin observes, in Sudan, Saudi and Emirati backing to the Transitional Military Council (TMC) under the guise of “stability” threatened rather than supported hopes for a democratic transition. Within ten days of Bashir’s ouster, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had promised $3 billion of aid to the new regime. Their interference in the transition has alienated many Sudanese, leading some to even call for removing Sudan from the Arab League. Turkey and Qatar were poorly positioned to take advantage; however, since their identification with Islamist movements regionally represented a particular point of weakness in the context of a popular revolt against the Islamist Bashir regime.

The peace in Somalia is precarious, maintained by an African Union mission. Since 2012, Somalia has been divided into federal states ruled by a fragile central government based in Mogadishu supported by Turkey and Qatar. Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 and is hoping to secede, has sought aid and investment from UAE, as has the state of Puntland. Analysts fear that the Gulf power struggles playing out in Somalia will undermine the UN-led effort to build a Somali national army, before the withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers in 2020.[7] Here, Gulf competition feeds disunity and regional tensions.

The external role in Libya has been the most obviously damaging, as Wolfram Lacher details. The competing Middle Eastern states are backing disparate transnational networks and political actors. Turkey and Qatar are supporting the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia (along with Egypt, Russia and France) are backing the military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. His drive to capture Tripoli was fueled by UAE arms, while his recent military collapse came from direct and indirect Turkish military intervention. Gulf rivalries here have exacerbated the conflict and hindered efforts to consolidate a central state. Libya’s ongoing civil war has had broader cross-regional effects as well, destabilizing Mali and, as Zekeria Ahmed and Alex Thurston demonstrate, pushing Maghrebian regimes (Moroccan, Algeria and Mauritania) to be increasingly involved in the Sahel.

     4. New Identity Movements:

The Moroccan and Algerian regimes “pivot to Africa” is prompted by numerous factors – the security dilemma in the Sahel post-Gaddafi, reduced access to European markets, and a desire to be China’s partner on the continent. The turn to Africa and the official embrace of pan-African discourse in Morocco and Algeria has created an opening for long-standing social movements that claim a non-Arab identity, in particular of “indigenous” (Amazigh) and “Afro” (black) identity movements that contest Arabist ideology, and challenge the Arab nationalist character of the North African states. As Aïdi reports, Amazigh movements in Morocco and Algeria face varying degrees of repression, but have achieved successes in terms of language and educational policy.

Their greatest impact may be at the level of discourse, as Amazigh activists press civil society and state officials to define Arab and Amazigh, and what constitutes an “Arab state.” In 2019, activists in the Maghreb keenly followed protests in Sudan against Gulf states meddling and the Nubian revival against Arab-Islamist hegemony. Noah Salomon describes how a decolonized archeology is emerging in revolutionary Sudan aiming to dislodge the northern-centrism that has afflicted the country for generations, hoping to produce a more inclusive historical narrative. He notes the irony that while the Nubian/Kushite revival is a response to the dominant discourse of Islam and Arabism, the new archeology project is partly funded by the Emir of Qatar, a strong supporter of Islamist politics in Sudan.[8]

The turn to Africa, increased migratory flows from West and Central Africa, and Tunisia’s democratic transition have also inspired anti-racist campaigns in the Maghreb. In October 2018, Tunisia passed a law calling for the “Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” and defending the rights of the purported 10 percent of Tunisians who identify as black. Afifa Ltifi examines how the assimilationist and color-blind policies of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regime have affected black Tunisians, focusing on names and naming practices as a legacy of slavery.  In response to EU pressure and a desire for better relations with ECOWAS states, Morocco is trying to liberalize migration law, launching “regularization” campaigns in 2014 and 2017, whereby undocumented migrants gained residency cards. Algeria, in July 2017, began a similar regularization effort. In Morocco, there are television shows and radio programs trying to sensitize people to racism.

A Way Forward 

The essays in this volume, and the POMEPS workshop on which they were based, represent only a first step towards sketching out a transregional approach.  As Alex de Waal notes in the conclusion, more Middle East specialists now need to be brought into the conversation. More comparative research between “Middle Eastern” and “African” cases needs to be supported.[9] The nature, intensity and significance of the flows of people, goods, capital, ideas and weapons need to be thoroughly integrated into the study of both sides of the alleged divide. And the right balance between methodological rigor and deeply informed field research needs to nurtured and sustained.  The workshop and this collection, then, is only the beginning, with much more to be done to bring these scholarly communities into sustained dialogue.




[1] Middell, Thomas. 2017. “Are Transregional Studies the Future of Area Studies?” In Katja Mielke and Anna-Katharina Hornidge, eds. Area Studies at the Crossroads: Knowledge Production after the Mobility Turn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2]Lisa Anderson, “The Retreat of the State in the Middle East and North Africa,” (Manuscript, May 2020); Ariel Ahram and Ellen Lust, “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State,” Survival 58, no. 2 (2016): 7-34.

[3] Alex de Waal, “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace?” World Peace Foundation, August 20, 2018; Alex De Waal et al, “Africa’s Civil Wars Are Not Domestic Issues. They Are Really Regional Nightmares,” (Oct 22 2019)

[4] International Crisis Group, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact Report # 206, Brussels (September 19 2019)

[5] “Farming the World: China’s Epic Race to Avoid a Food Crisis,” Bloomberg (May 22 2017)

[6] “International Crisis Group, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact Report # 206, Brussels (September 19 2019)

[7] Alex de Waal, “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace?” World Peace Foundation, August 20, 2018 “Ethiopia says re-opening roads to Eritrea’s Red Sea ports a priority, ” Reuters (July 11 2018)

[8] “Qatar Gives $135 Million to Sudan for Archaeological Projects,” (May 27 2014)

[9] For good recent examples of such work, see Quinn Mecham, Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Matt Buehler, Why Alliances Fail: Islamist and Leftist Coalitions in North Africa (Syracuse University Press, 2018).