Visiting South Africa is always a pleasure, but when the purpose is to attend a conference there is usually something extra special to look forward to. The Afro-Middle East Centre's "In whose interests? Exploring Middle East involvement in Africa" in Pretoria on 5-6 November was no exception. AMEC and the team led by Director Na'eem Jeenah are to be congratulated for bringing together an interesting range of speakers from Africa, Turkey, Israel and the United States to tackle the subject. And tackle it they did.
With discussions ranging from identity issues (what and where is "the Middle East" anyway?) to politics, the arms trade, soft diplomacy and decidedly dodgy diamond dealing, with chunks of education, proselytisation and exporting revolution thrown in, the discussion was broad and discussions robust. Although Jeenah expressed his distaste for the term, "new scramble for Africa", it was hard not to come to the conclusion that a great deal of the "involvement" of Middle East countries smacks very much of neo-colonialism. Turkey's Gűlen education movement, for example, has transplanted its curriculum, cultural studies and Turkish history syllabus in 100+ schools across the continent, seven of them in South Africa. Claims by the speakers that this was altruism at its best didn't convince me; if the education of African children is the primary objective, why not simply bolster local schools which are desperately short of resources and trained teachers?
Turkey's involvement in Africa has been described to me in other forums as the Erdogan government's pitch to boost its political and social influence in a land mass which, as one speaker pointed out, is actually the world's only "Muslim-majority continent". According to another academic, the idea behind the Gűlen schools is to create the "future elite" in the 40 states in which they have been established who will eventually become a "bridge" between Turkey and the host country. Trade and business links are on the agenda and Turkey wants its share of the African pie.
What do the local Africans get from the deal? It depends on the country involved, but it could be a Turkish education; religious tracts seeking to convert the masses; a better equipped and armed regime able to repress civilians thanks to Israeli "security consultants"; humanitarian aid; and cultural exchange. It was clear to me, however, that Africa is seen as a vast resource pool and the benefits of Middle East involvement in the continent is far from "egalitarian", as one speaker claimed.
It was also very clear that none of this is set in stone and involvement will ebb and flow depending on the politics back in the Middle East. I must confess that my own focus has always been on what the Israelis are doing in Africa in order to boost their support in the UN General Assembly. I was looking forward, therefore, to watching Yotam Feldman's film, "The Lab". As an example of investigative journalism exposing Israel's extremely lucrative arms industry it was excellent and deserves a wider audience on mainstream television because people need to know what the Israelis are up to. With a host of talking heads of ex-generals, Special Forces troops and politicians, Feldman took us into the murky world of the arms dealers, glossy and attractive on the surface but definitely disturbing and deadly underneath.
The eponymous Lab refers to the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent the occupied West Bank, where new weapons and munitions are tried and tested, making them much more attractive to armies around the world (and there seems to be very few who are not buying from Israel). This is big business, worth $7 billion a year to Israel's economy, and the money trumps any concerns about morality and human rights. "Maybe the system doesn't understand us," wailed one arms dealer when he was reminded that a high proportion of his colleagues face charges of illegal practices. "These people [the Palestinians] are born to die," said another, "and we are there to help them on the way."
War, asserted Feldman, has ceased to be a burden on Israeli society, and its arms manufacturers are asked constantly by the rest of the world how they are able "to turn so much blood into money". Around 150,000 families depend on the arms industry in Israel, so it has a lot of political clout. The smug expressions on the faces of the political and military fat cats told us all we need to know. Israel, as Feldman claims, not only sells arms but also a political model for a state in perpetual conflict and doing financially very nicely, thank you very much. Morality and international law don't come into it. International politicians, argued one Israeli "security consultant", are hypocrites: "They criticise us [for what happens in Gaza] but queue up to buy our weapons."
Israelis have been responsible for creating and maintaining war in the Congo, claimed one of the speakers at the conference; in return for arms supplied and those seemingly ubiquitous "security consultants", they get access to vast mineral resources necessary for arms production, including we assume, uranium. Money laundering is also part of Israel's involvement in Africa, and diamonds, which are smuggled out of Zimbabwe using fake licences issued by Dubai before the gems are cut in Tel Aviv ready for the open market. That allegation was made by Terry Crawford-Browne as he set out his published research on "Israeli war profiteering in Africa". An international banker in South Africa during the 70s and 80s when the apartheid government's "arrogance" led it to believe that it was untouchable, he suggested that watching The Lab was a case of déjà vu, and that Israel's arrogance will lead to its downfall, just as it did with apartheid in South Africa.
Although Crawford-Browne reserved the "rogue state" moniker for Israel, the speakers across the two days illustrated admirably that the other state actors in Africa are not entirely blameless. South Africa's one-time ambassador to Oman and the UAE, Yacoob Abba Omar, addressed the issue of food security on the continent and provided the example of Saudi Arabia's investment of $100 million in Ethiopia. Growing maize, wheat and rice exclusivity for its home market, Saudi's investment project runs alongside the World Food Programme's $160 million for food aid for Ethiopians. Equitable? Egalitarian? I think not, although Omar did point out that Qatar has signed a deal with Ghana for a similar food project that will split the produce 50/50 between the two countries.
"Why Africa?" he asked. A decline in peasant farming and a lack of investment in agriculture are largely to blame, even though large farms are less productive and effective than small-scale farming. In this respect, investments by multinational companies don't have a good record, with the bigger profit margins on fruit and vegetables taking production away from staple crops.
This was an ambitious conference which could well be the foundation for further and more in-depth discussions. It succeeded in answering the initial titular question, in my opinion, as I believe that the investors, whether states or businesses, get the better deal when all things are taken into consideration. This is not surprising given the maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch and in today's capitalist global economy good returns, whether financial or political, are the objective.
Well done AMEC. I look forward to future events, perhaps looking at the identity question, a personal interest, and not just as an excuse to visit South Africa, my own home from home, again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.