By Afshin Molavi
21 June 2015
When the 22 countries of the Arab League
met in their Cairo headquarters last month to discuss common security concerns,
there were 10 African representatives in attendance. In discussions of the Arab
world, one unmistakable factor is often missed: the Arab world is heavily
African. Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco,
Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia are all Arab and African states.
Last week there was another gathering in
Egypt, of 26 African leaders who signed the historic Tripartite Free Trade
Agreement. The accord links nearly half of African countries with a collective
GDP of $1.3 trillion and a population of some 565 million in a customs union
that will ease trade barriers and potentially set the stage for a larger
continent-wide free trade agreement over the next few years.
After decades as a global laggard, Africa
has joined the most important geo-economic movement since the industrial
revolution: the rise of emerging markets, the growth of a new global middle
class, and rapid urbanization. These three powerful economic drivers will
continue to dramatically transform our world over the next several decades,
lifting millions from poverty, reshaping global trade patterns and altering
Consider that in the year 2000, the entire
continent had a collective GDP of $600 billion, roughly equivalent to the
economic output of Spain that same year. Today, Africa’s collective GDP stands
at some $2.2 trillion.
Africa has seven of the 10 fastest-growing
economies in the world. Its population now exceeds 1 billion and rising. By
2030, one in five people in the world will live in Africa, which will be the
youngest continent on earth. By 2040, 25 percent of the global workforce will
be there. Africa’s importance to the global economy will only rise.
Of course, tremendous challenges remain. Thirty
of Africa’s 54 countries are among the least developed, according to the United
Nations, and far too many rely on food imports and therefore price volatility.
Weak infrastructure - from chronic
electricity shortages to dilapidated roads and ports - remains a major
impediment to sustained growth. Some argue that this will handicap trade
agreements from the get-go. Furthermore, the continent is diverse, and the
catch-all “Africa” fails to distinguish between countries with radically
different histories and levels of development.
Egypt’s prominent role in the negotiations
that led to the free trade agreement demonstrates its role as an African bridge
state - one that can leverage its commercial and diplomatic networks,
particularly across the Arab world, toward greater integration between the
Middle East and Africa.
The African growth story has largely been
missed by most non-African Middle East states, and by a Middle East media
focused more on the multiple crises in the region, U.S. foreign policy and the
Iran nuclear talks.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the
exception. It has emerged as a key trade and investment partner for Africa.
Investments by UAE state-owned entities in sea port infrastructure (DP World)
and telecommunications (Etisalat) have supported the continent’s connectivity
both internally and with the world. UAE-based power companies have invested in
electricity supply in a small but growing number of African markets.
UAE-based airlines - Emirates, Etihad and
Fly Dubai - are growing their African networks. Emirates in particular have
emerged as the most important foreign carrier in several of the continent’s
largest markets. Dubai International Airport has become a virtual “Africa hub,”
and the city has emerged as a key logistics and financial gateway linking Asia
Other Middle East states should follow
suit, joining China, India, Turkey and the UAE in viewing Africa as a
tremendous opportunity for trade growth and investment, rather than a continent
to be “saved.”
Many African states stand at a crossroads,
driven by a rising and increasingly urbanized middle class, steady growth and
greater global integration. “Across Africa, we’re seeing more and more
countries ‘open for business,’ with a more amenable policy and regulatory
environment,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Africa Studies program at the
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“We’re also seeing much lower debt loads,
better budget balances, realistic exchange rates, low inflation rates, and in
most countries in Africa the macroeconomic picture has been much more
favourable and pragmatic.... Urban economies are not only bringing up a lot of
growth in the informal sector, but they’re generating formal sector gains as well.”
However, several African states face the
tremendous challenge of terrorism. The rise of Boko Haram represents a setback
to Nigeria and parts of central and West Africa, but also a setback to
humanity: the group’s depravity rivals that of the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria (ISIS), to which it has pledged allegiance.
Middle East and African governments and
civil societies thus have a common enemy, so security and intelligence
cooperation should become an integral part of their engagement. The Arab world and
the broader Middle East should take a more active role in the momentous
developments reshaping Africa, as well as the dangerous movements trying to
turn back the clock.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow and director of the Global Emerging and
Growth Markets Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins
University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a senior
research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington DC-based think