Iran vs Saudi Arabia: The New Scramble for Africa


    1.0 Introduction

    Iran vs Saudi Arabia is no new phenomenon. Yet international focus on their rivalry is often limited to the Persian Gulf and the Levant. With numerous Muslim-Majority nations, untapped oil and uranium reserves, and geo-strategic locations, Africa offers equal if not greater rewards to both actors if they gain a competitive advantage.

    This article will examine Iran vs Saudi Arabia via the use of ideological proxies in West Africa, the formation of strategic alliances in the Horn of Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb.

    2.0 Battles for Leadership: Iran vs Saudi Arabia

    Despite pronounced Sunni-Shiite differences, the period after the formation of Saudi Arabia and prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was not characterised by overt hostility [source]. Saudi and Iranian rivalry started in earnest after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The revolution brought to power an Islamist regime in Iran that challenged the Saudi claim to the mantle of Islam. Not least, mutual attempts at outmanoeuvring the other through ideological posturing and support for proxies in other countries. In fact, Iran’s revolutionary regime was the very antithesis of the Saudi monarchy. It promoted a radical, republican, and Third World articulation of political Islam, which it sought to spread by promoting revolution abroad [source].

    In response, Saudi Arabia attempted to contain Iran ideologically. The former achieved this somewhat by financing like-minded clerics and seminaries throughout the Muslim world [source]. Fearing Iranian expansionism, Saudi Arabia supported hostile Sunni regimes that surrounded Iran. Chiefly Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which fought a gruesome war with Iran from 1980-88.

    2.1 Rapprochement: An Equilibrium of Sorts?

    By the 1990s, Saudi perception of Iran cooled. The 1979 Iranian Revolution had failed to inspire similar uprisings elsewhere. Not to mention, Iran’s policy of exporting revolution ended when Ali Kahmenei succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. This transfer of power afforded Iran’s political leaders the space to pursue a more conciliatory approach towards Saudi Arabia.

    Of note, Iran’s ability to interfere in regional affairs diminished due to several factors:

    • Threat from Saddam’s regime remained on Iran’s western frontier. Even after Baghdad’s foiled invasion of Kuwait and the 1994 Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq.
    • While hostile towards Saddam, the Saudi regime preferred Iraq be ruled by a stable, predominantly Sunni regime in lieu of a Shiite-led government.
    • In 1994, Prince Abdullah, future King of Saudi Arabia, stressed to Iranian diplomats that the success of any reconciliation efforts with Iran depended on Iraq’s stability.
    • By 1996, Saudi’s policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan had succeeded. In the latter, the Taliban overran the Shiite-dominated area of Hazarajat, hitherto a training ground for Pakistani Shiite militias. It compelled Iran to cease funding of Pakistani Shiite groups.

    [Source], [source].

    However, Iran did succeed in achieving lasting influence in Lebanon through the creation of Lebanese Hezbollah (LH). Saudi Arabia was unable to challenge LH due to Syria’s military presence in Lebanon. With neither country able to challenge the political balance between its actual or potential proxies in other Muslim countries, Saudi-Iranian rapprochement became possible.

    2.2 Destabilisation of Political Balance post-2003

    The fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 set in motion the deterioration of Saudi-Iranian relations. Minus Syria, political power in the Arab world had historically been strongly concentrated in Sunni hands. This included the Shiite-majority Iraq, where Saddam’s regime was perceived as a Sunni bulwark against Iran [source]. Yet Saddam’s removal ensured the political empowerment of Shiites in Iraq. It rendered the Sunni Arab regimes fearful of Shiite emergence stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

    However, Iranian domination in Iraqi politics was largely unchallenged. King Abdullah had agreed with then-President George W. Bush that Saudi Arabia would not intervene in Iraq. Of course, this acceptance was contingent on a continued US military presence in Iraq. In 2006, however, the Iraq Study Group recommended that the US withdraw from Iraq. This received a particular scornful response from Saudi Arabia who pledged to intervene militarily in Iraq to protect Sunnis from Shiites militias [source].

    It equally stoked fears amongst Saudi’s monarchy. Concerned as it was with the prospect of internal unrest among Wahhabi hard-liners who resented the Saudi-US alliance and perceived inaction on Iraq [source].

    3.0 Locked in a Stalemate

    In the years since, Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia has only exacerbated with key developments:

    Timeline dated 2015-2017 documenting Iran and Saudi's rivalry.

    4.0 The Battleground: Iran and Saudi Arabia in Africa

    4.1 East Africa

    4.1.1 Sudan: Iran vs Saudi Arabia

    Prior to the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran and Sudan established a co-operative military and intelligence-sharing relationship.

    – The Middle East Institute, 2019 [source].

    In 2008, Sudan and Iran signed a military co-operation agreement. After which Iran modernised the Sudanese arms industry and moored warships in Port Sudan, close to Jeddah and Mecca. As a result, Sudan became a major transhipment point for Iranian arms re-supply to its external partners in Gaza and Lebanon, primarily Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah [source]. Further, it provided Iran a gateway for smuggling arms and supplies to Houthi rebels fighting Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

    4.1.2 Sudan: Saudi Arabia’s Influence

    As a result, in 2014, Saudi Arabia suspended banking cooperation with Sudan [source]. In response, Sudan closed Iranian cultural centres. It accused them of Shiite proselytism in a bid to regain financial favour with Saudi and UAE following the 2011 secession of oil-rich South Sudan [source]. Sudan, in 2015, also joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. It offered troops and mercenaries to limit the spread of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In so doing, Saudi made a $1b deposit to Sudan’s central bank to stabilise its foreign exchange reserves [source].

    Beyond financial inducements, Saudi Arabia also used its diplomatic leverage to win Sudan’s alliance. It pledged to help Sudan break out its diplomatic isolation. As part of its pledge, Saudi led a push to overcome the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes and genocide in Darfur [source]. However, as of October 2023, Iran and Sudan had resumed diplomatic ties [source].

    Fig. 3 Saudi Arabia’s Humanitarian and Relief Agency, KSrelief, operating in Port Sudan [source].

    4.1.2 Eritrea

    Historically, Eritrea was also previously a flash-point between Iran and Israel. With the former having used its territory for transit of Hamas-bound supplies from the maritime base in Assab to limit the Arab Gulf states’ influence. In the North, Israel reportedly established a listening post and naval supply base for Israeli submarines. In 2009, Israel launched a drone attack, allegedly from Eritrean territory, killing several Iranian Revolutionary Guards traveling with a convoy in Sudan that was attempting to smuggle arms to Gaza [source]. 

    Eritrea thus became a strategic asset, affording Iran a foothold in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden [source]. Access to Eritrea, coupled with control of Yemen’s Red Sea coast through to the Houthis, enhanced Iran’s influence in the Bal al-Mandeb strait.

    The pragmatic strategic alliance between Eritrea and Iran stemmed from three key developments:

    • The linkage that emerged at the beginning of the 21st century between the Somali irredentist threat and the unresolved Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict.
    • Eritrea’s failure to follow US counterterrorism/ GWOT policy in Somalia.
    • The unintended consequence of isolating Eritrea diplomatically allowed Iran to open a southern/western flank against flank against Israel and Saudi Arabia.


    4.1.3 Present-Day Significance

    In the contemporary moment, Israel’s presence in Eritrea is limited albeit influential. The International Institute for Iranian Studies found that the American Stratford Agency’s disclosure of information in 2012 confirmed the presence of Israeli naval units in the Dahlak Archipelago and Msawi Port. Not least, an Israeli monitoring post in the Amba Sweira mountains. All of which aimed to gather intelligence on any unusual activitities in the Rea Sea, especially by Iran. Although it is worth recalling that these claims remain widely disputed [source].

    4.1.3 Djibouti and Somalia

    Given their proximity to Yemen, Iran previously used territory in Somalia and Djibouti to supply arms to the Houthis.

    However, modest Iranian development aid meant this arrangement was less than favourable to Somalia and Djibouti. With the former accusing Iran of implementing a subversive agenda under the guise of humanitarian efforts and supporting Somali extremists [source].

    Consequently, in January 2016, both African states suspended diplomatic ties with Iran. It came after Iran’s attack on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran. It was viewed as retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nemr Al Nemr, for terrorism.

    In 2016, discussions were underway between Riyadh and Djibouti for the signing of a comprehensive bilateral security agreement, including the return of a long-term Saudi military base to Djibouti. By 2017, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti formally agreed to the construction of a military base in the East African state [source].

    4.1.4 Tanzania and the Comoros

    Iran has a growing trade relationship with Tanzania, with exports crowing substantially after the pandemic [source]. Their relationship also extends to occasional military engagement. Under a Tanzania-Iran agreement on naval training, in 2016, Iranian warships docked at Dar-es-Salaam. It signaled an increasing Iranian focus on Tanzania as a substitute after setbacks in the Horn of Africa [source].

    However, following the Iranian Naval agreement, Saudi Arabia declared Tanzania a priority country for trade and investment [source]. Tanzanian officials continuously seek Saudi investment in their economy and especially the agricultural sector [source].

    On the Comoros, the current president, Azali Assoumani, has strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia and marginalised the previously pro-Iranian parties [source].

    4.2 West African and Sahelian States

    4.2.1 Nigeria

    Nigeria is host to the majority of Africa’s Sunni Muslim population. Sunni President Muhammadu Buhari governs the country, and the Salafist extremist group Boko Haram operates throughout. Caught in a bind between two poles of Nigeria’s Sunni Islamic community, Nigeria’s Shiite minority finds itself increasingly under threat. Iran has attempted to justify interference in Nigeria’s domestic affairs on the grounds that it is the legitimate custodian of the security of its fellow Shiites.

    Closely tied to Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) [source], the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), in addition to launching attacks, also has educational and communications outreach programmes [source]. LH operatives are also suspected of money laundering, weapons smuggling, and drug trafficking in Nigeria through corporations and car dealerships [source]. More recently, Iran directed LH to train more Nigerians to utilise the country as a base to launch attacks against Western and Israeli targets [source].

    4.2.2 Coastal West African States

    LH already has a foothold in West Africa due to the presence of a large Lebanese diaspora. LH uses the diamond and drug trade to fund and supply arms to the group in Lebanon across:

    • Guinea
    • Togo
    • Guinea-Bissau
    • Sierra Leone
    • Côte d’Ivoire

    [Source], [source].

    4.2.3 Burkina Faso and Mali

    In conversation with Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister, Olivia Rouamba, Iran expressed its ‘readiness to transfer its experiences and achievements’ [source]. Rouamba reportedly re-iterated her country’s commitment to ‘bolstering mutual cooperation with Iran’ [source].

    In 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Bamako, championing Mali’s ‘significant status’ in Tehran’s foreign policy [source], [source].

    However, both countries also sent letters to Saudi’s King Salman in a bid to foster diplomatic relations, but actual engagement presently proves low [source].

    4.3 North Africa

    4.3.1 Algeria

    Algeria is regarded as a vital ‘launching pad’ for Iranian penetration onto the continent. Both countries resumed diplomatic relations in 2000, with Algeria voicing support for the Iranian nuclear programme. Moreover, Algeria has remained neutral in Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Qatar. Algeria has also refused to join the military coalition against the Houthis. It is also not a member of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance.

    Of equal note, Algeria and Iran are both sympathetic to the Polisario Front’s claim to Western Sahara. In early 2023, Die Welt, a national German broadsheet newspaper uncovered a Hawala network. (A method of transferring money without using traditional banks). The network operated from Spain and the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. Reports suggest that the network maintains close contacts with Polisario, Iran, Lebanon, and Hezbollah [source], [source].

    5.0 Iran vs Saudi Arabia: The Future?

    It appears likely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will both continue make encroachments across the African continent in a bid to mitigate the other’s influence.

    In July 2023, Iran finalised five memorandums with Kenya in the fields of technology and communication, fisheries, animal health, livestock production, and investment promotion. Of particular significance, Iran is expected to build a motor vehicle assembly plant in Mombasa to manufacture Iranian vehicles [source].

    Further, on 9 November 2023, Saudi Arabia signed over $533 million USD worth of agreements with African countries during the Saudi-Arab-African Economic Conference. While the move was ostensibly a product of Saudi’s desire to diversify its economy, it is also perceived as a counter to the presence of Iranian-backed proxies.

    6.0 Conclusion: Iran’s Embittered Retreat to Africa?

    Although Iran vs Saudi Arabia is an affair long-standing, it has been exacerbated in recent months. One causative factor is a more aggressive stance by Washington, at least rhetorically, to challenge Iran’s regional power projection. Not to mention, a more robust Saudi foreign policy is being pursued under the leadership of Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    Although Iran uses Somalia as a smuggling transshipment point for its arms and material support to the Houthis in Yemen. The struggle for influence in East Africa has largely been decided in favour of Saudi and its Gulf allies.

    Increasingly, Saudi and Iran have both shifted their focus to West Africa. With the former seeking to diversify its economy and counter Gulf intervention. By contrast, Iran ensures its Shiite stronghold via the deployment of its proxies. Although the Muslim populations of West Africa are predominantly Sunni, and thus inclined to favour Saudi Arabia. Iran capitalises on the loyalties of the large Lebanese community in the region. A community which is heavily Shiite and has historic support for Hezbollah.

    Alex Purcell
    Alex Purcell
    Alex is a Junior Intelligence Analyst, specialising in West Africa and the Sahel. She holds a BA in International Politics with French from the University of London Institute in Paris. She is currently pursuing an MA in International Affairs, specialising in Espionage and Surveillance at King's College London. Her research interests include African security affairs, the Middle East, and (military) defence intelligence.

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