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Saudi to help Africa 'break ranks' with historic trading partners

Saudi Arabia’s drive to bolster its supply of critical minerals presents a golden opportunity for African countries to pivot away from problematic legacy trading relationships, Sheila Khama, a sustainable development expert and former lead mining specialist at the World Bank, told Mining Journal.

Mining Journal

Investment in mining is seen as a critical element of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 - an initiative first unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016 that is designed to diversify the country's economy away from oil and gas, and identified mining as the potential third pillar of industrial growth.

Mining-related newsflow from Riyadh has accelerated in recent months. From January 2023 until May 2023, the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources issued 180 new mining licences for domestic mineral development. This was paired with an announcement by Manara Minerals, a joint venture between Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and Ma'aden, which was announced in January 2023 at the Future Minerals Forum, to invest in mining assets globally. Manara Minerals completed its first transaction in July 2023, acquiring a 10 percent share in Brazil company Vale Base Metals Ltd.

Khama said The Kingdom's emergence as a potential partner in the mining space presented African nations with an appealing alternative to European, US and Chinese players.

"What the Saudis do with this initiative is that they offer the African countries an opportunity, essentially to do something they've never done before, which is to break ranks with a very history that many of them are wary of," said Khama.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's highly successful development of its petroleum sector presents a chance to glean expertise, she said.

"What we know about the Saudis in their ability to steward the development of a petroleum sector is that they have been very successful. The truth is that we can't always say that on the European continent. And so there's an opportunity here also for peer learning; to use the lessons that the Saudis have learned from how they managed petroleum and how they transformed the economy, and to use that to improve and take the opportunity for the growth that we know is going to happen, thanks to demand for what are now called critical minerals," said Khama.

However, while the opportunity is clear, the potential for building a new trading relationship will require a slight shift in mindset and approach from African governments, said Khama.

"African governments are now masters and mistresses of their own fate. They are not looking over their shoulders and really marching to the orders of a colonial power. I think this is different because it means essentially that the ball is firmly and squarely in the courts of the African governments.

"It also means that the African governments have to think in terms of what their needs are and not to define their needs based on Europe's needs," said Khama.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Khama said African governments would have to govern better in the natural resources space than they have done in the past.

"If they are not seen to govern better it is unlikely, for one, they will attract investment in production of minerals and also in processing and then fabrication, but it is also unlikely that they will be able to offer the Saudis the necessary value proposition to become the partners that the Saudis are looking for.

"The Saudis are looking to use these partnerships to fire up their industry and so to succeed, the Africans must understand this need and say: ‘What then becomes our value proposition?' I don't see the Africans succeeding in capitalising on this new dawn unless they can answer that question of the value proposition," said Khama.