The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has hosted its first ever Africa summit, underscoring Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MbS) growing focus on the continent.

Leaders from more than 50 countries gathered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Friday, November 11, for the first Saudi-African Summit aimed at further developing relations and co-operation between the KSA and countries in Africa, and promoting strategic partnerships.

Leaders who attended the summit included the presidents of Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Djibouti and Mauritania, the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Niger, and the foreign minister of Egypt.

In a joint "Riyadh Declaration", they called for a halt to military operations in the occupied Palestinian territories and for civilians to be protected, the state Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

The KSA appointed a Secretary of State for African affairs in 2018 and has been actively involved in the region by providing counter-terrorism support to G5 countries and participating in peace negotiations in Sudan.

As part of its Vision 2030 plan to overhaul its economy, the KSA has pledged to invest about $25bn in Africa by the end of the decade.

Saudi exports to the continent worth $10bn will be financed and insured until 2030, and the Saudi Fund for Development will finance development projects worth about $5bn in the same time frame, SPA added, noting that more than 50 deals and preliminary agreements were signed during the summit in fields such as tourism, energy, finance, mining and logistics.

Africa is becoming increasingly important in world politics as a result of the clash between the East and the West in an increasingly fractured world, as well as the progress the continent has made in its own development. Both China and Russia have increased their focus on wooing the Global South as they look for more non-aligned allies in the showdown with Washington and Brussels.

The upshot has been an increasing number of conferences and the expansion of various non-Western institutions. The BRICS organisation has been expanded to the BRICS+ that now includes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Likewise, at the G20 summit in August, led by India, the African Union was made a member.

At the same time, politics in the Middle East has been developing rapidly as old rivals put aside their differences in a process that is being actively led by MbS. Amongst the more significant changes was the KSA and Iran reconciliation earlier this year, when they re-established diplomatic relations after an eight-year hiatus. Also Syria’s readmission to the Arab League this year was in the same vein. And a mooted reconciliation between KSA and Israel was seen as a major advancement, but that initiative has been stymied by the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas that has seen tensions in the Middle East soar.

The first Saudi-African summit demonstrates KSA’s commitment to Africa in two significant ways, according to Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

“Firstly, it includes new investment pledges, with the Public Investment Fund (PIF) committing capital. These investments encompass $500mn in new projects, including $158mn allocated for the development of hospitals and dams in Mozambique, highlighting Saudi Arabia's investment in crucial African infrastructure,” Ramani said.

“Secondly, Saudi Arabia is emphasising its leadership in Arab-African relations. The concept of "Afrabia" is gaining traction in Saudi media, emphasising the nation's role in fostering stronger ties between the Arab world and Africa. This summit is the first Arab-African gathering since Kuwait hosted one in 2013 and builds upon Egypt's vision from 1977,” Ramani added.

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic outreach to military juntas in Africa is another notable aspect of the conference. The presence of Gabon's Brice Nguema at the summit is significant, with discussions about potentially lifting sanctions. Interestingly, the African Development Bank (AfDB) lifted sanctions concurrently with Nguema's visit to Riyadh.

While Saudi Arabia's aspirations in Africa are evident, it's worth noting that it trails behind the UAE in terms of investment and Turkey in various soft power endeavours, such as educational diplomacy. Nonetheless, this summit underscores MbS’ vision of integrating Africa into Saudi Arabia's multipolar foreign policy agenda, says Ramani.

MbS is hoping to position KSA as a key player in the evolving dynamics of Arab-African relations while reaffirming its dedication to the continent's development and co-operation.

Nigeria signs off on KSA oil investment deal

And MbS is putting his money where his mouth is. On the sidelines of the summit Nigeria and Saudi Arabia signed off on a series of big investment and co-operation deals.

The agreements, negotiated during a bilateral meeting between Nigerian President Bola Tinubu and MbS, follow on from Tinubu’s ambitious reforms since he took office, including the removal of a popular petrol subsidy and the unification of the country's multiple exchange rates.

KSA’s Information Minister Mohammed Idris said that the Kingdom would make a “substantial foreign exchange deposit” to bolster Nigeria's flagging currency and that the Saudi government, through the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, will invest in the overhaul of Nigeria's four outdated state-owned refineries in the next two to three years.

Tinubu told delegates at the summit that Nigeria offers "some of the world's highest returns on investment".

Earlier in the week, the two countries signed a MoU aimed at enhancing co-operation in the oil and gas industry, further strengthening their economic ties at the Saudi-Arab-African Economic Conference in Riyadh.

At the same conference, Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, signed agreements with Chad, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal. These were across a range of different sectors, including oil and gas and innovation.

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