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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Analysts: Sahel force funding shows Saudi 'serious' on terrorism fight

The UAE, which has also commited to fighting extremism, has offered an additional 30m euros to the fledgling force

This photo taken on November 2, 2017 shows Malian soldiers, part of a joint military force, the G5 Sahel, sitting in a vehicle as they patrol on November 2, 2017 in central Mali, in the border zone with Burkina Faso and Niger. Daphné Benoit / AFP
This photo taken on November 2, 2017 shows Malian soldiers, part of a joint military force, the G5 Sahel, sitting in a vehicle as they patrol on November 2, 2017 in central Mali, in the border zone with Burkina Faso and Niger. Daphné Benoit / AFP

Saudi Arabia's hefty donation to a new anti-terror force in west Africa's Sahel region is in line with Riyadh's desire to show it is serious about fighting extremism, analysts say.

The 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 (Dh431.5m) is a relief for former colonial power France, which has spearheaded the project.

But Saudi-watchers say getting involved also serves twin purposes for Riyadh: countering accusations that it finances extremism, and consolidating influence in a region where it has invested for years.

"Fighting terrorism and extremism with zero tolerance is our priority," Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir told Le Monde newspaper in an interview published on Thursday.

The UAE, which has also committed to fighting extremism, has offered an additional 30m euros to the fledgling force.

The cash brings total funding over the initial 250m 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 on Wednesday following a summit hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron.

Read more: Saudi, UAE head to Paris to offer helping hand in West Africa force

Saudi crown prince Mohammed 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.

Crown prince Mohammed — widely known by his nickname "MBS" — 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-ISIL coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria.

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

"This isn't entirely new under MBS," she added.

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

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