Exploiting the Vacuums: Russia and North Africa in the Wake of the Sochi Summit

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 164

(Source: SCMP)

The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held on October 23–24, in the Russian resort city of Sochi, displayed Moscow’s renewed ambition to play a significant role in Africa (TASS, October 20; The Africa Report, August 19). Increasingly, the Kremlin perceives the African continent as a theater in which it needs to be active to counter the influence of other powers and support Russian global ambitions (see EDM, October 24.

At Sochi, President Vladimir Putin notably hosted almost all of the top leaders of North African countries. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian head of state, co-hosted the Forum in his capacity as leader of the African Union. But the other North African countries were all represented, in many cases at the highest level. Even the new Mauritanian president, Mohammed Ould Ghazouani, attended, despite the fact that as minister of defense, he was considered the most prominent supporter of strengthening his country’s relations with the West (The New Arab Weekly, November 4, 2018). The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) leader Fayez al-Sarraj was also in Sochi, a particularly significant presence given the role Russia is increasingly playing in assisting the rival forces of General Khalifa Haftar (The Libya Observer, October 24, 2019). Tunisia and Morocco sent delegations led by their respective prime ministers (Morocco World News, October 22).

The presence of these political leaders suggests that Moscow does not see them solely from a horizontal geopolitical logic—i.e., as the western appendix of the Arab world—but also from a more vertical, that is African, geopolitical perspective. At the same time, increasing role jihadist groups play in Africa is raising perceptions of security threats. While, the strategic and economic interactions between Mediterranean Africa and the rest of the continent are becoming more profound.

On top of these broader and systemic security and geopolitical considerations, in the wake of the conference Russia signed a notable economic agreement with Morocco for the development of an oil refinery. Although the financial commitment and the project itself is not particularly significant, this development nevertheless points to a method that Russia is implementing in its relations with countries in both West Asia and Africa. The implementation of the project will be carried out by Mya Energy, in partnership with several Russian actors, which will provide expertise, technology and equipment (Yabiladi, October 24). Initially equipped with a refining capacity of around 100,000 barrels per day (bpd), the refinery should later be able to reach 200,000 bpd by exploiting Nador West Med’s port facilities. This expansion promises to deliver a number of trickle-down effects, including boosting job creation and infrastructure development, particularly in Morocco’s northern regions (Le Courrier D’Atlas, October 25). This North African state’s only refinery, managed by the Société Anonyme Marocaine de l’Industrie du Raffinage (SAMIR) and located in Mohammedia, 25 kilometers north of Casablanca, was shut down last July after being liquidated in 2015 due to a lack of acceptable buyout offers (Morocco World News, June 13). A self-proclaimed “national front” composed of employees, economists and union leaders was putting pressure on the government to save the refinery and locate a new buyer. Still, Morocco could not find any international company interested in this project. That incapacity created space to enter this specific sector with limited economic exposure—which is precisely what Russia did through this agreement.

While Morocco significantly needed a new refinery to reduce its reliance on imports, the agreement in itself is not particularly significant in mere economic terms. However, the underlying logic is suggestive of how Russia wants to develop its presence in these areas. North Africa has historically been within the economic sphere of influence of the European Union. But this region’s geo-economic environment has been diversifying over the past several years. Gulf countries have heavily invested in the region. China is also turning into a crucial economic actor, not only in states in which its presence was already established—such as Algeria (see China Brief, January 7, 2010)—but more and more in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, with the latter being an essential piece of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (see China Brief, October 10, 2014 and September 26, 2019).

In this increasingly competitive geo-economic environment, Russia has little to offer from an immediate economic point of view as the size of its gross domestic product is limited. Yet, the Russian strategy focuses on seizing even minimal opportunity where other countries do not intervene, seizing such open prospects and exploiting the vacuums. This selective engagement has a two-fold aim. If specific geopolitical and economic conditions allow for promoting more significant political and military influence at limited financial and operational cost, representing an easy, cost-effective, comprehensive win, Moscow digs in. If not, these projects will remain a one-off, offer Russia some limited presence on the ground, and merely satisfy the interests a small plethora of Russian economic actors involved in them. Yet, even these limited, sub-optimal projects appear useful enough for Russia to pursue them as part of its wider strategy to at least build the perception of its triumphant “return to Africa” (see EDM, September 18, October 24, 28).