Senegal and Sudan need the cash
by PETER DÖRRIE
Saudi Arabia’s “coalition of the willing” for its war with Yemen’s Houthi militia has a new and unlikely member — Senegal.
On May 4, Pres. Macky Sall made good on a promise from early April and announced the deployment of 2,100 Senegalese troops to Saudi Arabia.
But wait … why Senegal?
The coastal West African country is more than 3,500 miles away from the fighting in Yemen. Sall even framed the military assistance as an expression of the good relations between the two countries and a chance for Senegal to fight for the preservation of Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
More than 95 per cent of Senegal’s population is Muslim. But Sall’s call for the preservation of the faith’s holy sites doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t need the help protecting Mecca and Medina. It can field up to 75,000 soldiers, its air arm is the largest in the region and its soldiers wield state-of-the-art weapons — thanks to oil money and an alliance with the United States.
There’s also no reason for the Houthis to threaten the holy sites. There’s a strong religious dimension to the conflict — Houthis are Shia while Saudi Arabia and all its military partners are Sunni — but both Shia and Sunni Muslims recognize Mecca and Medina as the two most holy sites of Islam.
So why is Senegal so keen to fight? Well, it needs cash and Saudi Arabia needs bodies.
Morocco, Egypt and Sudan have also pledged varying levels of support to Saudi Arabia. But Senegal is the only country with a non-Arab majority to enlist.
Morocco’s contribution is largely symbolic — it sent six warplanes but no ground troops.
Egypt’s commitment is more substantial. Besides an unknown number of planes, Cairo sent four warships that have helped enforce a naval blockade to limit the Houthis’ supplies of weapons. But Egypt won’t commit ground forces.
In contrast, Sudan promises warplanes and 6,000 ground forces. Of all Saudi Arabia’s allies, Sudan is closest to the war. But just like Senegal, it has no real political reason to fight.
For most of the Sunni alliance, one of the main reasons to intervene in Yemen are the Houthis’ links with Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia in particular has cited Iranian influence over the Yemeni rebels as justification for the intervention.
But unlike most Sunni states, both Sudan and Senegal have good relations with Iran. Sudan built most of its considerable defense industry on Iranian know-how and arms shipments. That it might now use these capabilities in a ground war against one of Iran’s allies is ironic.
But Saudi Arabia can provide Sudan and Senegal with something Iran certainly can’t — funding.
Sudan is practically bankrupt. Khartoum is fighting its own internal wars in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states all at once.
In 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan and took the country’s main source of income — oil — with it. Sudanese Pres. Al Bashir is searching frantically for new income streams and debt relief.
He may have found one in Saudi Arabia.
In Senegal, Sall faces nothing as severe as civil war, but still has to deal with a difficult political and economic situation.
The people elected him in 2012 based on two promises — increase economic growth and roll back the autocratic policies of his predecessor.
That predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, served for 12 years. He increased the length of presidential terms to seven years and tried to flout the country’s two-term limit on the presidency, but lost re-election to Sall in 2012.
Sall has no strong power base, and not following through on either of his promises will likely cost him his job. But shortening term limits would move the next election to later this year, a precariously short time to realize his government’s “Emerging Senegal Plan,” an economic program that has so far failed to attract foreign investment.
Sall has specifically reached out to Saudi Arabia to provide investment. Sending troops could help sweeten the offer.
For Saudi Arabia’s part, it will need support if it wants to commit to a ground offensive. Given that its priority is to keep the Houthis’ power in check, it’s hard to see how it can achieve this without a presence on the ground.
Air strikes can only do so much. That’s something Saudi Arabia’s U.S. military advisers know better than anyone.
The kingdom has better weapons than the Yemeni fighters, but the Houthis are tough soldiers and are fighting on their home turf. The Saudis suffered considerable losses during their last fight against the Houthis in 2009.
But Senegal’s troops are among Africa’s best trained forces and Sall has promised to send some of his most elite units to Saudi Arabia. Sudan’s army has considerable combat experience after years of fighting civil wars.
The kingdom has a lot of money and can well compensate its allies. But supporting the Saudis may prove to be a bad decision. An outright military victory over the Houthis is unlikely. Both Sudan and Senegal may have to pay in bodies to earn that Saudi investment.