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South Africa–Middle East Relations During the Mandela and Mbeki Presidency:
A Test of Sure-Footed Maturity and Do-Able Morality?

by

Iqbal Jhazbhay1

July 22, 2004

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The support which our liberation struggle enjoyed from Saudi Arabia in particular, and the entire Arab world, not only helped secure the defeat of Apartheid. It brought us the opportunity to improve the lives of our people, through our reconstruction and development program[me]. And our freedom is serving us well.

Nelson Mandela2

 

It is argued, passionately, that self-interest must determine everything we do, as self-interest drove those in our country who sold weapons to the genocidaires of Rwanda. This is an obscene and barbaric creed to which we should never subscribe.

By the same token, we cannot stand aside as Palestinians and Israelis kill one another in a seemingly interminable conflict. Equally, we dare never abandon the path that we have chosen for our own country, to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it. Neither can we relax our striving for the victory of the African Renaissance — for the sake of the children and of our future.

Thabo Mbeki3

 

Introduction

 

South Africa is not unique in finding the Middle East the most challenging and emotionally charged area of its foreign policy. Its relations with this region that unites Africa, Europe and Asia have tested every tenet of South Africa’s foreign relations. Chief amongst the many challenges is how to balance the schools of realism (maturity) and of idealism (morality) effectively.

 

In economic dealings with this market of more than 300 million people, South Africa comes smack up against the developed countries of Europe, North America and Asia. Having been shunned by the bulk of the Middle Eastern countries until a decade ago as a result of a political and economic embargo placed by the Arab League on the apartheid regime, South Africa, in its new democratic form has been playing catch-up. No quarter is asked or given in competing for access to these wealthy markets and trying to attract petro-dollar investment.

 

South Africa can never lose sight of the reality that three-quarters of its liquid energy requirements come from this region. In turn, the Middle East is also the most promising market for South Africa’s arms industry, which was conceived under apartheid and has now developed into a lucrative source of foreign trade.

 

Politically, South Africa has had to balance matters of national interest with morality and ideals. It has had to determine its own policy in the face of pressure from the Western powers. This has required a very delicate and nuanced balance between behaving like the country with the most sophisticated constitution on earth, and acknowledging its solidarity with countries that stood shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed masses of South Africa in the liberation struggle. Again, as a country whose liberation was assisted by the support of an international community repelled by the inhumanity of the apartheid regime, South Africa is required to set high standards of human rights. Many of the countries of the Middle East do not meet these standards, and yet South Africa has to engage them and to acknowledge the range of interpretations of Islam that prevail in this region.

 

With the majority of South Africans adhering to one of the world’s three major monotheistic religions, political developments in the region of their origin will inevitably have a major domestic impact. To date, the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has addressed sensitive international issues, such as the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine, in terms of its non-racial, inclusivist principles. Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon are key points of attention, while Afghanistan is of particular interest to the Muslim leadership in South Africa. (Discussion of the latter falls outside the scope of this article.)

 

The South African Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) divides the Middle East into two sections: the Levant, comprising Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and the Persian Gulf, made up of Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

 

Levant representation in South Africa

 

 

 

 

Levant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Israel Embassy

 

Palestine Embassy

 

Jordan Embassy

 

Lebanon Embassy

 

Syria Embassy

 

Iraq Embassy (dormant)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missions in Levant

 

 

 

 

South African representatives in the Levant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Levant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ramallah Rep Office

 

Tel Aviv Embassy

 

Amman

Embassy

 

Lebanon Embassy

(honorary)

 

Damascus Embassy (about to be opened)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missions in the Gulf

 

 

 

 
South African representatives in the Gulf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gulf states

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riyadh Embassy

 

UAE Embassy

 

Kuwait Embassy

 

Tehran Embassy

 

Muscat Embassy

 

Doha Embassy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeddah Cons. general

 

Dubai

Consulate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gulf countries represented in South Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gulf states

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iran

 

Kuwait

 

Oman

 

Qatar

 

UAE

 

Saudi

 

Yemen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The growth of contact between South Africa and this region over the past 10 years (that is, since the advent of democracy in South Africa) has been considerable. In the early 1990s, South Africa had a single operating embassy in the Middle East, namely Israel, with which it developed a special relationship that included co-operation on nuclear security. The South African embassy in Tehran closed after the Islamic revolution in 1979, and Iran’s new revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, vowed to fight ‘the tentacles of apartheid’. The mission in Beirut lapsed but never officially closed. Today, each of the Middle East countries mentioned above has an embassy in South Africa.

Pretoria has reciprocated by establishing embassies in the Levant (see the box above). Plans are afoot to open an embassy in Damascus in 2004. South African missions exist in all of the Gulf States with the exception of Bahrain. That mission closed in 1997 after being established in 1993, and is now covered by the South African embassy in Saudi Arabia. Additional consulates have been opened in Jeddah and Dubai.

The recent history of South Africa’s dealings with this region have been characterised by a well-planned strengthening of political and economic ties. Nevertheless, I propose in this chapter that the approaches taken by presidents Thabo Mbeki and his predecessor Nelson Mandela, both of whom took intense personal interest in these relations, have been distinctly different.

 

 

The Mandela era: Laying the foundations

 

 

A number of key states in the Persian Gulf provided economic assistance to the ANC for expenses related to South Africa’s first democratic election. President Nelson Mandela acknowledged in 1999 that the ANC had received $10 million each from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the 1999 elections and $50 million each from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia for the 1994 elections.4 Iraq also reportedly made contributions to the ANC (which it is not legally obliged to reveal). In addition, the ANC has close fraternal links with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which provided the ANC with support in the darkest days of the latter’s struggle against apartheid.5 Critics say this is partly the reason for Pretoria’s ambivalent attitude toward Israel, which has a history of close association with apartheid South Africa.

 

In the heady spirit of reconciliation that marked the first years of the Mandela presidency, Israel made some progress towards normalising relations with the new South Africa. The Foreign Minister, Alfred Nzo, visited Israel in September 1995, and signed an agreement establishing a joint commission. The first meeting of the commission nine months later concluded co-operation agreements on agriculture, tourism, culture, environment, and science and nature conservation. Israel and South Africa shared the limelight as the ‘international success stories’ of the early 1990s.

 

The iconic images of that time were Nelson Mandela walking out of Victor Verster Prison and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, returning to the West Bank. In 1994 Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin echoed the feat of FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela the previous year in becoming laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize. The expectation for the Middle East was that a comprehensive peace would follow the 1993 agreement between Peres, Rabin & Arafat, granting limited autonomy to the PLO in the West Bank and recognising Israel’s right to exist within secure boundaries. The assassination in November 1995 of the Israeli Prime Minister (Rabin) by a Jewish religious zealot led to the election in May the following year of a hard-liner, Benjamin Netanyahu. The sense of intense disappointment at Netanyahu’s strategy of non-negotiation, which has sabotaged peace efforts, has had a lasting effect on South African–Israeli bilateral relations.

 

Mandela demonstrated his interest in the region by visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. On stepping down as president he also visited Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. In return, he also received a number of visitors, including President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran, who was in South Africa in September 1996. At the same time the then deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, was in the US. Washington showed concern at Rafsanjani’s visit and expressed the hope that it would not lead to closer ties between South Africa and a country it still regarded a ‘sponsor of terrorism’. Mandela showed a penchant for irritating the US by remaining loyal to his own friends, many of whom were personae non grata in Washington. Chief among these was the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Insiders claim that both Mandela and Mbeki have evolved distinct styles in dealing with the highly idiosyncratic approach of ‘brother leader’ (Gaddafi) to African and international relations.

 

Mandela’s stubborn individualism paid off handsomely when, in co-operation with Saudi Arabia, he was able to use his offices to break the diplomatic logjam over the Lockerbie affair, which concerned two Libyan nationals charged with the 1988 bombing of an American airliner over Scotland that killed 270 people. Mandela appointed Jakes Gerwel to negotiate with Gaddafi over several months. Gerwel was assisted by the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Abdul Aziz. (By getting involved in this matter, Saudi Arabia was risking its good relations with the US and Britain.)

 

In January 1999, the South African–Saudi team eventually persuaded Gaddafi to hand over Abdul Basset Al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fahima for trial before Scottish judges at the Hague. The deal was that the UN sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992 would be suspended immediately the suspects were delivered, and that these sanctions would be completely lifted within 90 days. Any imprisonment of the Libyans would be in a specially segregated section of an institution in Scotland, with special consideration given to their religious and cultural needs.

 

South African businesses tendered for much of the business of rebuilding post-sanctions Libya, but were beaten to the draw by foreign companies that won the contracts before they had been opened to competition.

 

Mandela also established diplomatic relations with Iraq in August 1998, as he prepared to become chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

 

 

The Mbeki era: Consolidating Afro-Middle East relations

 

 

With the truth and reconciliation process firmly established and the transformation of the security forces well in hand, Thabo Mbeki was able to adopt a more assertive foreign policy. As deputy president, he had taken an extremely keen interest in South Africa’s interests abroad. His appointment of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as foreign minister was indicative of his strongly Africa-oriented focus for foreign policy.

 

The deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, was given responsibility for Middle Eastern affairs and conducted these with great energy, visiting virtually every country in the region. Pahad reported on every development in Israeli–Palestinian relations, denouncing violence and terrorism on both sides. Pahad took a strong line against Israel’s sabotage of the 1993 accord and the provocation it offered to Palestine by allowing more Israeli settlements within the territory given to Palestine in terms of the agreement.

 

It is clear that Mbeki recognises the cultural, religious, historical and strategic affinity between the Middle East and Africa. He regards the Middle East’s peace and stability as an essential component of African renewal. In one of his weekly letters on the ANC website, Mbeki linked South Africa’s involvement in brokering an end to conflict in the Middle East with its concentrated peace efforts on the African continent.6

 

In our own country, we still hear voices raised that it is wrong for us to spend money to save lives on our continent, because the solution of the problems we face domestically must take precedence over the task of ensuring that genocide should never revisit the peoples of Africa. It is argued, passionately, that self-interest must determine everything we do, as self-interest drove those in our country who sold weapons to the genocidaires of Rwanda. This is an obscene and barbaric creed to which we should never subscribe.

It is for this reason that some of our senior officials have stayed more than a year in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] to contribute to the dismantling of the formations of the ex-FAR [the former Rwandan army] and the Interahamwe. It is for the same reason that we continue to work in the DRC, Burundi and elsewhere on our continent to contribute whatever we can to the struggle for peace and the defence of human life.

By the same token, we cannot stand aside as Palestinians and Israelis kill one another in a seemingly interminable conflict. Equally, we dare never abandon the path we have chosen for our own country, to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it. Neither can we relax our striving for the victory of the African Renaissance – for the sake of the children and of our future.

We have to do what we can to help transform the 21st into a Century of Humanity, determining for ourselves what this means.

The ‘critical dialogue’, or what was often referred to by senior civil servants in the South African DFA as the ‘policy of balance’ of the Mandela era was replaced by a policy promoting a more direct involvement and a correction of the imbalance in South African–Palestinian–Israeli relations. This was exemplified by Mbeki’s invitation to Palestinian and Israeli delegations to meet at the Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch in 2002 for a frank exchange of views. The DFA anodyne claim that South Africa seeks ‘a resolution of the Israeli conflict through peaceful negotiations on the basis of the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions’ disguises a far more passionate approach on South Africa’s part. In October, the deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, slammed Israel’s attack on Syria, and announced that the situation in the Middle East had become explosive.7

 

We must record our very strong concern at the escalation of violence by Israel … This the first time in 30 years that Israel has attacked Syrian territory. This is clearly a violation of international law. It is extending the terrain of conflict and it can only inflame the situation much more.

We agree with the statements made by United Stations Secretary General Kofi Annan and others in the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that this is a very dangerous situation and we call for restraint. We hope this attack will not lead to more retaliation and further military actions across the borders. It is a very serious thing and we are hoping that the Security Council will give it the attention is needs and that it will try to calm the situation. We have been warning for some time that if we don’t solve the Palestinian–Israel issue quickly — if we don’t get the road map moving fast — the danger of it going beyond Israeli–Palestinian borders is very great. It will inflame that entire situation, coming at the time when the Iraqi situation is so volatile. I think we are sitting on a powder keg right now.

Speaking on behalf of Mbeki at the celebration marking the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people held at the University of South Africa in Pretoria in December 2003, the minister in the presidency, Essop Pahad, denounced the so-called security wall being built by Israel deep in the West Bank territory as an apartheid measure. He said.8

That wall is there to keep Arab and Jew apart. It has nothing to do with security or protection. It should be identified for what it is, an apartheid wall and it should be dismantled like apartheid had to be.

However, he pointed out that the Palestinian struggle was one against oppression and not specifically against Jews. ‘Ninety-five percent of the whites who supported our struggle against apartheid were Jews.’ ‘We would never support a struggle on racial, ethnic or religious lines.’ Pahad also said that the South African government warmly welcomed the private Geneva accord.

It shows that oppressed people keep looking for a solution, even when there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. South Africa will never abandon the Palestinian people. We will be there through the times of adversity and we will be there when one day we celebrate the creation of an independent Palestine.

In this respect, at the Israeli national day function in December 2003, the Israeli ambassador, Tova Herzl, agreed with Anil Sooklal, the DFA deputy director general in charge of the Middle East, that her term of service had witnessed three of the most difficult years for bilateral relations between Israel and South Africa. Sooklal, however, noted that Israel remained South Africa’s largest trading partner in the region, and that political differences notwithstanding, the relationship remained an important one: efforts to improve it should be made on both sides.

Herzl had an excellent understanding of South Africa, having spent six years there as a student. However, as ambassador she had to represent the hard-line government of Ariel Sharon while being subjected to intense pressure from the Jewish community in South Africa, who had become increasingly critical of the Israeli government’s line. The South African water affairs minister, Ronnie Kasrils, was among the prominent South African Jews who signed an international petition drawn up by the ‘Not In My Name’ campaign to denounce Israel’s policies in Palestine. Attitudes expressed during the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban were reminiscent of those current in the days of the late 1970s, when the UN General Assembly described apartheid and Zionism as crimes against humanity. The US and Israel walked out of the 153-nation gathering when Israel was singled out for criticism in the final communiqué. However, the anger directed against the US for its equivocal stance on racism — the US boycotted previous UN conferences on this issue in 1978 and 1983 — lasted barely a fortnight.9

 

 

Iraq

 

The terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 on the Pentagon and World Trade Towers in New York using hijacked aircraft changed the dynamics of the Middle East, as they did many other things in the world. The US gained international support for its campaign to ‘root out’ the al-Qaeda movement, which claimed responsibility for the outrage, even though the US response entailed invading Afghanistan. When it became clear that the US wanted to move onto bringing about so-called regime change in Iraq, that international support dwindled. South Africa was at the forefront of opposition to the proposed war on Iraq on legal and moral grounds. Mbeki and Pahad also both warned that the financial load on the US–British alliance in first defeating Saddam Hussein and then rebuilding Iraq would relegate their commitments to African development aid to the backburner. While both of these powers denied this, the misgivings expressed by Pretoria have been borne out by subsequent events and were correctly summed up by a New York Times editorial.10

 

There seems little doubt that the Bush administration’s prime justification for invading Iraq — the fear that Saddam Hussein harboured weapons of mass destruction — was way off base. Nine months of fruitless searching have made that increasingly clear.

As the only country in the world to have voluntarily disarmed its nuclear arsenal, South Africa carried substantial moral weight in the campaign to get Iraq to declare and destroy any weapons of mass destruction it might have, to prevent any armed action against it. Aziz Pahad made two visits to Baghdad, and a team of South African experts was despatched there to advise Iraqi scientists on meeting the criteria for declaration and destruction of nuclear weapons. South Africa took some criticism from those countries who maintained that Saddam was using their presence as a stalling tactic. Nevertheless the South African effort was to be seen as doing everything humanly possible to avoid war, in the face of enormous odds. In addition, South African NGOs provided humanitarian support, participated in the contested UN oil-for-food programme and exchanged experiences of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process at the second-track diplomacy level. The latter was spearheaded by Dr Ali Allawi, Iraq’s architect of the ‘de-Bathification’ policy.

 

 

Kuwait, Iraq and South Africa

 

As a victim of Iraqi aggression in 1990, Kuwait was unsettled by the efforts made by South Africa, which it saw as intended to protect that country rather than to avoid war. Kuwait, which sent its first woman ambassador to South Africa to open the embassy in Pretoria in 1997, has often expressed concern at being overshadowed by Iraq in its dealings with South Africa. In consequence, the current South African ambassador to Kuwait will have his work cut out.

 

Kuwait’s potential as an investor in South Africa was demonstrated in November 2003 when the International Financial Advisors (IFA) of Kuwait paid $10 million for a half stake in the prestigious Zimbali Lodge north of Durban. The chairman and managing director of the IFA, Jassim M Al-Bahar, said the company had also bought a 100 hectare block of land adjoining the lodge, in order to extend it. The IFA, which has a market capitalisation of $500 million on the Kuwaiti stock exchange, intends investing $100 million in Zimbali over the next decade. To date, Kuwait has invested some R1 billion in South Africa. Key tourist and business venture investments include Pretoria’s Sheraton Hotel, the R10 million renovation of Pretoria’s landmark Lombardy restaurant and guesthouse, the R100 million Southern Cape 5-star hotel and residential units at the Oubaai golf estate.

 

 

Iran

 

South Africa’s dealings with Iran go back to the days when the incumbent of the peacock throne was a good friend of the apartheid regime. The reciprocal consulates in Tehran and Johannesburg were closed after the Islamic revolution in 1979, although an Iranian Interests office remained open in South Africa. A rift in relations was caused when South Africa sold arms to Iraq during the eight-year Iran–Iraq war.

 

Iran was well placed to become South Africa’s major supplier of oil for a number of years after the formal restoration of diplomatic relations in 1994, although there were reports that supplies had slipped through the boycott net before. Oil purchases of $66 million have put the balance of trade with this country heavily against South Africa, even though Iran has been superseded by Saudi Arabia as South Africa’s primary supplier. Sasol and PetroSA are seeking to offset this imbalance by getting involved in helping to exploit Iran’s massive gas reserves. At the binational commission meeting in Pretoria during July 2003, a memorandum of understanding involving deals worth $2 billon between these two companies was one of the eight agreements signed.

 

At the binational commission meeting, the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Karrazi, and his South African counterpart, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, expressed their satisfaction at the improvement in interaction between Iran and the African continent over the past year. Karrazi, who brought a 40-man business delegation to South Africa with him, found himself having to defend his country against the charges of harbouring terrorists made by the US president, George W Bush. Karrazi pointed out that while Iran had arrested known members of al-Qaeda, the US openly supported the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MKO), which was a listed terrorist organisation. ‘I think it is the US that is harbouring terrorists[,] because right now every corner of Iraq is controlled by Americans,’ said Karrazi. In September Sadeghi Khatami, the wife of President Mohammad Khatami, paid a four-day visit to South Africa, as the guest of the president’s wife, Zanele Mbeki, who had visited Iran in 2000. The intention of her visit was to focus on ways of empowering women. ‘The official visit, taking place in the context of the existing good relations between our two countries, is the first of its kind under the new South African democratic government,’ a statement from Mbeki’s office said.

 

Indeed, Iranian–South African relations have blossomed, over the past two years in particular. Diplomats have referred to the last joint communiqué as substantial.11

 

Saudi Arabia

South Africa and Saudi Arabia have boosted the level of their bilateral relations to that of strategic partnership. The building of those ties started in 1994 with a visit to the kingdom by President Nelson Mandela. Considerable financial assistance was given by the Saudis to help in building South Africa’s new democracy. An embassy in Riyadh and a consulate in Jeddah were opened by South Africa, the latter to see to commercial affairs and the interests of the thousands of South Africans performing Hajj and Umrah.

From Pretoria the energetic Saudi ambassador, Saud al-Zedan, has fostered relations between the two countries. In recent years, both countries have made a number of symbolic gestures to indicate the esteem in which the kingdom holds South Africa and vice versa. President Mandela, for example, is one of the few heads of state to have been met personally at the airport by Kind Fahd. Again, just before stepping down in April 1999, Mandela gave a state dinner in honour of the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, in his Pretoria home.

During Mbeki’s presidency Saudi Arabia became South Africa’s top oil supplier, and moved onto the list of the country’s top 10 trading partners. There has been a steady flow of Saudi investments into South Africa, key of which is its Cell C commitment.

South Africa’s deputy trade minister, Lindiwe Hendricks, visited Saudi Arabia in late 2003, and the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, is scheduled to visit the country soon.

 

 

Challenges and complementarities

 

 

Problems encountered by South Africa in its dealings with the Gulf states are best summed up in the phrase ‘we don’t know them and they don’t know us’. A series of visits to the region from presidential level downwards has helped to inform both South Africa and the Gulf states better, but given the nature of political and economic relations, which require a long-term and patient approach, such visits ought to continue.

 

Thousands of South Africans have moved to the Gulf region to take advantage of well-paid jobs on offer in the petrochemical and service industries. These South Africans have had to come to terms with the reality that most of the Gulf states are led by dynasties rather than democracies, and that being judgemental on issues of human rights, the rule of law and accountable governance is not conducive to doing good business there. For the most part the South African DFA has broken the ground and, by means of bilateral agreements protecting trade and investment and avoiding double taxation, has prepared a pathway for business.

 

Aziz Pahad took business delegations with him on his visits to the Gulf, but apart from seasoned large corporations used to international dealings, the general response has been disappointing.

 

Improving economic links requires bilateral information drives designed to break down fear, suspicion and ignorance. Gulf businesses need to be disabused of the belief that South Africa is an unusually violent and unlawful place in which to operate. South African business in turn has not exploited the gaps created in the Gulf markets by the increasing anti-American sentiment.

 

The less than one million Qataris represent one of the richest populations in the world, thanks to the largest reserves of natural gas on earth. In 2002 the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa ath-Thani, became the first head of state from the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council to make a state visit to South Africa. South Africa as chair of NAM was invited to the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit chaired by Qatar and later by Iran. Recently, South Africa maintained this momentum by attending the 2003 OIC Summit in Malaysia.

 

Sasol raised its stake to 49% in the Middle East’s first gas-to-liquid (GTL) project in May 2001, after taking up a 15% share surrendered by the US oil company, Phillips Petroleum. Sasol and the state-run Qatar Petroleum also started work in December 2003 on a $1 billion GTL joint venture. The plant is to be completed in the first quarter of 2005, and aims to start exporting in the second quarter of 2006, said Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, who is also Qatar Petroleum’s chief. The South African minister of trade and industry, Alec Erwin, who was with him, said that this would be the biggest gas liquefying project outside South Africa. Qatar Petroleum has a 51% stake in the project. In early 2004, Qatar’s deputy prime minister led a business delegation to South Africa on the occasion of the signing of a R6.5 billion venture between Qatar and Sasol (South Africa). A number of political and social indicators suggest that Qatar and South Africa are enjoying increasingly healthy bilateral and economic ties.

 
 

Conclusion

 

 

Dealing with the Middle East, which gets more international media coverage than anywhere else on the globe, presents enormous moral and material challenges to the new South Africa. These can only intensify as South Africa makes a larger and heavier imprint on world affairs, which might even include a bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

 

Many of the pragmatic lessons the newly-emerged democracy was forced to learn speedily — for example in dealing with China — had to be applied to the Middle East. The ideals, values and norms that South Africa applies domestically and regionally do not necessarily apply further afield. For example, South Africa has had to accept that the concept of human rights is viewed quite differently in some other states around the world. South African women would never tolerate certain of the norms imposed on their sisters in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But does this call for criticism and denunciation by a government that prides itself on one of the most gender-progressive policies on earth?

 

On business dealings, how much time and money has to be spent on nurturing relationships in order to close the big deals? Where is the line between commission and pay-off? South African businesses hesitant about getting involved in the intricacies of doing business in the Middle East need clear guidelines on acceptable practice. The government has done its job by opening up the doors, but it now needs to provide reassuring advice if it wants to persuade the South African business community to walk through them. The recent visit to Saudi Arabia of Lindiwe Hendricks, South Africa’s deputy minister of trade and industry, with a substantial business delegation is a move in that direction. It attempts also to build on efforts made by Saudi Arabia post September 11 to reconfigure its foreign business relations with alternative markets such as Malaysia and South Africa.12

 

 

Further reading

 

Battersby J, ‘The Middle East and South Africa’ in South African Yearbook of International Affairs 1999/2000. Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs, 1999, pp.163–170.

 

Benjamin L, ‘South Africa and the Middle East: The Anatomy of an emerging relationship’ in Broderick J, Burford G & G Freer (eds), South Africa’s Foreign Policy: Dilemmas of a New Democracy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

 

Dadoo Y, ‘Relations with the Middle East and the Arab World’ in Carlsnaes W & M Muller (eds), Change and South African External Relations. Johannesburg: International Thomson Publishing (SA),1996.

 

Gulf States Directorate, ‘Relations between South Africa and the States of the Arab/Persian Gulf’ in South African Yearbook of International Affairs 2001/2002. Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs, 2002, pp.225–233.

 

Hoosen F, ‘A foreign policy analysis: South Africa and the Middle East’. Unpublished international relations honours dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, 1996.

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1IQBAL JHAZBHAY teaches at the University of South Africa, serves on the Board of the Johannesburg-based Institute for Global Dialogue and is Convenor of the Middle East Study Group at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). The title of this chapter is an adaptation of an op-ed article, ‘Mandela visit to Libya shows the world that SA is nobody’s lapdog’, The Sunday Independent, 25 October 1997. [Up]

 

2Cited in the speech made by President Nelson Mandela at the banquet for Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, Cape Town, 24 September 1997. http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mandela/1997/sp970924.html [Up]

 

3Letter from the President. ‘The failure of humanity in Rwanda’, ANC Today, 3, 47, 28 November–4 December 2003. [Up]

 

4Cited in Battersby J, ‘The Middle East and South Africa: April 1998 – April 1999’ in The South African Yearbook of International Affairs 1999/2000, Johannesburg: SAIIA, 2000, p.169. I was present when President Mandela was addressing an election campaign rally in Lenasia outside Johannesburg prior to the 1999 national elections. He was asked whether his government had developed an anti-Muslim attitude. In rebuttal, Mandela demonstrated that the ANC government had every reason to regard many Muslim countries in a friendly light, providing details of the financial support his party had received from Middle Eastern states. In the 2000 and 2001 statistics of South Africa’s top 15 trading partners provided by the South African Department of Trade and Industry, Saudi Arabia and Iran are listed 5th and 11th respectively for the year 2000. Total trade was R16 million and R9 million respectively. Israel remains South Africa’s largest export market in the Middle East with exports totaling R4 million in 2001. Next in line for a key slice of South African exports is the UAE (R1 million), followed by Saudi Arabia with exports totaling R1 million, The South African Yearbook of International Affairs 2002/2003, op. cit., p.397. [Up]

 

5See Jhazbhay I ‘Careful steps in Mid-east minefield’, Cape Argus, 8 May 1998. [Up]

 

6Mbeki T, ‘The failure of humanity in Rwanda’, ANC Today, 3, 47, 28 November–4 December 2003. See also President Mbeki’s tribute to Dullah Omar on 24 March 2004 at http://www.gov.za, where he noted that we witness the dominant power forcibly shaping the world in its image in Palestine, Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. President Mbeki has also highlighted in his writings the key principle of Amilcar Cabral, the African patriot from Guinea-Bissau, ‘Tell no lies: Claim no easy victories!’ Mbeki has added the principle, ‘Respect principle: Avoid opportunism!’. See letter from the President, ‘The extraordinary story of South Africa’, ANC Today, 4, 2, 16–22 January 2004. [Up]

 

7See the South African Department of Foreign Affairs website file on ‘Middle East Conflict: Statements and Documentation‘ at http://www.dfa.gov.za/events/mideast.htm. Another separate file of statements on Iraq can be located at http://www.dfa.gov.za/events/iraq.htm. Currently, the Department of Foreign Affairs Middle East desk is temporarily headed by the former head of the ANC’s International Affairs unit, Yusuf Saloojee. He recently served as South Africa’s active ambassador to Abu Dhabi and is designated to be South Africa’s Ambassador to Tehran. Regular workshops are conducted, such as the 21 April 1997 seminar on ‘South Africa and the Middle East: A Framework for Understanding’, hosted by the DFA at the Union Buildings, Pretoria. [Up]

 

8This UN-sponsored event is held every year at the campus of the University of South Africa, having been initiated by the Unisa Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies. On at least two occasions, President Mbeki has requested ministers in his cabinet to read messages on his behalf. Former President Mandela attended this event in 1997 and delivered a measured message reflecting the approach mentioned above. Clearly, this speech was drafted by the early proponents of the ‘policy of balance’ within the South African Department of Foreign Affairs, headed by the former South African ambassador to Israel, Malcolm Fergusson. See Mandela’s speech at http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/ mandela/1997/sp971204b.html. [Up]

 

9See some related reflections on this topic in the ANC special edition of its quarterly journal: Jhazbhay I, ‘Zionism under focus: From military occupation to the keys for a just settlement’, Umrabulo, 12, September 2001. The dominant illusion that extra-judicial killings, brutality and a Rambo-like military approach could bring about security is captured in Siegman H, ‘Sharon’s phony war’, New York Review of Books, 50, 20, 4 December 2003. [Up]

 

10‘The faulty weapons estimates’, New York Times, 11 January 2004. [Up]

 

11Final Communiqué of the 7th Joint Bilateral Commission between the Republic of South Africa and the Islamic Republic of Iran held in Pretoria from 21 to 22 July 2003 http://www.dfa.gov.za/docs/irn030722.htm. [Up]

 

12South African Department of Trade and Industry press statement, ‘Hendricks says trade mission to Saudi Arabia an overwhelming success’, 11 December 2003. In this regard, some South African companies are entering the Horn of Africa market via the Gulf States and their East African operations. A fuller understanding of the Gulf State’s economic and foreign policy is only possible by grappling with the historical and economic inter-link between the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Professor Ali Mazrui has developed the concept of ‘Afrabia’, based on the uneven inter-connectedness of Africa and Arabia. An example is the traditional and ongoing economic ties between Somaliland/Somalia and Jeddah, Dubai and Aden. See ‘Somaliland: Africa’s best kept secret, a challenge to the international community?’, African Security Review, 12, 4, 2003. www.iss.co.za/pubs/ASR/12No4/ContentPDF.html. [Up]

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