By Emmaline Ivy Johnson and Giorgio Cafiero
Comoros, an impoverished Indian Ocean archipelago-nation known for its post-colonial history of political instability, rarely enters a discussion about Middle Eastern affairs. Early this year, however, the Arab League’s southernmost member made headlines after Comoros expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia by severing ties with Iran, which Comorian officials accused of waging “aggression” against the kingdom and its neighbors. Situated in the Mozambique Channel, geographically removed from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran, one could ask what interests this island nation has in taking sides in Riyadh and Tehran’s geo-sectarian rivalry.
Comoros and Iran: From Friend to Foe
Although Comoros cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran in January, the two countries were growing closer until relatively recently. Iran’s promotion of relations with Comoros dates back to Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi’s presidency (2006-2011). Sambi, a businessman and Muslim cleric, won Comoros’ presidential election in 2006 with 58 percent of the vote. Despite being Sunni, Sambi studied in Qom, Iran. This not only earned him the nickname the “Ayatollah” of Comoros but also led some Western officials to fear that Sambi would align Comoros with Iran, perhaps making the strategically-located archipelago nation’s foreign policy anti-Western while providing Iran with an outpost of influence in the Mozambique Channel.
According to Sambi, he had no direct links to the Islamic Republic, nor any interest in importing Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, but he also vowed to continue supporting the Comorian relationship with Iran. Sambi declared that “we need help from everyone”, so he embraced Tehran’s outreach positively. Desperate for allies, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed Iran’s “relations and cooperation with the friendly, brotherly, and revolutionary” Comoros.
In November 2009, Ahmadinejad made a trip to Comoros and met with Sambi. Iranian media reported that the two countries’ presidents signed four agreements to deepen political ties and establish joint committees. In 2010, Ahmadinejad praised the Iran-Comoros relationship as “ideological.” A year later, Ahmadinejad sat down with Sambi’s successor, Ikililou Dhoinine, in New York on the sidelines of the UN’s 66th annual session, with the two presidents agreeing to further cooperate in the educational, energy, agricultural and transportation sectors.
One must understand Iran’s pursuit of deeper ties with Comoros within the framework of Tehran’s overall African foreign policy during the Ahmadinejad presidency. During these years, when global powers were imposing crippling economic sanctions on Iran and the U.S. was threatening military action against the Islamic Republic over Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran’s foreign policy strategists prioritized deepening ties with numerous African and Latin American governments within the context of building “South-South” relations.
Ahmadinejad also had his own political stakes in Iran’s relationship with Comoros. He made it a foreign policy priority to demonstrate before a domestic audience that, during his first term, he could extend Iranian influence into new corners of the Muslim world, including Sunni-majority countries such as Comoros. Also, while seeking support from Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, under whom Ahmadinejad and Sambi both studied (as reported by Iran’s Tabnak news agency), Ahmadinejad wanted to prove, according to Meir Javedanfar, “that not only Sunnis but also former students of Iran’s religious institutions who now head governments can be counted among Iran’s friends.”
Yet Iranian investments in the Comorian economy created domestic controversy, with some Iranians viewing the investment as “unjustified political aid.” The Iranian government’s dispatch of a private Falcon jet to Comoros for Sambi’s visit to the Islamic Republic in June, 2008, underscored Comoros’ high ranking on the list of Iran’s foreign policy priorities in Africa.
The Saudi-led “Islamic” Alliance
A major sign that Comoros was soon to pull a U-turn on Iran in Saudi Arabia’s favor came when Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), a 34 (now 39) member alliance of Sunni-majority countries. The Saudis listed Comoros, along with all of Africa’s Muslim-majority states (save Algeria), as members of IMAFT. The alliance’s stated purpose is to defeat “terrorism” in Muslim countries, with a focus on Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. “Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually,” said the Deputy Crown Prince at a news conference in the kingdom in December. “So coordinating efforts is very important.”
The announcement of IMAFT, however, met much criticism and skepticism, with some analysts pointing to small member countries such as Comoros as possessing “very little capability to project force outside their borders.” Regardless, the African island nation demonstrated a commitment to IMAFT in February/March by participating in North Thunder, a joint military exercise held in northern Saudi Arabia with the participation of all six GCC members and 14 other Arab/Muslim countries.
Ultimately, for IMAFT to thrive, the Saudis and their allies need time to achieve the long-term objective of establishing a multinational Sunni force capable of ridding Muslim countries of terrorist threats. Although countries such as Comoros have relatively small militaries and, thus, can likely make only small contributions to IMAFT compared to larger members, such as Egypt and Turkey, and wealthier ones, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Saudis would rely heavily on manpower from African countries. Indeed, states such as Senegal and Sudan have deployed their troops to back the ongoing Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, which is likely an indication of how IMAFT would operate.
IMAFT, of course, is not only Saudi Arabia’s response to the Islamic State (IS), but also a bold move in the kingdom’s quest to eject Iranian/Shi‘ite influence from the Middle East. Unquestionably, Riyadh’s exclusion of two major Shi‘ite Muslim countries – Iran and Iraq – from the “Islamic” alliance illustrates IMAFT’s sectarian colors. In sum, the Saudis are seeking to unite Sunni Muslim countries behind the kingdom at a time when most Gulf Arab states are increasingly concerned about Iran’s projection of power and influence throughout the region, and IMAFT represents a significant aspect of this grand effort.
The month after Mohammad bin Salman announced IMAFT, a diplomatic spat erupted between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hundreds of Iranians violently attacked Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, in reaction to the kingdom’s execution of the prominent Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. In response, Riyadh severed official diplomatic relations with Tehran.
In solidarity with Saudi Arabia, on January 15 Comoros announced its decision to follow the kingdom’s lead, and that of several of Riyadh’s African/Arab allies (Bahrain, Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan), and cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran. Comorian officials accused Iran of failure to comply with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, interfering in Arab countries’ internal affairs, and carrying out aggression toward Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Iran has seemingly become less interested in Africa since current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. Rouhani, who pushed for the Iranian Nuclear Deal reached with global powers last July, has placed a significantly higher value on improving the Islamic Republic’s ties with Russia, China, Europe and the United States. Looking north, east, and west for allies, and less so to the Global South, the Rouhani administration has expended significantly fewer resources on developing alliances with governments across Latin America and Africa than Ahmadinejad’s government did.
Comoros’ decision to sever ties with Iran in favor of a more consolidated relationship with Saudi Arabia was likely motivated by expectations that, in exchange, the Gulf Arab states would provide the Indian Ocean archipelago state with financial aid. Indeed, with one of the world’s lowest GDP per capita rates and a history of political turmoil, it is not surprising that the island nation’s foreign policy is largely geared toward the country’s own economic development and set of domestic challenges. With Saudi Arabia seeming to offer more as an aid partner than Iran, Comoros decided to favor the oil-rich kingdom. More to the point, as Saudi Arabia’s agenda against Iran takes on ideological and sectarian dimensions, for African countries such as Comoros an economic calculus explains their alignment behind Riyadh and against Tehran.
Comorian Citizenship: A Solution for the GCC’s Stateless Persons?
The UAE and Kuwait have their own vested interests in Comoros. In these oil-rich Gulf Arab states, thousands of individuals are stateless, which has created a long set of problems from both economic and security standpoints. The obvious solution to this issue might be to provide the stateless, whose families have lived within the countries’ borders for as many generations as they can remember, a passport. Yet by granting citizenship to more people, the GCC states, with their welfare benefits (free education, healthcare, land, etc.), would come under a greater financial squeeze, particularly in this era of cheap oil and austerity.
For several years, a number of businessmen from the Gulf have advocated that Comoros sell passports to the GCC’s stateless people to resolve the issue, even if the vast majority have no connections with or experiences in the West Indian Ocean nation.
Bashar Kiwan, an Arab businessman, headed the operation to bring Comorian citizenship to UAE Bedoon (Arabic for “stateless”) with the hopes of broadening the scope of his proposal to the entire GCC. Kiwan was born to Syrian parents, grew up in Kuwait, and first visited Comoros in the 1990s, when political instability marred the island nation. Yet as the country made progress in its transition to democracy (albeit with setbacks) in the 2000s, Kiwan saw an opportunity. The businessman jetted Comorian officials to Kuwait City and sent them home with SUVs and extremely expensive watches worth more than the entire populations’ yearly salary. In return, his proposal to sell Comorian citizenship to the UAE’s stateless passed in congress and the Comorian officials began printing passports.
What was Kiwan’s real interest? Publicly, he said he wanted to follow in the visionary footsteps of Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai and turn Comoros into a luxurious play-land for the world’s elite. The plan was in motion and Kiwan persuaded the UAE to pledge $200 million to Comoros in exchange for passports for 4,000 Bedoon families. But the grandiose dream soon suffered a setback with a change of power in the 2010 Comorian elections, and when Comorian officials were caught selling passports on the sly in Abu Dhabi, the UAE placed the final nail in the citizenship plan’s coffin$16 million to the government, but the UAE refused to pay it.
The African Development Bank estimates that over 45 percent of the Comorian population lives in poverty, and Comorian civil servants have gone on strike to protest the government’s failure to pay them. Despite concerns among Comorian officials about foreigners with no roots in the country diluting Comoros’ national identity, given the islands’ economic problems it remains to be seen if the government will continue to reject the citizenship plan, even though it offers the potential to bring in revenue for badly needed development projects.
For the GCC states the issue of statelessness poses a challenge from a security perspective. In Kuwait, where there are over 100,000 Bedoon, many non-citizens make a living in black-market trades and often escape the authorities’ radar. Often GCC officials have accused the Bedoon of siding with foreign actors, including Iran and Iraq (during the 1990-1991 Gulf War). At a time when many Gulf Arab security officials fear the potential for IS adherents in South East Asia to enter the GCC as foreign laborers, some officials in the Gulf may continue to believe that exporting a growing number of these stateless persons to Comoros can help mitigate the Gulf countries’ security risks.
According to many observers and human rights organizations, however, the Gulf Arab states’ plans to arrange for their stateless people to receive Comorian citizenship factors into the GCC governments’ interest in deporting political activists. For example, in 2012 the UAE deported Ahmed Abdelkhaleq, an activist who championed the rights of the GCC’s stateless persons. Although Emirati authorities eventually deported him to Thailand, they originally attempted to send him to Comoros, after confiscating his UAE passport and issuing him a Comorian one. Because it is easier to deport people with foreign passports than it is to deport stateless persons, some accuse the GCC states of opportunistically pushing this citizenship plan with Comoros to secure their hold on power at a time when the “Arab Spring” currents still have Gulf Arabs nervous about anti-government activism.
Comoros’ Cost-Benefit Analysis
From the Saudi/UAE perspective, a closer alliance with Comoros offers the GCC a deeper footprint in Africa by allying with an island nation situated 200 miles off the coast of Mozambique, which serves as an important gateway to the African continent for the Indian Ocean’s maritime traders. For Comoros, the expected benefits of solidified ties with the GCC states will come in the form of financial aid. In January, the Comorian government clearly saw those benefits as outweighing any potential gains to be made from continuing to develop its relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival. What remains to be seen is how much the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states will reward Comoros for its geopolitical shift away from Tehran, and how effectively GCC money can help the archipelago nation escape its extreme poverty.
Of course, as all states act to protect their interests it would be naïve to overlook the strings attached to Saudi aid to Comoros. For the West Indian Ocean nation to receive economic assistance from Saudi Arabia, it must continue aligning with Riyadh. What will this commitment entail, should the IMAFT come to fruition and begin deploying a multinational force to lands far removed from the Mozambique Channel, to wage battles against IS while fighting Riyadh’s geo-sectarian war against Iranian/Shi’ite influence? Whether this would serve Comoros’ long-term national interests is questionable. Nonetheless, the pressure on Comoros to come over to Saudi Arabia’s side underscores how the deepening rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran is playing out in remote corners of the Muslim world where Gulf Arab petrodollars appear to be buying the GCC more influence.
Photo: Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman
Emmaline Ivy Johnson is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt). Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.