The influence of international players has been a constant feature of North Africa’s history. Looking at the nature and scope of this phenomenon is crucial to understand the current geopolitical landscape of the region. The diplomatic historian Carl Brown once famously described the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as being “the most penetrated international relations sub-system in today’s world”, stressing the recurrent interventions by foreign powers in the political, economic and security realms of many regional states.
Historically, foreign meddling has relied on a mixed array of tools based on both hard and soft power approaches. U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye, who first introduced the concept of soft power in 1990, defined it as a type of “co-optive” power which, unlike forms of hard power ranging from military force to economic sanctions and coercive diplomacy, “occurs when one country gets other countries to want what it wants” and relies on the persuasive potential of “intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions”. Nye’s theory of power can provide a useful lens to understand the present involvement of foreign actors in north Africa, which has been developing along three different but often intertwined paths: politics and culture, economy, and defence.
To begin with, recent years have witnessed a progressive, yet selective, regional disengagement on the part of the U.S., in line with Trump’s realist vision and security driven foreign policy. While militarily refocusing on the Sahelian sub-region, this lethargic political and economic commitment to North Africa also originates from the idea that countries in the region should do more to solve their own problems. Trump has yet to visit any of the five north Africa states since becoming president in 2016, and among them only Egypt and Morocco have been destinations for U.S Secretary of State Pompeo’s institutional visits in the past two years. Still, Trump has been keen on cultivating a crew of “friends” in the region. Egypt’s autocratic president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for instance, tops Trump’s favourite autocrats’ list and has been praised by the latter as a “great president [who’s] doing a great job”. Similarly, Morocco represents a strategically important country for the U.S., especially because it is the only African state to have a free trade agreement with Washington, and remains a major Non-NATO ally with a crucial role in the fight against terrorism. Yet, the administration is prioritizing military and defence cooperation rather than economic development and democratization. In 2019 the U.S. Congress allocated a reduced economic support budget for both countries ($112 and $10 million respectively), whereas Rabat purchased $7.26 billion worth of U.S. weapons in 2019. This reduction in economic aid may be further exacerbated by the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which could force U.S. policymakers to redirect additional resources to address domestic economic issues. The virus has also impaired American military capabilities, and resulted in two major regional exercises, African Lion and Phoenix Express, to be cancelled in mid-March.
Unlike the U.S., China is expanding its economic footprint and emerging as a champion of soft-power projection in the region. This expansion is based not only on political opportunism but also on an official policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of partner countries, developing through the establishment of both strategic partnerships (SP), such as with Morocco in 2016, and broader agreements known as comprehensive strategic partnerships (CSP), signed by Algeria and Egypt in 2014. Recently, Beijing and Rabat have intensified their diplomatic and economic ties, with several bilateral meetings held on a regular basis and eased visa regulations which have boosted Chinese tourism in the Kingdom. Near the Moroccan port of Tangier, Chinese companies have already started the construction of the ambitious “Tech City”, which is the biggest Chinese industrial infrastructure project in Africa and seeks to attract $10 billion worth of investments over ten years. Tunisia and Libya are also on Beijing’s radar. Both joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2018, with Chinese imports in Tunisia ranking third behind Italian and French in the same year, totalling almost $1,9 billion. In Libya, the civil war has temporarily frozen Chinese activities, although Beijing remains keen to participate in the reconstruction process and gain further access to the country’s hydrocarbons. Egypt and Algeria represent the jewels of China’s expansion in North Africa, thanks to the first and second-largest trade imports from the Asian giant in the region ($8,07 and $7,85 billion respectively in 2018), solid diplomatic and political ties, and the huge role Chinese firms play in their domestic economies. Ports and Maritime facilities, as well as communication infrastructures, remain China’s priorities and are part of its plan of trade expansion in the Mediterranean as foreseen by the BRI.
Meanwhile, Russia is trying to carve out an area of strategic influence in NA which could grant Moscow invaluable access to the Mediterranean and revive its great power image. Driven by a strong raison d’état principle, Russia’s policies entail both soft power tools such as the cultivation of historical alliances and partnership and more unorthodox means, including the covert deployment of private military contractors in Libya in support of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. Moscow’s main leverage in the region stems from both lucrative arms sales and an increasingly assertive energy diplomacy which revolves around oil and gas – led by powerful Russian companies such as Gazprom and Transneft. Algeria and Egypt represent the linchpins of Russia’s engagement in the region: the former, which has maintained a strategic partnership with the Kremlin since 2001, accounts for nearly half of Russia’s weapons sales in Africa, and cooperates closely with Gazprom in on-shore gas explorations; the latter, likewise, buys 34% of its arsenal from Russia, and has granted rich concessions in its off-shore gas fields to Russian energy giants Rosneft and Lukoil.
Yet, it is the rising influence of regional actors that should deserve greater attention. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey are particularly active and have used both hard and soft power tools to advance their ambitions, making headlines since the launch of the April 2019 offensive by Libyan rogue general Khalifa Haftar against the legitimate government in Tripoli. With the offensive turned into a stalemate and Haftar eager to reject any political solution and claim a “popular mandate”, the country has become a major stage of confrontation between Turkish drones and mercenaries supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) and UAE’ ones providing air cover and manpower for Haftar’s forces. To counterbalance Abu Dhabi’s financial grip on Haftar, in November of 2019 Ankara (backed by Qatar) and the GNA signed both a contested maritime deal which redefines the exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean and grants Turkey access to new potential hydrocarbon resources, and a military cooperation agreement. The Libyan quagmire, however, is only one stage of the broader geopolitical struggle between the Turkish-Qatari axis on one side and UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other side. The latter, for instance, was awash in Qatari money during the brief Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, but since its ousting by a military coup in 2013, UAE and Saudi Arabia have happily become the key players in the country, providing huge interest-free loans and starting multi-million dollar investments. Cairo reciprocated by buying Abu Dhabi’s weapons and joining the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar in mid-2017. Egypt’s economy, in fact, is increasingly interconnected with the Gulf, but the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to hit important sectors such as tourism, remittances and trade flows hard.
Against this backdrop, the deep economic consequences of COVID-19 might emerge as a structural gamechanger in the geopolitical dynamics of the region, forcing international actors to cut their resources and reconsider their foreign policy priorities. In Washington, Trump’s plan to implement a troops drawdown in Africa is still blocked in Congress but might eventually see the light of day in the event of unavoidable defense-budget cuts. Similarly, China and regional countries such as the UAE might be constrained by lower financial availability and limited supply chains, finding themselves without their soft power tool par excellence.
 Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power, Foreign Policy, No. 80, Twentieth Anniversary (Autumn, 1990), pp. 153-171, pp. 166-67.
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 Last August, for instance, Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese society Hutchison Ports to build a new Mediterranean container terminal in Abukir.