Afro-Middle East Centre researcher Ebrahim Deen, joins us via Skype to discuss the shifting political sands between Washington, Riyadh and Ankara
By Hassan Aourid
Moroccan-Saudi relations have never been as cool and strained as they have become in the past week, following a report on the Western Sahara disputebroadcast on Al-Arabiya, a television channel close to decision-making circles in Riyadh. The report blatantly deviated from Saudi Arabia’s traditional pro-Rabat line, and was a reaction to an interview on Al Jazeera by Morocco’s foreign minister,Nasser Bourita where he had sketched Morocco’s new foreign policy guidelines, focusing on Morocco’swithdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen.
Morocco’s immediate response to the Al-Arabiya report was to recall its ambassador from Riyadh ‘for consultations’. This is an inappropriate reaction since it was not an official Saudi position that overtly threatened Morocco’s strategic interests. Reports on a media channel cannot be construed as reflecting the official stance of a state, regardless of its connections with those in power, especially when considering the assertion made by Morocco’s top diplomat that his country has strategic relations with the Gulf states.
Since three Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – and Egypt had decided to blockade Qatar, signs of a quiet crisis had emerged not only in relations between Rabat and Riyadh, but also between Rabat and the Abu Dhabi. Morocco did not yield to calls to boycott Qatar, but rather sent food to Qatar and sought to heal the rift between the Gulf countries. This did not sit well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders expected Morocco to abide by the decisions of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, or, more correctly, the decisions of their respective strongmen, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed.
Tensions worsened when Saudi Arabia refused to back Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 Football World Cup. Turki Al-Sheikh, then chair of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and an official close to the Saudi crown prince, tweeted provocatively that grey zones were no longer acceptable and that ‘you are either with us or against us’. He mocked Morocco for leaning towards a little ‘emirate’ – meaning Qatar – and, in a spiteful tone, advised the north African kingdom to turn to the ‘tiny emirate’ for help, which, he said, would be futile since everyone knew ‘where the lion’s den can be found’. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, an expert in Morocco-Saudi relations and a former Saudi intelligence official, further asserted that the time for flattery had passed.
When MbS was in Paris in March 2018, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, attempted to bring together the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and MbS, even recording the event for posterity through a selfie. However, that did not persuade the Saudis to reconsider their position on the Moroccan bid. Not only did Saudi Arabia vote against Morocco – even though all Arab states had undertaken at an Arab League summit in Riyadh to back Morrocco – it also led a campaign supporting the US-Canada bid. Further, it went to great lengths to vilify Morocco, mocking its Berber origins and economic situation through social media.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was Morocco’s neutrality over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh refused to accept such a position a state it viewed as a strategic ally. The situation became more complicated when Rabat declined to host the Saudi crown prince while he was on a regional tour en route to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires at a time when he was desperate to break out of his isolation. MbS visited Tunis and Algiers but skipped Rabat, ostensibly due to the Moroccan king’s tight schedule which did not allow for a meeting, as Morocco’s foreign minister explained.
Is it ‘a passing cloud’?
Morocco’s ambassador to Riyadh referred to the spat between the two countries as ‘a passing cloud’. However, the current diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Saudi Arabia is actually the culmination of a series of successive developments. Moroccan-Saudi relations will not return to their former state of close relations whose foundations were laid during the rule of Morocco’s King Hassan II and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. It was during this period that Hassan II established an American-style university in the heart of the Atlas and named it the Akhawan University (the university of the two brothers) in reference to himself and Fahd.
Spurred on by the aftershocks of the ‘Arab Spring’, Saudi Arabia set up what has been referred to as a ‘club of monarchs’, which included Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states together with Morocco and Jordan. During the 2016 GCC summit, Morocco pledged unqualified commitment to the security of Gulf states, a position best illustrated by the king’s pronouncement that ‘whatever affects you, affects us’.
But this posture did not sit well with the new crop of leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose education and outlook starkly contrast with those of their predecessors. The old generation remained true to their Arab pride and to a sense of belonging to the Islamic community – even if these were leveraged as stock-in-trade, as in a business. The new generation, however, does not care much about Arab values, fully embraces current global financial trends, comes across as pragmatic (at times even beyond the bounds of reasonableness), and sees Islam and movements operating under its banner as a threat that warrants their enmity.
What Saudi Arabia did through the Al-Arabiya documentary was not merely a rap on the knuckles; it signalled a new way of dealing with Morocco, one where all means of inflicting harm and causing disparagement are legitimate. It feels betrayed by its closest ally in the region, and decided to inflict on Morocco similar treatment to that it meted out to Lebanon in 2015, when it closed sea routes and released the names of collaborators and recipients of remuneration, privileges or commissions from Saudi Arabia.
Morocco’s firm and wise response should not focus only on defending its strategic interests, but on doing it well. Securing the right to host an international sporting tournament cannot be considered a strategic interest, and should not be identified as a factor in determining relations with any other state. Those in power in Rabat must be reminded of this principle. The strength of any county’s foreign policy stems from its ability to reflect the interests of all its people, not only the interests of a specific category of people, and not by yielding to transient considerations of unknown origins and objectives.
Hassan Aourid is a former spokesperson of the Moroccan royal palace and a lecturer in political science at Muhammad the Fifth University in Rabat.
By Hassan Aourid
Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.
Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.
I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.
Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.
The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.
Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book.
Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.
Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.
The gruesome murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was designed to be a clear and firm message for Saudi dissidents, and reflected the current Saudi sense of impunity. Saudi Arabia, and particularly its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), however, seemed to have miscalculated the consequences of the murder. The incident caused immediate international ructions, and increased pressure on Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear, however, whether there will be long-term consequences or whether Saudi Arabia will succeed in covering up the murder.
Khashoggi’s murder indicates MBS’s paranoia and intolerance for criticism. Khashoggi, after all, was a supporter of the country’s monarchy and an establishment figure – even if he was somewhat critical of MBS. He had been an adviser to another Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service; had worked in Saudi Arabia’s London and Washington embassies; and had initially supported MBS’s ‘reform’ initiative. He was, thus, an insider who had turned his back on MBS, making him, arguably, more dangerous than a dissident. Further, even in the authoritarian monarchy that Saudi Arabia is, the man western media and politicians liked to tout as a great ‘reformer’ has deepened the levels of repression, even arresting dozens of members of the royal family in November 2017, and detaining influential religious scholars such as Salman al-Awda and human and women’s rights activists. These efforts have helped concentrate power in the crown prince’s office, as well as expanded his and the state’s coffers through large amounts of extortion money.
Khashoggi’s murder was undertaken with the brazenness with which MBS has defined himself, taking place in a consulate, with a large kill team flown in using their own passports, ignoring a Turkish camera monitoring the entrance to the consulate. This allowed Turkey to easily gain intelligence about the murder, including video and audio recordings. The attitude also reflects the sense of impunity that MBS has developed, an attitude that is justified when one considers his actions over the past three years – since being appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence - that he has not had to account for. These include the brutal war against Yemen and the massacre of civilians – including schoolchildren; the blockade on Qatar; the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri – and forcing him to resign; last year’s detention of members of the royal family and the extortion of substantial parts of their wealth; the weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and his insulting of Palestinians and warming relations with Israel. He therefore had every reason to believe that he would escape accountability for Khashoggi’s murder as well.
Saudi Arabia had initially denied that Khashoggi has been killed, claiming he had exited the consulate. However, about ten days later, as Turkish sources leaked ever more information and because international attention and condemnation increased, the Saudis suggested that the murder was carried out by ‘rogue killers’, in an attempt to insulate MBS. They also finally acquiesced to Turkey’s request to search the consulate and the house of the consul-general. It is highly unlikely that MBS knew nothing about the murder, especially since seven of the fifteen-person hit squad are from his personal security detail. The Saudi suggestion that it was a botched interrogation is also difficult to sustain considering that autopsy and forensic specialist Salah Abdulaziz Al-Tubaigy was part of the Saudi team that arrived at the consulate and that he, it is reported, brought a bone saw with.
Khashoggi’s killing will have immediate short-term consequences for the Kingdom. It has already attracted hostility from the US senate, which in 2017 narrowly failed to halt Saudi arms sales for weapons destined to be used in Yemen. The most vocal critic is right-wing senator Lindsey Graham, a former defender of the Saudis, who said, ‘MBS is toxic. We should sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia’. Already, twenty-one of the twenty-two-member senate foreign relations committee called for the implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act. The administration now has four months to investigate human rights abuses relating to Khashoggi’s murder; if confirmed, the act stipulates the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on the culprits. However, the US president, Donald Trump, has dithered between condemning the murder, defending the Saudis, insisting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were too important to the USA to be jeopardised, and promising ‘severe punishment’. Yet, his is clearly reluctant to take any action against Saudi Arabia, only partly because of arms sales. Other factors include his own business interests with the Saudis, his obsession with Iran and the Saudi support for his anti-Iran initiative, and because MBS is a firm ally in supporting Israel. Further, it is unclear whether the US senate’s righteous indignation will continue or dissipate with midterm elections coming up and Republicans not wanting to seem divided.
The British, French and German governments issued a joint statement condemning Khashoggi’s murder and advocating an independent credible investigation; the G7 issued a similar statement. But there is no indication that this will result in any concrete action against Saudi Arabia, even if the previous image of MBS they touted – as a moderniser – becomes tarnished.
More Immediately, there has been a significant withdrawal from the Saudi ‘Future Investment Initiative’, MBS’s project to attract funds to Saudi Arabia for his economic ‘modernisation’ and liberalisation project, scheduled for later this month. Cancellations and/or high-level pullouts have come from companies such as Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Virgin Group, Blackstone and Standard Chartered; media organisations such as Fox, CNN, Bloomberg, Financial Times, and the New York Times; and senior political and economic figures such as the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the finance ministers of France and Netherlands, the trade secretary of the UK, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. Uber, which Saudi Arabia has shares in, and Fox Business Network, which was a cosponsor of the event, have also withdrawn –Fox Business also withdrew its sponsorship. These withdrawals are sufficient to threaten a collapse of the summit, disrupting MBS’s project in, at least, the short term.
Within the MENA region Saudi Arabia has received support from allies Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, as well as from Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority, all of which have called for an investigation, but expressed their support for the kingdom. Most of these countries are dependent on Saudi largesse, while the UAE and KSA have a strong economic and military partnership and alliance against Qatar and Iran.
A significant development in the region might be Saudi relations with Turkey, which have been cool, mainly as a result of Turkey’s support of Qatar. The manner in which Turkish intelligence services and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have responded, suggest that they have calculated on pushing Saudi Arabia into a corner, as they have done, but may hope that this will force Saudi Arabia to improve relations with Turkey, on terms dictated by the latter. The current situation represents a public relations coup for Turkey and a disaster for Saudi Arabia. However the Saudis respond, Turkey will emerge in the stronger position. The Turks have also used the incident to strengthen relations with the USA, which were also strained in the recent past, releasing American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody since 2016. Turkey will likely demand that some high-level Saudi official take the fall. They might not aim as high as MBS, however.
Within Saudi Arabia, the murder has had limited impact, and while there is concern about the possible consequences of external pressure on MBS’s standing, there is no indication yet that he will be removed from his position or disciplined in any way. This will be disappointing both for the Saudi opposition as well as dissident and disaffected members of the royal family who wait anxiously for an opportunity to hit back at the crown prince. At the moment, it seems that the worst consequence for MBS might be his father Salman instructing him to take a low profile in the immediate future while attempts are made to contain the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. MBS remains Salman’s favoured son and nominee as his successor.
It is quite likely that, in the long-term, the pressure on the kingdom will slowly dissipate as western geopolitical and economic needs come to the fore again. Many western companies will seek to benefit from the aggressive expansion of the Saudi 230-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund (Public Investment Fund), which has recently purchased shares in renewable energy, property, and motion production companies around the world. MBS is already deploying Saudi finances to limit the fallout from the murder, releasing 100 million dollars in funding to the US State Department’s counterterrorism programme.
Trump has already said he will not suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia because, he claimed, Russian and Chinese companies would replace American ones. Whatever the USA decides, switching heavy weapons’ technology from American to any other is not an easy or short-term process and the Saudis and Americans will remain tied in their arms seller-buyer relationship in the medium term.
While the immediate global response to the Khashoggi murder has imposed substantial pressure on Saudi Arabia, it is unclear that this will have any impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of reducing its repressive actions internally and externally, ending its war in Yemen, or easing its aggressive policies in the region. It is therefore not certain that this will help create space for Saudi dissenters – even within the royal family – to voice their dissent, even if MBS and his security services become more careful about how they suppress opposition.
by Zeenat Adam
South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) argues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’
In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.
South Africa’s approach of abstaining from voting on human rights issues in international fora renders it ineffectual and raises the question of why it wants to serve on the UNHRC and the UN Security Council – where it will begin its third two-year non-permanent term in 2019, if it is reluctant to take positions on matters of global importance. The fence-sitting deviates from South Africa’s approach during the Mandela era when it stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy seems to have drastically shifted from a human rights foundation to a drive for economic development through foreign investment. Using a mask of economic diplomacy, South Africa thus relinquishes its proclaimed core value of human rights.
For more than three years, the war in poverty-stricken Yemen continued, sparked by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of Yemen’s largest city and then-capital, Sana'a, in September 2014, and their move southwards towards Aden. By March 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the USA launched a military campaign to defeat the Houthis, who have since been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led campaign exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments that caused mass civilian casualties; controlling ports of entry in a way that hindered the delivery of food and basic necessities; and creating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.
The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen released a report in August, in which it stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law’. The report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018, and found that individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the de facto authorities (the Houthi) have committed acts that may amount to international crimes. Coalition air strikes, the report asserts, may have been disproportionate and caused the most direct civilian casualties. The chairperson of the panel, Kamel Jendoubi, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia interfered with the work of the panel, despite its attempts to maintain neutrality.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Saudi Arabia to end airstrikes in Yemen, and to ensure that the perpetrators of attacks on children are brought to justice, thus adding to the mounting pressure on the coalition. The Panel of Experts’ report highlighted the use of children by all parties as child soldiers. In addition, it provided detailed reports of the use of torture in detention, sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) reported that outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria and an upsurge in fighting have worsened the dire humanitarian situation, where more than three million people have been displaced since the war began. Over 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. MSF adds that indiscriminate bombings and chronic shortages of supplies and staff have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes may be responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch reported that ‘the armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply.’ In September, UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, citing obstruction in its attempts to travel by the national delegation.
The ‘others’ that HRW refers to includes South Africa. According to annual reports of the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa supplied arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles, as well as surveillance and military technology to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2016 and 2017, amounting to more than three billion Rands, while the two states were deeply embroiled in Yemen, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Evidence of South African military equipment being used in Yemen by the coalition emerged as early as 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle that had been downed. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.
In August 2018, an attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida resulted in the death of at least fifty-five civilians. Indications are that the munition fragments found at the scene resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by the South African arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM).
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017.
Despite glaring human rights’ concerns, arms supplying countries like South Africa continue to export weapons to states in the Saudi-led coalition. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act mandates the NCACC to ‘avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and to ‘avoid transfers of conventional weapons that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability’.
Established in 1995, the NCACC is a cabinet committee, uniquely protected, and the appointment of whose members is the sole responsibility of the president. Jeff Radebe, currently the Minister of Energy, has served as the committee’s chairperson since 2009. The committee is supported by an inspectorate that looks after matters of compliance, and a Scrutiny Committee that considers applications submitted by companies seeking to sell arms. The NCACC is required to consult certain government departments regularly, including DIRCO, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the State Security Agency (SSA).Cabinet established an NCACC organisational structure that comprises ‘four accountable levels of responsibility:
The structure was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants. The NCACC should meet monthly to consider arms transfer applications. However, the committee seems to have been less serious in its responsibilities in the recent few years, thus allowing loopholes for corruption and unchecked weapons’ transfers. If it has doubt over sales to a particular purchaser, the committee should suspend applications until assessments are conducted by the relevant departments. In such cases, DIRCO and the SSA would monitor the country in question and submit recommendations to the committee, which will then decide to approve or deny the application. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence provides oversight to the committee and is authorised to question its decisions. Radebe and the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, appeared before the Joint Standing Committee, but their responses to questions on arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners appeared deflective. Empty promises were made that investigations would be undertaken to determine the reasons for sales to countries where human rights atrocities are perpetrated. The two ministers feigned ignorance of the situation in Yemen and overlooked the culpability of the Saudi coalition.
The $10 billion investment pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also play a role in the arms market. Though the investment is expected to focus mainly on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa’s failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the energy deals. The link between energy and arms raises a concern about the chairperson of the committee. Because the chairperson is required to be neutral in the deliberation of the committee, the position is usually filled by a minister whose portfolio does not conflict with NCACC decisions. In this case, it is debatable whether the minister of energy’s heading the committee might be regarded as neutral.
Apart from domestic legislation on weapons’ sales, South Africa is also a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, which it ratified in 2014. The conditions of the treaty stipulate, among other things, that the state parties must assess the potential that conventional arms could be used to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. South Africa continues to authorise the sale of conventional weapons that have been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, despite widely-known allegations, as documented by the UN, of serious violations of international law by members of their coalition in Yemen. Significantly, Saudi officials themselves claim to have conducted more than 145 000 missions over Yemen in the past three years. One Saudi general estimated that more than 100 000 of those missions were of a combative nature, and that the military had conducted as many as 300 such operations in a single day.
In addition to the sale of small arms, assault rifles, heavy artillery guns and armoured vehicles, South Africa has supplied the UAE and Saudi Arabia with mortar bombs, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, ammunition, electronic attack systems, software, and a range of other controlled products.
When the Barack Obama administration in the USA declined Saudi Arabia’s request for the supply of Predator drones in 2013, the kingdom turned to South Africa’s Denel Dynamics to assist Riyadh in the development of its own armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. Denel adapted the Seeker-400 with a range of 250 kilometres and an endurance of 16 hours to carry the Makopa air-to-ground missile and the Impi laser-guided missile, which has a multipurpose warhead suited for assassination missions. By May 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which resembled Denel’s design.
In June 2016, South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate a Saudi Military Industries Corporation facility in Al-Kharjnear Riyadh. He did so together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is seen as the architect of the war in Yemen. The 240 million dollar projectiles’ factory was built in collaboration with South Africa’s Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, and is expected to produce a minimum of 300 artillery shells or 600 mortar projectiles per day, as well as aircraft bombs ranging from 500lb-2000lb.
Earlier this year, notorious South African arms dealer, Ivor Ichikowitz, announced that his Paramount Group was in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, South African companies may ultimately assist these countries to establish munitions factories that are capable of manufacturing cluster munitions. Both Gulf states have used cluster munitions in the war in Yemen. In transferring its technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC, or, internationally, since it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. It may thus absolve itself of responsibility in case of human rights atrocities committed with the weapons, since they would be manufactured in a country where neither law applies.
MBS is touted as the face of a changing Saudi Arabia and the successor to his father Salman, the king. The young crown prince has consolidated power in himself by violently rooting out dissidents and family members and seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia being among the top three global arms purchasers, the regime has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through a new state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).
In September, SAMI’s CEO, Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition in Pretoria, where he announced SAMI’s intention to enter into joint ventures with South African entities, and potentially explore an equity investment into South Africa’s cash-strapped state-owned enterprise, Denel. The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, especially suggestions of an economic bailout for Denel. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, confirmed the Saudi overtures on 11 October, and indicated that she did ‘not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC’. She added that the committee would consider the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications.
The reference to human rights came amidst growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East. She too appeared ill-informed about the situation in Yemen. Her department had only issued two statements on the situation in Yemen over the past three years. On both occasions, the statements appeared to justify Saudi actions as a response to Iranian-backed Houthi militia attacks. In the October press conference, she disclosed that Saudi Arabia had approached Pretoria to intervene with Iran. She grappled with questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights in the light of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia. ‘We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights... The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief,’ she said.
The UAE too has quietly built a formidable military, using its oil wealth to stealthily purchase arms, making it the fourth largest buyer of arms globally. The UAE has also contracted private military security companies linked to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince to develop a new model army with a strictly no Muslim hiring policy because ‘Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims’. This force consists of foreign troops trained by western veterans and includes several South African mercenaries, in violation of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.
Between 2006 and 2016, Denel supplied an estimated 192 Nyala (rebranded as Agrab in the UAE) armoured mortar carriers to the UAE through an Emirati company, International Golden Group. Another significant deal was the sale of Al-Tariq (known as Umbani in South Africa) guided bombs for mirage jets, produced by Tawazun Dynamics, a joint venture with Denel. This deal, worth 500 million dollars, ensured the delivery of at least 1 600 bombs to the UAE by end 2016. After the Emiratis failed to procure Predator drones from the USA, they acquired Chinese-manufactured drones equipped with South African targeting equipment.
At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, a UAE spokesperson, Staff Pilot Air-Vice Marshal Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, announced that the UAE had ordered Seeker surveillance drones from Denel Dynamics to the value of AED 48.1 million (USD 13 million), to be delivered in 2018. The UAE has a reputation for redirecting and re-exporting weapons to other countries (including African states), in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. A recent investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia alleges that the UAE violated the arms embargo imposed on Somalia by transferring military equipment to the Horn of Africa despite international resolutions against the shipments. If South Africa is aware of any such onward sales or transfers of weapons it manufactured, this would violate domestic and international laws, and be in breach of the end user agreement between the UAE and South Africa that assures that any arms purchased would only be utilised by the UAE.
As proxy wars play out between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen at the expense of innocent civilians, there is an increasing indication of an arms race under way in the Middle East. Widespread debate about arms transfers from the UK, Europe and the USA has erupted in those countries because of human rights atrocities committed in the Middle East. Germany and Norway have halted the sale of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war, citing concerns over the humanitarian crisis. To date, the NCACC has not questioned the sale of South African weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities.
There are other examples too of South Africa not being strict in its responsibility regarding arms sales. In 2010, the NCACC authorised weapons sales to Libya. In responding to opposition questions about the deal, NCACC chair, Jeff Radebe, defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there had been no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses were proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.
South Africa recently applied to the United Nations for authorisation to sell 1,5 billion Rands worth of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a country that is currently embroiled in the conflict in Syria, and allegedly supportive of the Houthi in Yemen. Such a move would also add to the growing militarisation of a region already fraught with intense conflicts.
As Saudi atrocities in Yemen and its repression of its own citizens come to light, there appears to be a shift amongst its traditional allies. Following the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, Jamal Khashoggi, earlier this month, pressure has mounted on the US president, Donald Trump to punish Saudi Arabia. While he has vehemently defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amounting to $110 billion, the US Senate Foreign Relations chairperson announced that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress. The UK has also threatened serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Saudi Arabia has begun a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and will seek new arms suppliers should the US and UK avenues be blocked. South Africa needs to tread with caution in responding to the temptation to fill such a void, and must ponder carefully its role in further destabilising a region that is already fraught with conflict.
In pursuing its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising profitable investments will address the poverty and unemployment scourge. For the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign – a slogan inspired by the lyrics of a popular song by the late Hugh Masekela, which paints a picture of societal change. However, the cost to South Africa may be immeasurable.
The right to life and human dignity that are emphasised in the South African constitution cannot be forsaken in favour of financial gain, while blood continues to be spilled. Continued engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector may render South Africa culpable in the deaths of innocent people, the implications of which are far-reaching beyond the Gulf region and could have a direct impact on international stability. Pretoria must carefully consider the long-term costs and consequences of short-term deals. As South Africa prepares to take its seat at the UNSC in January 2019, it must ensure that such offers do not compromise its neutrality, and that it renews its reputation as a fair, independent defender of human rights.
* Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa