Sahel funding shows Riyadh serious on terror

PARIS: Saudi Arabia’s hefty donation to a new anti-terror force in west Africa’s Sahel region is a conspicuous attempt by Riyadh to show it is serious about fighting extremism, analysts say.

The new G5 Sahel force pools troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in an area of desert the size of Europe where extremist groups have been thriving.

Money had been a major obstacle to getting it off the ground, meaning Riyadh’s pledge of 100 million euros (Dh431.5 million) is a relief for former colonial power France, which has spearheaded the project.

“Fighting terrorism and extremism with zero tolerance is our priority,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir told Le Monde newspaper on Thursday.

The UAE has offered an additional 30 million euros to the fledgling force.

The cash brings total funding over the initial 250 million euros needed to get the force up and running following last month’s maiden mission in the volatile border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The Saudi contribution is “very important”, according to a source close to the talks where the donations were announced Wednesday following a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is seeking to rein in the influence of religious ultra-conservatives in the kingdom, which has been hit by multiple attacks blamed on extremists.

Prince Mohammad has presented himself as a champion of moderate Islam as he seeks to modernise Saudi Arabia.

Last month he launched a military coalition of 40 Muslim countries, vowing to “pursue terrorists until they are wiped from the face of the earth”.

And Riyadh was already a member of the US-led anti-extremist coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria.

“Saudi Arabia has an interest both in combating violent [extremist] movements and in being seen to do so,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at British think-tank Chatham House.

“Saudi leaders have been aware of the risks of transnational violent Islamist movements for a long time — especially since 9/11 and since Al Qaida started to attack Saudi Arabia in 2003.”

Diplomatic interests are at play too in yielding to French pressure to join the project, Kinninmont said.

“France’s ties with the Gulf have been growing for years and as the UK prepares to leave the EU, France is likely to become the new best friend of the Gulf states within the EU,” she said.

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