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Qatar – Côte d’Ivoire: Doha is slowly expanding its influence

By Baudelaire Mieu
Posted on Monday, 31 May 2021 14:05, updated on Thursday, 3 June 2021 16:00

Côte d'Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara and Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, in Côte d'Ivoire in December 2017. AOuattara_PRCI/Official account of the Ivorian president/Twitter

From air transport to finance and infrastructure, Qatar has been steadily expanding its influence in Côte d'Ivoire.

For its part, Qatar was patiently waiting for Côte d’Ivoire to wrap up its 2020 presidential election. However, Doha has been wanting to ‘reignite’ its relations with Abidjan for several months now.

This desire began to materialise last April when Qatar Airways announced that it would start operating flights to Abidjan. According to our information, this had been planned for a long time. The airline will launch three weekly flights from Doha to Abidjan, the first of which will depart on 16 June.

The Ivorian head of state Alassane Ouattara values his relationship with Qatar. It is a very important relationship to him.

The decision by Qatar Airways is the first step towards a rapprochement between the Qatari company and Air Côte d’Ivoire, which is majority-owned by the Ivorian state and whose natural hub is Abidjan’s Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport with 2.36 million annual passengers.

The presence of Qatar Airways may well boost the airport’s traffic. Expansion work at Abidjan airport will allow passenger numbers to increase from three to five million, and even to seven million by 2025.

Negotiations are ongoing between the two airlines. “Our discussions are at an advanced stage. Our wish is to conclude, first of all, an agreement that will allow us to operate the same flights,” said a source at Air Côte d’Ivoire, who wished to remain anonymous.

The launch of Qatar Airways flights is a boon for the Ivorian airline, which is looking for profitability and competitiveness to consolidate its operations, as well as launch new projects such as flights to the US. Côte d’Ivoire is not only hoping that Qatar will purchase some of its shares of Air Côte d’Ivoire, along with certain shareholders like Goldenrod, but also finance its airline’s 2021-2025 strategy.

Hotels and offshore oil

Qatar’s offensive into Abidjan goes beyond simply conquering their airspace. In 2020, the Ivorian authorities granted Qatar Charity a licence. The charity fund will open offices in the country, and have the status of a diplomatic institution with related tax benefits.

Last January, the Kasada Capital Management fund – an independent investor of Katara Hospitality, Qatar’s hotel investment vehicle – bought eight Africa-based hotels from the Accor group in Côte d’Ivoire (including the Pullman, Novotel, Ibis Marcory and Plateau, in Abidjan), as well as in Cameroon and Senegal.

Furthermore, after several attempts, Qatar Petroleum finally set up shop in Côte d’Ivoire in May 2020. It completed its first major transaction in the country, by acquiring a 45% stake in oil licences CI-705 and CI-706 from Total, for an anticipated investment of $90m in exploration and drilling.

A “highly strategic” relationship

The first signs of reconciliation between the Ivorians and Qataris began in May 2013, when President Alassane Ouattara went to Doha to negotiate financing of several projects, including the more than 1,300km motorway that would link Yamoussoukro to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The major sub-regional integration project is estimated to cost $4bn (€3.29bn). A 37km segment has already been launched in Côte d’Ivoire along the Yamoussoukro-Tiébissou section, which was funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). Its main shareholder is Saudi Arabia, but 7.5% of the capital is held by Qatar.

Economic relations between Abidjan and Doha were strengthened between 2017-2018. In December 2017, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani paid a visit to Côte d’Ivoire, a first for a Qatari emir. In June 2018, the Ivorian presidency opened an embassy in Doha and then appointed Cissé Abdoul Karim as its envoy, stating that it was a “diplomatic post of high strategic importance.”

Translation: I am pleased with how the friendship and working visit of His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani to Côte d’Ivoire went, which was the first time that one of Qatar’s Emirs visited our country

In September 2018, Ouattara visited Doha again to reopen discussions with the Qataris on investments in infrastructure and cocoa processing, of which Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading producer. During this visit, a joint Côte d’Ivoire-Qatar commission was set up to follow up on major cooperation issues between the two nations.

The following year, this increased cooperation became apparent as a Qatari embassy was opened in Abidjan and Jaber Al Marri was appointed as its envoy. “Our relationship with Côte d’Ivoire is excellent. We will strengthen it in the coming months. An Ivorian delegation is expected in Doha,” Marri told us.

The men leading this rapprochement

In addition to the Republic’s presidency, several senior Ivorian leaders have been involved in Côte d’Ivoire’s reconciliation with the emirate. The late Hamed Bakayoko, former prime minister and minister of defence, went to Doha in March 2018 to seek financial support in the fight against terrorism. He met with Emir Thani and deputy prime minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah.

Back in 2015, Adama Toungara, then minister of petroleum, had stayed in Doha to negotiate confidentiality agreements with Qatar Petroleum for an investment in a thermal power plant with liquefied natural gas (1000 MW).

The project, estimated at more than $2bn, the never saw the light of day. But Toungara’s successor at the oil ministry, Abdourahmane Cissé – now the presidency’s secretary-general – was able to conclude the agreement with Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi, his counterpart in Doha, and with the CEO of Qatar Petroleum, that allowed the Qatari giant to enter the Ivorian offshore.

To secure its future investments in the country, in 2019, the emirate financed – at the request of the Ivorian government – the financial division of the Abidjan-Plateau court of the first instance, which is responsible for fighting corruption.

At that time, Sansan Kambilé, Côte d’Ivoire’s justice minister, and his colleague Ally Coulibaly – the former minister of foreign affairs who is now in charge of integration – went to Doha to establish a training regime for Ivorian judges. This dossier is still being handled by Issa bin Saad al-Jafali al-Nuaimi, Qatar’s justice minister, and Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri, Qatar’s attorney general.

“The Ivorian head of state Alassane Ouattara values his relationship with Qatar. It is a very important relationship to him,” says Coulibaly. Prime minister Patrick Achi handled the Qatari dossier when he was still the presidency’s secretary-general.

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