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Mena trade flows: rewriting history

Mena / 29-01-15 / by
Trade Flows Report_3

There are ancient trade routes between Africa and the Middle East, but these look set to be redrawn along the lines of new energy discoveries and ethically questionable land grabs. Finbarr Bermingham reports.


Trade routes between Africa and the Middle East predate most others. There are accounts of the Axumite Kingdom in modern day Eritrea and Ethiopia sending cargos to the Middle and East of Asia throughout the first millennium, AD. Swahili trading hubs dotted along Africa’s east coast commonly exported and imported from the Middle East from the 12th century. The spread of Islam throughout the east coast and through the Sahel accelerated this. Musa I of Mali is reported to have made the Hajj to Mecca in 1324, taking 60,000 men with him, among them 12,000 slaves carrying four-pound gold bars and camels laden with gold dust. They say he distributed his gold glibly enough to have deflated the price markets in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for the full decade to come.

So no, bilateral trade between the regions is certainly not a new thing. “The psychology of trading between the two is very well-established,” Elizabeth Stephens, head of credit and political risk analysis at JLT Specialty tells GTR. In recent years, though, it has taken on new prominence.

This can be partly explained by the rise of Dubai and the wider UAE as a trading hub. The UAE now accounts for more global trade than Australia (which is 93 times its size), and Brazil (103 times), while Dubai has been coined the “gateway to Africa”. Its importance increased almost in correlation with industrialisation and expansionism in East Asia. Chinese and Indian traders and investors often use Dubai as a stop-off point en route to Africa. Emirates now flies to 25 African cities, from Abidjan to Tunis, with many of the flights said to be loaded with Asian visitors. 10% of total air traffic at Dubai Airport – the world’s seventh-busiest – in 2012 was coming from or going to Africa.

Simultaneously, Africa’s consumer market has been growing exponentially. At the Dubai Shopping Festival in 2013, Angolans were the sixth-highest spenders, parting with more money than the French and even the Qataris. A 2012 report by McKinsey, a management consultancy, reported that the continent’s consumer-facing industries are expected to grow by US$400bn, representing its single-largest business opportunity, by 2020. In a speech given in April, Nigeria’s minister for industry, trade and investment Olusegun Aganga said that African consumer spend had grown by US$2.4tn in recent years and is set to grow further still.

It’s a fact that hasn’t eluded companies selling consumer products. “The African market is not going to shrink any time soon,” says Kamel Alzarka, the chairman of alternative financier Falcon. “It’s becoming a significant market even for the multinationals and they are using Dubai as a hub for that.”

Middle Eastern companies have been channelling money into Sub-Saharan Africa. Etisalat, the Abu Dhabi-based telecoms giant, has hoovered-up service providers in Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, with plans to expand network coverage. Last year, Etisalat Nigeria secured a US$1.2bn debt package from a syndicate of local banks comprised of Access Bank, Ecobank, First City Monument Bank, Fidelity, FSDH Merchant, Guaranty Trust, Keystone, Mainstreet, Stanbic, UBA and Zenith.

In 2012, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce opened what it said would be the first of many local offices, in Addis Ababa. One year on, bilateral trade between Ethiopia and Dubai had grown by 100%. Spearheaded by the UAE, the Middle East has grand plans for its involvement in Africa, but the extent of future bilateral trade could be determined by two things: energy and land.

Energy providers
Kenya currently operates one of East Africa’s only crude oil refineries: the 90,000 barrels-a-day Mombasa refinery. As yet however, the refinery mainly processes imported crude, much of which comes from the UAE. The refinery rarely runs at full capacity. As well as Kenya’s 88,000 barrel-a-day domestic consumption, Mombasa acts as an entry point for refined crude (mostly Murban crude from Abu Dhabi) which is then transported to landlocked Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda. In total, 4.5 million tonnes of crude products are imported through Mombasa every year.

But the last few years have seen a number of big energy discoveries across the continent. In the west, finds in Ghana and Nigeria have led to a rush of investment. In the east, large oil and gas discoveries in and off the coasts of Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania have put investors in a spin and led to a spike in exploration missions.

In September 2013, the prospector Africa Oil upsized its estimations regarding the amount of oil in the Lokichar basin in Kenya’s north by a factor of five. It followed Italian oil company Enel’s reporting of a second giant natural gas discovery off the coast of Mozambique. It will be sometime before the reserves are tapped and online. There will need to be huge infrastructural investment. But there’s little doubt that these countries, with the lustre of black gold in abundance, will be able to attract the funds. “Kenya and Uganda are expected to be producing their own domestic oil resources within five years,” Mark Bohlund, a senior economist for Sub-Saharan Africa at IHS tells GTR. “They’ll have refineries there and this could impact the energy imports from the Middle East. You’ll have a big reduction in trade there.”

It’s a view echoed by Stephens at JLT. “Investments in energy products will change because Africa won’t need to buy from the Middle East,” she says. “There’s oil in Kenya, gas in Mozambique and Tanzania and lots of coal around there too. The need to import will change. In terms of trade, the gas will be either sold overseas or to countries in the interior, East to Central Africa. There won’t be direct trading with Mena.”

It’s unlikely too that there will be any Middle Eastern involvement in the infrastructure boom that’s anticipated. The majority of the Middle East’s existing energy infrastructure was built by western companies, while the ongoing construction in the region is being undertaken by Koreans, Chinese and Turks, predominantly. Iran, as an example, has made it very clear that when sanctions are lifted, it wants western companies and top technology. They’ll be using the same companies in Africa, none of which are indigenous to Mena.

Land ahoy
If there’s one commodity the oil-rich states of the Middle East crave more than any other, it’s arable land. Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are all among the 10 countries with the lowest renewable freshwater supply. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE consume between 200 and 300% of their natural water allocation annually. There’s a lot of desalination in the region, but this is expensive, fuel intensive, and a big pollutant.

The GCC states have taken to purchasing swathes of land overseas, in more fertile countries, with the intention of returning food to their population. They aren’t the only nations doing this – China, Brazil and India are also heavily invested. But the arid GCC’s need, with its booming population, is most pressing. It’s tempting think of the Gulf exclusively in energy terms; but food imports are of vital importance to security. After all, a starving Saudi Arabia isn’t going to produce much oil.

Much of the land is in Sub-Saharan Africa which, despite its history of drought and famine, has rich and fecund soil. Food insecurity is mainly a result of bureaucratic mismanagement. Stephens says that JLT has underwritten grain trades out of Sudan for years. “Within most countries, with the exception of the Central African Republic, there are pockets that function very well,” she says. “Sudan is relatively advanced in terms of agricultural industry.”

Stop Africa Land Grab, an international organisation “dedicated to rolling back the existential threat posed to all Africans by the theft of land under the guise of foreign investment”, says that the countries most affected by land grabs are the DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia. The practice hit its peak in 2009, since which it has slowed under international pressure, but not stopped.

According a report entitled Land grab or development opportunity? authored by the International Institute for Environment and Development, a think tank, “the Saudi Arabian company Hadco reportedly acquired 25,000 hectares of cropland in Sudan, with 60% of the project’s cost coming from the governmental Saudi Industrial Development Fund. Similarly, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development is financing the development of 28,000 hectares of farmland in Sudan to grow alfalfa for use as animal feed, and probably maize, beans and potatoes for export to the UAE”.

The Worldwatch Institute, another think tank, estimates that between 2000 and 2010, “Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar alone bought up 4.6 million hectares of land”. In one year alone, an area the size of France was bought up between China and Saudi Arabia in Ethiopia, both of which use it to grow rice for export back to their own countries.

The ethics of land grabbing are questionable. Local governments say that it will benefit local communities and will create jobs. Compensation fees are supposed to be paid to people living on the land that’s acquired, and there is often some sort of knowledge transfer process, to help local farmers improve their own methods. This is not always the case though.

The big danger is that with so much arable land leaving national ownership, the struggle to feed local mouths will be perpetuated and accentuated. This factor may deter western investors, but is less an issue for some people on the ground in Africa, as well as the likes of the GCC and China.

“There are reputational issues. If a big conglomerate is seen to be exporting food from a country known for droughts or famine, what does it do to your international reputation? If you’re a UK or US firm, that matters. If you’re from the Gulf or China, it probably doesn’t matter. And if you’re an African dictator, does it really matter to you if your people are starving? It matters more for a democratic leader. The government is agreeing to land leases and purchases because it’s an excellent form of revenue generation,” says Stephens.

Much has been said about the development of GCC-financed mega farms, particularly in reference to Ethiopia and Sudan. With energy influence that’s set to wane over the coming years, this may evolve to be the cornerstone of bilateral trade between Mena and Africa, even if it is very much one way traffic.

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