Lavrov Meets Arab League Leaders In Egypt, Engages In African Tour

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Talks involve significant trade and investment projects throughout Africa and the Middle East

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis  

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has been in Africa discussing food and fertilizer supplies amongst regional concerns over supply chains impacted by the Ukraine conflict. He has visited Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Ethiopia and Uganda to follow on a trip notable because Russia has made commitments to Africa to discuss these issues while the EU nations have not. We discuss the various meetings in Cario as follows:

Egypt

Lavrov met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Sunday, stating Russia is committed to fulfilling its grain export obligations as per the recent UN-brokered deal it signed with Kiev last week. That agreement should unblock shipments of grain from Ukrainian ports. Egypt is a huge importer of wheat and grains, with bread a daily staple for its 102 million nationals, however prices have risen extensively over the past three months as EU nations have been buying up alternative supplies on global markets and pushed prices up to record levels. The Russian harvest is expected to be at record volumes this year, with Russia also proposing shipments of grains to Egypt (and Africa) via the INSTC supply chain from Russia’s Caspian Sea Ports to Iran’s Persian Gulf Ports. From there they will access the Suez Canal as an option to the normal Black Sea / Suez routes.  Lavrov stated that “We discussed the specific parameters of cooperation in this area, agreed on further contacts between the relevant ministries, and we have a common understanding of the causes of the grain crisis.”

Egypt has also been holding discussions with Russia over a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, while Russian investors are also developing a Free Trade Zone at Port Said, near to the entrance to the Suez Canal. Discussions also focused on progress with the Russian built El-Dabaa nuclear power plant being built northwest of Alexandria and issues concerning Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Lavrov will be visiting Ethiopia on Tuesday.

Egypt was the primary foreign partner at this years St.Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). Bilateral trade between Russia and Egypt has been growing, reaching US$4.7 billion in 2021. An EAEU trade agreement would push that far higher and also allow Egypt easier trade with fellow Islamic nations Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, about to become far more accessible via the INSTC routes through Iran.

The Arab League

While in Cairo, Lavrov met with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and reiterated mutual interest in invigorating business ties. The Arab League includes Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “During the meeting, all sides assessed the level of cooperation between Russia and the Arab League in the interests of settling the crisis situation in the Middle East and North Africa, strengthening security and stability in the region. Special attention was focused on the prospects for expanding trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Arab countries. The sides reiterated mutual interest in invigorating Russian-Arab business ties to promote trade, industrial cooperation and implement joint projects in Russia and in the Arab League member countries.”

The sides also exchanged view on the current aspects on the regional agenda with a focus on the search for ways of settling the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine-Israel. Part of this dialogue will have touched on opportunities created by the Abraham Accords, an agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia expected to join. This has already prompted significant trade flows between members with Dubai (UAE) developing as a regional hub overseeing billion-dollar regional investment inflows and outflows. That has attracted Russian businesses with an estimated 135,000 Russian expats currently based in the UAE.

Reaction

The Western political response has been predictable with suggestions that Russia is short of diplomatic friends, an issue somewhat denigrating towards Egypt and the Arab league members. Although Lavrov will be looking for political support, much of the meetings in Cairo related to trade and investment as Russia is seeking to increase these with Africa after having been shut out of the EU markets.

In fact, Russia views Egypt in particular as a ‘gateway’ to Africa, which Moscow has been developing for a number of years.  Trade volumes between Russia and Africa reached US$16.9 billion in 2021, increasing 21.6% over 2020.

Russian investment flows to Africa in 2021 reached US$97 billion, a 147% compared to 2020. Egypt meanwhile has maintained its position as the biggest receiver of FDI in Africa for the third year in a row. While Russia has sent its Foreign Minister to Africa to boost trade and create food and energy supply chains to alleviate concerns, the West has not – yet continues to criticize. Egypt and the Arab league members will no doubt be increasing their Russian trade in the near future with an Egyptian-EAEU Free Trade Agreement very much on the cards by early-mid 2023.

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