from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Senegal vs. Iran?

May 5, 2015

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One of the oddest news stories of the week reported that:

Senegal will send 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of an international coalition combating Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, the West African nation’s foreign minister said on Monday...."The international coalition is aiming to protect and secure the holy sites of Islam, Medina and Mecca," Senegalese Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye told parliament. "The president...has decided to respond favourably to this request by deploying a contingent of 2,100 men in the holy land of Saudi Arabia," he said.

Why is this odd? For starters, just how will the Senegalese communicate with their Saudi allies? Senegalese speak Wolof and French, not English or Arabic. The efficacy of this expeditionary force seems doubtful if the two allies have no common language.

Secondly, the Houthis have shown a desire to expand their power in Yemen and have already taken its capital, but I’ve seen no evidence that they plan to march on Mecca and Medina. Suspicions abound: a Washington Post blog item suggested this:

"The most obvious potential benefit of a Senegalese military engagement alongside Saudi Arabia would be in the form of closer political and economic ties between the two, and almost certainly direct cash payments from Saudi Arabia to Senegal," says Andrew Lebovich, a security and political analyst focused on West Africa.

Too cynical? Senegal can surely use more foreign aid, although the BBC says opposition politicians spoke out:

"Saudi Arabia isn’t threatened and neither are Islam’s holy sites. There is nothing to justify a military intervention by Senegal," opposition politician Modou Diagne was quoted as saying.

Iran, which backs the Houthis, is viewed by Sunnis as having designs on Mecca and Medina, but it is surely odd to think that they can best be defended by Senegalese troops. Perhaps the mention of those two holy cities was simply the Senegalese government’s way of arguing that this was all being done for Islam rather than for Saudi Arabia or against Iran.

Perhaps the Saudis are pleased to add another country to the coalition they are building, especially since reports came out that Pakistan had declined the honor. But if the coalition is meant to be effective at fighting the Houthis, it would be better to concentrate on Arabic-speaking soldiers who can really integrate into GCC forces. Relying on Senegal is not going to help much.

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