On Thursday, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou traveled to Saudi Arabia (French) accompanied by his wife and several major cabinet ministers. On the trip he has been meeting with Saudi royalty, including King Abdullah, as well as religious leaders, government officials, and businessmen. The trip focuses broadly on improving bilateral relations and in particular on encouraging Arab investment in Niger. Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has attracted investors from different parts of the world – most notably, French companies in the uranium sector and Chinese participation in the petroleum sector.
In his remarks to Saudi Arabian businessmen Issoufou stressed agriculture, natural resources, and infrastructure as major investment opportunities. Talk of Arab investment in sub-Saharan African agriculture will sound alarm bells for some, who warn of an Arab “land grab” on the continent, but there are other ways to understand relations between Niger and Saudi Arabia.
It was interesting to read about Council of Saudi Chambers Chairman Abdullah Al-Mobty’s emphasis on historical linkages between Niger and Saudi Arabia:
Earlier in his opening remarks, Al-Mobty said the two countries enjoy friendly relations based on common understanding and feelings of fraternity. He recalled the historical visit of the late King Faisal, who went to open the first Arabic school in Niger in 1962. He said that the current ambassador of Niger in the Kingdom is a graduate of that school.
I have not found documentation of the 1962 visit but Faisal, as King, did make a high-profile visit to Niger, Chad, Uganda, Senegal, and Mauritania in 1972, a period when Saudi Arabia’s international leadership, especially in the Muslim world, was growing. Israel had defeated Egypt in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abd al Nasser (a rival of the Saudis for leadership in the Arab world) had died in 1970, and Saudi oil wealth was growing. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the resulting oil embargo, many sub-Saharan African states strengthened relations with the Arab world even more, and in most cases broke relations with Israel as well. Niger was one such country. After the 1974 coup, Niger strengthened its ties to the Arab world and its self-presentation as an Islamic country (for more, especially about how graduates of Arab universities played a role as diplomatic links between Niger and Arab countries, see Abdoulaye Niandou Souley’s article in the 1993 collection that bears the somewhat misleading title Le radicalisme islamique au sud du Sahara).
This does not mean that Nigerien-Arab relations, or Nigerien-Israeli relations (restored in 1996, but broken again in 2002), have been static since the 1970s. Nor am I suggesting that either side is operating without calculation – now as in the 1970s, Niger needs investment, and Saudi Arabia wants political allies as well as investment opportunities. But I am saying that the Nigerien-Saudi Arabian relationship is a multi-dimensional one with a significant history. It will be interesting to see what comes of Issoufou’s visit.