Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
Gulf-African relations are often seen through the prism of Gulf competition or broader Middle East rivalries, especially in unstable regions such as the Horn of Africa, with African states caught up in power struggles and proxy conflicts. The relationship between Kuwait and Senegal tells another story: Bilateral relations can be mutually beneficial despite unequal access to resources.
The “soft power” interplay of Kuwaiti humanitarianism and Senegalese diplomacy has developed into an essential South-South relationship. This unique friendship is now in its 50th year. Today, Senegal receives the largest amount of Kuwaiti development assistance of any African country. But Senegal also has much to offer Kuwait. The “gateway to West Africa” not only aspires to be the regional hub for Islamic finance but also a leader in air transportation. Senegal’s acclaimed coronavirus response could also present opportunities for public health collaboration.
The “Exception” of Kuwait and Senegal
The small states of Kuwait and Senegal are both considered regional “exceptions.” Kuwait is unique among Gulf monarchies for its free elections, Parliament, and relatively free press. Senegal has long been a stable democracy, among neighbors plagued by civil wars and ethnic conflicts, and is the only mainland West African country that has never had a coup.
Also exceptional is the long friendship between Kuwait and Senegal, which began in the 1970s. Kuwait’s most important assets in this context are its strategic foreign policy and philanthropic use of oil revenue. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development was established in 1961 and expanded its mandate to non-Arab countries in 1975, with a focus on Africa.
Senegal, for its part, prioritized diplomacy. With a 95% Muslim majority, all Senegalese presidents worked to strengthen relations with the Arab world. Mamadou Bodian and Catherine Lena Kelly analyze Senegal’s foreign policy through its participation in the formation and development of international organizations. Senegal joined the United Nations after gaining independence from France in 1960 and helped establish the Organization of African Unity. The West African country likewise worked to legitimize the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, playing an active role in the Standing Committee for Information and Cultural Affairs and the Islamic Development Bank.
Crucial for the Arab world, Senegal developed a position during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in support of Palestinian rights. Senegal has chaired the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People since its creation in 1975.
Beginnings of a Friendship
Senegal and Kuwait established diplomatic relations in 1971, when then Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah (1965-77) took his first official state visit to Senegal. Abdou Diouf, Senegal’s prime minister at the time, followed with a 1972 trip to Kuwait, which paved the way for a visit by President Léopold Sédar Senghor (1960-80) in 1975.
When Diouf returned to Kuwait in 1979, the Kuwait Fund committed to financing a phosphoric acid factory, a fishing port, a power station, and rice cultivation and road construction projects. This set the scene for the development of strong bilateral ties during the Diouf presidency (1981-2000) and reign of Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah (1977-2006). Respective embassies were opened in 1981.
Economic partnerships were already underway. The Senegalese Bank of Kuwait opened in 1974 as a joint venture among the Kuwait Foreign Trading Contracting and Investing Company, the state of Senegal, and a private Senegalese entrepreneur. Although the bank closed in 1988, it was a significant source of development funds that prioritized Senegal’s fishing, real estate, and agricultural sectors.
In 1988 in Dakar, Kuwait opened a branch of the Zakat House, the government authority that oversees Islamic charitable contributions, the only such office in sub-Saharan Africa. Zakat from Kuwait built wells, mosques, French-Arabic schools, and clinics in Senegal, aided thousands of orphans, and helped advance microcredit projects for women. By the time the Dakar office closed in 2003, in part because international affairs could be managed more effectively from Kuwait, the Zakat House was considered one of the most important foreign development initiatives in Senegal. Though there is no longer a local office, the Zakat House of Kuwait continues to fund projects in Senegal, as do many other Kuwaiti charities: Direct Aid, International Islamic Charitable Organization, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Nouri Charity Society, and Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs also supports some Senegalese projects.
The First Gulf War and Its Aftermath
As president, Diouf continued Senghor’s policy of building up the Senegalese army and using it as an instrument of foreign policy. This led to the further cementing of bilateral relations between Senegal and Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Senegal was among the first countries to condemn the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and sent 500 troops. This was a small percentage of the 205,000 multinational “friendly forces” that joined the United States’ Desert Storm troops. What was significant, however, is that the Senegalese were the only Africans to fight in Kuwait. The only other African country to participate militarily in the war was Niger, which sent troops to guard the shrines in Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, Senegalese businessmen and firefighters assisted with Kuwait’s rebuilding. And Senegal contributed military personnel to the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission. Kuwait and Senegal have since continued to promote military cooperation.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation
Ties between Senegal and Kuwait further solidified around the 1991 OIC meetings. Libya was interested in hosting the summit, designated to take place in Africa, but Arab leaders did not support Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s candidacy. As Kuwait had hosted the 1987 summit, when the next location was to be announced, Kuwait promoted Senegal. This was reciprocated with Senegal’s 2017 backing of Kuwait’s election to the U.N. Security Council – before Senegal vacated its own seat. African states maintain the largest regional U.N. voting bloc with 54 member states.
Economic diplomacy continued to develop during Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency (2000-12) and Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah’s rule (2006-20). Karim Wade, the president’s son, headed the National Agency for the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which oversaw preparations for Senegal to once again accommodate visitors for the 2008 summit. Gulf countries financed large infrastructure projects for both OIC summits.
An Arab-African Partnership for the Future?
As of 2019, Senegal had received $400 million in funds from the Kuwait Fund, the most contributed to any African country. Tanzania received the second highest funding at $260 million. Furthermore, Kuwait topped Gulf bilateral official development assistance to Senegal at $32 million in 2018, followed by Saudi Arabia at $10 million, and the United Arab Emirates at $4 million. While the OECD’s listing does not include all sources of Gulf aid, these figures attest to the economic benefit Senegal receives from its strong relationship with Kuwait.
Despite Kuwait’s ample humanitarian and development funding for Senegal, the important connection between the small Gulf emirate and the westernmost mainland African country cannot be reduced to that of “donor-recipient.” Senegal’s strength in diplomacy and use of the military in foreign policy cemented reciprocal political ties with Kuwait. Relations further developed through cultural programs, ranging from media collaboration to museum development, firefighter and teacher exchanges, and scholarships for Senegalese students.
Kuwaiti and Senegalese officials have highlighted shared political goals, solidarity with the OIC and Muslim community, and ideals of peace and democracy. Prime Minister Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah has attributed wider symbolic importance to this special partnership, as “a role model for friendly and brotherly relations between Arab and African nations.” Abdou Lahad Mbacke, Senegal’s ambassador to Kuwait since 1988, stressed “the two countries enjoy a treasured and fruitful relationship built on friendship, cooperation, mutual respect and shared values.”
It is no surprise, then, when Senegalese President Macky Sall was elected in 2012, Sabah al-Ahmed was the first Arab leader to invite him to visit. Similarly, when the emir died on September 29, 2020, the Senegalese newspaper Le Soleil published the obituary “Senegal lost a friend.” The Senegalese minister of foreign affairs was dispatched to Kuwait to visit the new emir, Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah. A Senegal-Kuwait joint commission is planning to meet soon to advance areas of continued cooperation, including defense and security, energy, the war on drugs, and trade. Private sector investments are underway, most prominently a Dakar Intercontinental hotel built by the Kharafi group. Collaboration on religious endowments – beyond Zakat House efforts – is being considered, as is aviation development and eliminating visa requirements for official passport holders.
Whereas Senegal lost a friend in Sabah al-Ahmed, Nawaf al-Ahmed and Macky Sall will likely develop warm relations similar to those enjoyed by their predecessors over the past 50 years. However, economic relations could be significantly impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, depressed oil prices, and Kuwait’s smaller 2021 budget. The Kuwait Fund is self-financed from investments and will continue to be a dominant player in Africa. Yet other humanitarian and development organizations, including the Zakat House and Kuwait’s Islamic charities, have begun to witness a reduction in donations as regional uncertainty endures. A significant allocation of funds going to assist Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, in addition to 2020 fundraising campaigns to support Kuwait’s domestic needs due to the pandemic, have inadvertently reduced available funds for Africa. Nevertheless, with such a strong foundation, ties between Kuwait and Senegal will continue to evolve, if in new directions.
is an associate professor of anthropology and Muslim studies at Michigan State University. She was a 2016-17 Fulbright Fellow in Kuwait and is a 2020-21 Luce/ACLS Fellow in religion, journalism, and international affairs.
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