The Saudi-Iranian conflict of wills in the Sahel and West Africa

In this article, the researcher Dr. Al-Hussein Al-Sheikh Al-Alawi deals with the conflict of wills that exists in the African continent between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a conflict, although its threads are hidden, but its indicators are beginning to loom in the horizon in a way that will make some regions of this continent a theater for competition between the axes of Riyadh and Tehran.

Saudi influence in Africa was initially motivated by religious rather than political motives. Saudi attention focused primarily on the preaching and educational aspects among the Muslim Africans, who constitute a majority in the Sahel region and the west of the continent and follow the Maliki school of thought. However, the dominant Sufi character of the Muslims of Africa, as 78% of them are followers of the Sufi orders, made the Saudi cultural tide with a Salafi background not find the appropriate ground in African circles. There are differences of principle between the two schools of Sufism and Salafism, as is well known. The African Muslim has come to see the shrines and tombs of the saints as an integral part of his religious heritage, which is what makes the contrast with the Salafi vision. This component was exploited by Iran when dealing with the Muslims of the continent; She did not antagonize African Sufism, but rather cooperated with it, which allowed it to infiltrate some segments of Muslims in the west of the continent. Iran has sought to extend its influence in the African continent, realizing the importance of the continent to the Arab neighborhood on the one hand, and on the other hand, the important role that the continent is expected to play in terms of energy in the future, which made Shiism affect many regions of Africa. The author of the article believes that there are indications that Saudi Arabia has begun to develop and change its policy towards Africa, especially since the vacuum that Iran filled in the African continent after the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, some of which was at the expense of Saudi Arabia, made the latter need to develop its African policy.

West Africa represents a large population weight of more than 300 million people, and represents the largest Islamic bloc in the African continent. Islam is the religion of the majority of the population. The West African region represents a vast region extending geographically from Senegal in the west to Chad in the east, and from Mauritania in the north to Nigeria. This region includes 17 countries.

The conflict of wills in the region of the African Sahel and the West of the continent went through many phases, the heroes of which were many continental, Arab and international regional powers during the period that followed the decline of the wave of colonialism from the continent and the emergence of independent states and entities in Africa. Algeria, Libya, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the matter between the latter two reached the point of non-military confrontation on more than one level, culminated in the impressive successes of Iranian soft power at the expense of Saudi Arabia during the last three decades by converting 7 million Muslims in the Sahel region and the west of the continent from the Maliki Sunni sect. To the Twelver Shi’ite sect, however, Saudi policies since King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the affairs show advanced degrees of confrontation that are expected to overthrow the most important part of the hidden Iranian empire in West Africa.

The roots of the emergence of the conflict of regional powers in the region

The active Mauritanian diplomacy (1) in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century played a pivotal role in consolidating the pillars of Saudi influence in the African Sahel region and the west of the continent by employing the position that the Mauritanian diplomacy occupied in that era with the neighboring African countries to the south and east. It is the same role played by the ancestors of the Shinawat as the most prominent advocates of the African continent, who brought the Islamic religion to the jungles and remote areas of the brown continent. Until the Second World War, the Shiite preachers remained the most prominent campaigners of the Islamic call in the region.

And because the Saudi spread and influence in that era were driven by religious rather than political motives, the Saudi interest in that period focused on spreading the Salafist trend specifically among the Muslim Africans, who constitute a majority in the Sahel region and the west of the continent and follow the Maliki school of thought.

78% of the Muslims of West Africa and the Sahel follow the Sufi orders spread there and coming mostly from the Arab countries in North Africa (Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria), the natural incubators of the Islamic heritage of Africans. Some western and central countries of the continent have become social and religious institutions with a presence and dominance in political affairs! Sufi orders fiercely resisted French colonialism at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Africa there are dozens of Sufi orders, the most important of which are eight, whose followers range from a few million to more than a hundred million followers.

One of the most important reasons for the decline of the Salafist tide in Africa is the early clash between the Sufi and Salafist orders, in which Sufism fought fiercely and in which the words were harsh. Many remember that in the early eighties of the last century, protests took place in many West African countries about the curricula of Islamic institutes established by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in those countries. It is affiliated with the University of Imam Muhammad bin Saud because those curricula contain words that harm the Sufi movements and ways that are the mainstay of Islam in Africa.

The Sufi orders and their consequent phenomenon of shrines and the tombs of the righteous saints have become an integral part of the inheritance and religious component of the African Muslim, and it is difficult to transcend them, or rather to fight them. Defending these beliefs, most of which are local African branches of African Islam.

This component, which is considered an integral part of the mentality and conscience of the African Muslim person, is what Libya and Iran realized when they dealt with the Muslims of the continent. Iran did not hostile Sufism in the continent and at the same time did not support it, but it cooperated with the Sufi orders and its symbols in achieving its goals and penetration among the segments of Muslims in the west of the continent. The raider, who became threatening her in her own home and among her disciples. As for Libya, it went far beyond what Iran did, as it embraced and supported the Sufi orders, and allocated a fixed budget to its symbols, who became permanent guests of honor on Tripoli, where they are revered, revered and warmly received. African heads of state (with the exception of Nelson Mandela “Madiba”).

With the escalation of fighting in Afghanistan between the Mujahideen supported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America against the Soviet influence and presence, the hostility between the advocates of Salafism from the Saudis and others with the Sufi orders in the Sahel and West Africa increased and grew. The thing that made the kingdom turn more eastward and its influence diminished westward little by little, until it almost disappeared in the region. On the other hand, the Iranian and Libyan influence was strengthening in parallel without clashing between them!

Iranian Shiite expansion in the Sahel and West Africa

The Iranian presence in the African continent dates back to the beginning of the sixties of the twentieth century, with the emergence of the entities of the newly independent African states, through diplomatic relations between them and the Shah’s Iran. The Cold War is calculated on the Western camp led by the United States of America. However, with the emergence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979) and the emergence of Khomeini’s project calling for the export of the revolution, the Iranians turned their attention to Africa, as a field for spreading ideas and fighting the Sunni opponent. Through thirty years of diligent and organized work, through civil organizations and bodies, cultural centers, economic projects, diplomatic and media work, Iran has been able to create incubators and pockets of Twelver Shiite thought in the West African region that vary in strength from one country to another.

Most of the countries in the region possess huge reserves of mineral wealth, such as: gas, oil, gold, cobalt, iron, copper, diamonds, platinum, uranium, phosphates and manganese, in addition to the presence of the largest desert area in the world that qualifies the region to be a huge source of clean future energy, in addition to the rivers in the south and the jungle forests. However, the inability of the countries of the region to exploit their raw materials and the high rates of poverty in them was the gate through which Iran entered the region. Iran has skillfully exploited the region’s need for foreign investments due to the inability of most of these countries to exploit their raw materials. Iran has established hundreds of major economic projects in Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and thousands of small and medium enterprises in the same countries in addition to Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Liberia and Guinea, and to a lesser extent In Mauritania!

During two decades, the three presidents of Iran (Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad) made successive high-level visits with large delegations to these countries and concluded many joint bilateral agreements between these countries and Iran. This approach, which Iran excelled in, has achieved many gains, most notably:

  1. He helped break the isolation imposed by the international community on Iran as a result of its nuclear program.
  2. Opening new markets for Iranian industries that are unable to compete internationally.
  3. Iran has generated tens of billions of dollars in revenue from these joint projects and through the refineries that Iran has built in some of these countries to refine Iranian oil. 
  4. Selling Iranian oil, which suffers from embargo and embargo, in global markets.
  5. Spreading Shiism under the cover of these projects and distinguished economic relations.
  6. Obtaining raw materials at differential prices, especially uranium ore.

Iran has sought to extend its influence in the African continent, realizing the importance of the continent to the Arab neighborhood on the one hand and on the other hand the important role the continent is expected to play in terms of energy in the future and that the African continent is considered the global food stock that is spared for a while, and Iran has helped in this:

  • The end of the Iran-Iraq war. 
  • The spread of Sufi movements in the north, west, central and east of the continent.
  • The events of September 11 and the consequent restrictions on Sunni Islam. 
  • The decline of Arab interest in the African continent. 
  • The presence of a large Lebanese community in the western countries of the continent controls the joints of the economies of many African countries.
  • The decline of the role of Al-Azhar in the African continent.
  • The growing phenomenon of extremism and religious extremism among Sunni jihadist groups. 
  • Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, which created the charisma of the Lebanese leader of Hezbollah (Hassan Nasrallah) as a legendary revolutionary figure who embodies the Shiite rebellion versus the Salafi submission – in the eyes of the Shiites – in the Sunni countries.

Iran has marketed itself and extended its influence in the African continent through the gateway to Shiism, which enabled it to convert 7 million Sunni Muslims according to the doctrine of Imam Malik to Shiites in the west of the continent (2) . In order to achieve this endeavour, Iran used a huge propaganda arsenal, spent tens of billions of dollars, and employed an army of preachers, experts, advisors and merchants that exceeded thirty thousand Iranians and other nationalities, most of whom are Lebanese. To this end, the Iranian government has received: 

  • A study consisting of 1132 pages prepared by Sheikh Mahmoud Abdullah Ibrahim, the leader of the Shiite sect in the State of the Comoros (3), with officials in the seminary in Qom (on the mechanisms of spreading the Twelver Shiite doctrine in the African continent).
  • A study prepared by Jacobs International Consulting Office (dealing with ways and mechanisms of economic expansion in Africa).

In light of these two studies, Iran has developed a three-stage action plan that ensures it achieves influence in the region and converts its Muslims to Shiites:

  1. The first stage (1989-1995): during which Iran limited its activity in the west of the continent to establishing charitable projects in two important fields: health and education; For 6 years, Iran worked to build 68 health units, ranging from a hospital, a clinic, and a health care center in West African countries, and in these countries it established 92 educational institutions from primary to university.
  2. The second phase (1995-2000): During this phase, Iran supported 8,673 small and medium-sized enterprises by providing gifts and soft loans without interest, benefiting 13,095 individuals in these countries, of whom 87,305 are members, i.e. just over 67% of them (4) .
  3. The third stage (2000-till now): Entering into giant joint investment projects with the public sector in these countries or the private sector. Most of these giant projects are concentrated in 5 main countries: Nigeria, which has the largest number of African Shiites (5 million from origin of 7 million African Shiites, or about 71% of the Shiites of Africa), Ghana, Benin and Niger; Where these three countries have huge reserves of uranium, and Senegal, which is the diplomatic front for Iran in West Africa, and which Iran was able to convert half a million of its Muslims to Shiites (5) .

During these three phases, the advocacy activity was progressing in full swing through the Shiite businessmen of the Lebanese community, which is estimated at 213,674 Lebanese immigrants, of whom the Shiites are 58%. As for the Francophone frameworks from outside the Lebanese community, they were Shiites from Tunisia.

Iranian diplomatic missions played a pivotal role in establishing a public relations network with influential people, civil society men and the political spectrum. Some Lebanese businessmen had a hidden role with organized crime men in smuggling diamonds and weapons to and from the countries of the region. Iran has established distinguished relations with the pivotal countries in the region, led by Senegal, to which Iranian foreign policy pays special attention due to its leadership in West Africa and because it is the most stable and most educated country in the region. Where it has the highest percentage of holders of higher degrees in the region and the continent.

Iran has sought, by various means, to spread the doctrine of Twelver Shiism in the African continent, especially in the West, taking advantage of the conditions of ignorance, poverty and the love of the people of Africa for Islam in general and Ahl al-Bayt in particular, to entice Sunnis to Shi’ism by building universities, schools, hospitals, mosques, institutions, offices, libraries, Husseiniyas and ritual halls. And celebrations to other means of composition and encouragement with the aim of planting Shiism among Sunnis and reaping the largest possible of the visionaries (6)And those joining the ranks of the Shiites are like donating the scholarships of Sunnis whose doors are closed to them to the most prestigious Shiite universities all over the world with the support and sponsorship of Iran, the state of Islam and Muslims, and the beacon of light in the African continent, as some like to call it in Africa! Until the number of Shiites currently reached 7 million Shiites in West Africa, nearly 5 million of them in Nigeria alone, which has become the center of Shiites in Africa, knowing that most West African countries did not know Shiites until recently.

Thus, it seems that Iran’s endeavor to encircle the Arab countries with a Shiite belt that constitutes the soft Arab flank has made great strides in the absence of a unified Arab strategy to stand in the face of the expansion and spread of Iranian influence in the Arab neighboring countries, which until recently remained a traditional area of ​​influence for the Arab neighborhood.

The struggle of wills in the region

The region witnessed great conflict and competition between regional and international players in the region due to the region’s importance in terms of natural resources, its important geopolitical location, and the region’s involvement in the global war on terrorism. The manifestations of this competition resulted in the following outputs:

  • The rivalry between the two arch-neighbours, Morocco and Algeria, has paralyzed the two countries from achieving a significant position in the region for many considerations that may be detailed in a forthcoming report, but it is noticeable that Morocco has begun to regain much of the influence it lost in the region following the disappearance of the late Libyan leader. While Algeria’s policies and strategies towards the countries of the region are still characterized by lack of clarity of vision and improvisation! 
  • China’s focus on the economic aspect of its relations with African countries and its distance from the political quagmire has spared it many slippages and made it a friend to all, successive governments and peoples alike. Currently, China is considered the first undisputed economic partner of the brown continent.
  • The Turkish influence has steadily increased through the two gates: Nouakchott and Dakar for nearly a decade.
  • The decline or disappearance of the Israeli influence, which undoubtedly still has a remnant, especially in the decision-making circles and the Francophone elite.
  • The return of French influence through the military gate after the “Serval” operation in northern and eastern Mali.
  • The heavy presence of Western intelligence services after most of the countries of the region became a hotbed and incubator for extremism and transnational terrorism, especially after the collapse of the Libyan state following the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

However, the most prominent regional player, who enjoyed unparalleled influence and was rightfully the Joker of the region and the region, was the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whose unlimited influence Iran knew how to make good use of in consolidating the pillars of its hidden empire. Whoever thinks that the Libyan influence in Africa was only found with the power of money and the policy of debt-purchasing is mistaken. Rather, these measures have strengthened it in urban areas, metropolitan areas, and large cities, while the penetration into local communities that are the sources of electoral power and the creation of lasting influence in them took place through long effort and hard work. It resulted in a network of intertwined relations with tribal leaders, sheikhs, local notables, Muslim and Christian clerics, traditional kings and local sultans whose influence extends to several neighboring countries and who have been betrothed to all successive governments, and some of them even have a role in ministerial appointments and government formations in their countries.

The late Muammar Gaddafi classified African countries into three categories and dealt differently with each category.

First class (compliant countries):It includes the poorest countries in the continent, where corruption is rampant, and includes most of the countries of West and Central Africa and some of the countries of the East of the continent and the African islands that follow the continent. Libya penetrated these countries through the policy of receivables, where commissions and gifts were paid in cash to the top of the political pyramid, ministers, dignitaries, statesmen and their wives. As Libya, in its financial dealings, avoided bank transfers, and most of the leaders of these countries were employees of Gaddafi with the rank of president and ministers, and with them, Gaddafi did not show the customary respect and did not follow the diplomatic norms and protocols used when receiving them, as he sent ministers to receive the heads of these countries and deliberately left them They wait and are usually late for the appointment when meeting with them, but it has been observed in more than one African summit that he insults them and humiliates them when he speaks on their behalf as if he is issuing orders to them. Most of these presidents were afraid and fearful of Gaddafi because they realized that whoever complains about this treatment or tries to deviate from the context or declare a measure of independence, Gaddafi will plot for him a military coup that overthrows him or supports his opponent in the presidential elections! In these countries, the Libyan intelligence apparatus penetrated the ranks of the army and civil society institutions. Most of these countries have always supported Libya’s official opinion in international forums.

The second category (regular states):This category includes civil states with stable civil society institutions and a degree of stability, reasonable democratic experience, and less corruption. These countries created Libya an area of ​​influence by contributing to infrastructure projects more than the first category countries, and the volume of investment in them is remarkable, and Libya exerted increasing pressure on the governments of these countries through their penetration into the social fabric of these countries through sultans, traditional kings and tribal elders In addition, the International Islamic Call Society and the Foreign Investment Authority (Gaddafi’s two financial arms abroad) have become, with time, strong central influence in the countries of this category, in addition to Libya’s penetration of civil society institutions such as parties, unions, youth and student unions.

The third category (the quarrelsome countries):This category includes large countries on the continent, either rich countries or of stature and status in the continent, and Libya’s relationship with these countries ranged between solid friendship, which is not without problems, such as South Africa, and clear and obvious competition, such as Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria, to the weak relationship such as Morocco. Tripoli a lot, and these countries represented the voice of opposition to Gaddafi’s policies and methods in the African Union. Indeed, the clown that the late Gaddafi was famous for in the international press was due to the press of these countries. Gaddafi was careful not to show clear hostility to these quarrelsome countries, but he created hotbeds of tension for them with neighboring countries, sometimes reaching the point of destabilizing the country’s security. The African summits witnessed several verbal altercations between Gaddafi and some leaders of the quarrelsome countries.

Tehran knew how to employ the hostility, sometimes hidden and sometimes declared, between Riyadh and Tripoli to enhance its position and presence in Africa, and the Libyan influence greatly helped it to expand continentally and on more than one level. Among the common things that Iran and Libya planned together:

  • Moving the sleeping Shiite enclaves in the eastern region of the Kingdom, on the southern border with Yemen, and on the northern border with Iraq.
  • The internationalization of the issue of the Holy Land in the Hijaz and the insistence on separating its subordination to a specific state (i.e., the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), and considering the Hijaz as a common heritage and property for all Muslims that must be managed by a government formed of jurists and scholars in all the Islamic world similar to the Vatican for Christians.
  • Show Saudi Arabia as a repressive and dictatorial regime by calling for the overthrow of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia by calling for a republican system and liberal pluralism. Despite the many attempts by the two countries to co-opt the Saudi liberal opposition in the West, this opposition knew how to distance itself from political polarization and kept some channels of communication open with Tripoli until the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Therefore, the successes of the two countries in recruiting and forming sleeper cells against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were more evident in Yemen and some scattered pockets in the eastern region of the Kingdom and among the Saudi community in the State of Bahrain.

 Saudi soft power

Western research centers say that during the quarter century preceding the events of September 11, 2001, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent 112 billion dollars in gifts and aid to poor countries in Asia, Africa, the Islamic and Arab worlds, of which nearly 84 billion dollars were allocated to activities with a religious and advocacy orientation. Sunni Salafi approach. However, experts and international research centers say: The reasons for the disproportion of Saudi external spending with its regional and international status are:

  1. Most of the Saudi aid was in the form of direct material aid that is not publicly disclosed, and mainly the men of the ruling regime in countries where corruption prevails.
  2. Politically, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia adopts the principle of impartiality and impartiality and not resorting to the option of force except when necessary. It has been known about Saudi diplomacy to build reconciliation, and that it does not interfere except to the extent that it is requested, and does not accept anyone to interfere in its affairs and decisions. Throughout those decades, it favored alternatives of goodness and followed the paths of reconciliation, moderation, silence, prudence, patience, and avoidance of emotion, and provided the parties a haven for dialogue and problem solving. And the outstanding problems in the commendable ways, and it took the lead in signing treaties of Arab, Islamic and international organizations.
  3. The extreme secrecy of the Saudi diplomacy in not showing its successes and not praising them, which hides the most prominent achievements of the Kingdom in the field of international relations and the game of nations in which the Kingdom has achieved impressive successes as well as resounding failures. 
  4.  The absence of Saudi local houses of expertise that play the role of a barometer in planning the Kingdom’s foreign policies in a purely pragmatic manner.

 The Saudi-Mauritanian-Senegalese axis

Saudi foreign policy witnessed fundamental transformations after King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the reins of power. It worked to change the stereotyped image of the Saudi interaction with events, most notably embodied in two remarkable matters mainly related to the Kingdom’s policy toward Iran, namely:

  1. Deal firmly and forcefully with Iranian threats in the region through the use of hard force in Yemen to repel the sweeping Houthi attack that took control of most parts of Yemen and is backed by Tehran, and a “Political and Security Affairs Committee” was established, which accompanied the General Intelligence whose main task will be to follow up on Iranian threats in Iraq and Syria Lebanon and Yemen, and setting the necessary policies to confront and combat the growth of Iranian influence in the region and the region.
  2. Trimming Iran’s nails in its areas of influence inside and outside the Arab world.

In this regard, two undeclared alliances were formed: the Saudi-Mauritanian-Senegalese alliance, and the Saudi-Libyan-Chad alliance, while the last alliance is still in the process of making arrangements, but the first alliance has made great strides and exceeded the stage of coordination and arrangements since the beginning A visit by the presidents of Senegal and Mauritania in early April 2015; Senegalese President Macky Sall pledged to participate with hundreds of Senegalese soldiers in Operation Decisive Storm; That pledge was welcomed by the kingdom after the frank Pakistani apology and the Egyptian evasion. On October 6, 2015, the Mauritanian President paid a working visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he was received with great warmth and welcome! He spent several days in discussions, of which only a few were nominated to the press.


Observers have become aware that the policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding Iranian threats and its growing influence in the region have taken an upward trend since King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the reins. The international embargo over its nuclear program came after preliminary understandings were reached between the West and Iran last April, after a series of marathon talks on its nuclear program.

To compensate for the failure of Saudi policies regarding the thorny Syrian file and the stumbling in Iraq and Lebanon, the Kingdom decided to engage in a comprehensive, undeclared war against Iran whose most prominent arena will be West Africa and the African Sahel, this region that formed the alternative lung for Iran over the past period and greatly alleviated the repercussions of the siege. The suffocation that the international community struck around her and contributed to breaking her isolation. The countries of the region will witness a frantic debate and movement in this direction, the signs of which are beginning to loom in the form of large Saudi investments from the public and private sectors (7) towards these countries. A fight in which Nouakchott and its ally Dakar will spearhead, and the countries of this region will experience tension in relations with Tehran that may culminate in the severing of diplomatic relations with more than one capital in West Africa in the next few years.
Dr.. Al-Hussein Sheikh Al-Alawi – Mauritanian researcher and academic

1-Muhammad Al-Amjad bin Muhammad Al-Amin Al-Salem: Hamdi Ould Meknes, Memory of Mauritanian Diplomacy, Mauritania Today website (published: November 25, 2014), (accessed: November 8, 2015), q=node/2514
2-Amir Saeed, The Shiite Map of the World: A Doctrinal, Historical, Demographic, and Strategic Study (Cairo: Al-Risala Center for Human Studies and Research, first edition 2009).
3-Seven million Shiites in West Africa and the establishment of the “Ahl al-Bayt Synod” in Guinea, Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper website (published: May 11, 2010), (last accessed: November 8, 2015),
http://archive.aawsat .com/details.asp?issueno=11700&article=569082#.VkERsbeKG1s

4 –  The author interviews officials and diplomats concerned with Libyan affairs, including the Saudi ambassador in Tripoli.
5-See an article: Has the Shiite tide in Africa turned into a phenomenon? On the “Al-Mukhtar Al-Islami” website, accessed on November 11, 2015:
6-Al-Mustasbir: The Sunnis who converted to Shiism.
7-Saudi Arabia is about to invest two billion dollars in Mauritania, the Mauritanian news site (published date: November 9, 2015), (accessed date: November 10, 2015), 11-09-16-18-48.html

About the author


Al-Hussein Sheikh Al-Alawi

Mauritanian researcher and academic interested in Maghreb affairs and coastal issues

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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