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Morocco, SA best positioned to capitalise on Saudi mining push

Morocco and South Africa two of the African countries best placed to partner with Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom embarks on a drive to bolster its supply of critical minerals, sustainable development expert Sheila Khama told Mining Journal.

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Khama, who has previously worked at the World Bank and African Development Bank on extractive policy, pointed to Morocco's business culture as a strong platform to managing a potential partnership with the Saudis.

"In terms of the socio-cultural and the culture of conducting business, there's likely to be like minded people in the room," said Khama.

Khama also noted a similarity between the two countries from the perspective of state-controlled enterprises, drawing parallels between Morocco's phosphate producer OCP - which controls about 30% of the world's phosphate trade - and Saudi Arabia's oil behemoth Aramco.

"They come historically from the same perspective of dealing with wealth and a position of strength, and very well run state entities. I can see that there would be a natural synergy there and an ability to take advantage," said Khama.

Shifting focus to the opposite end of the continent, Khama said South Africa's extensive mining history would prove appealing to Saudi Arabia in terms of partnering up.

"The Saudis are larger than large in the petroleum space; they have significant experience in mining, but not quite to the same level. Countries that can bridge that gap and enable - based on their experience - both technologically and in terms of skills to help the Saudis bridge that gap very quickly and scale up will do better.

"Here I'm thinking of South Africa, with its depth of expertise in mining," said Khama, pointing to Mintek - South Africa's national mineral research organisation - as well as CSIR - The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

"These are organisations with not only scientific engineering and technological wherewithal, actually they are best in class. And so they can help the Saudis leapfrog that industrialization and technology phase," said Khama.

Other countries that may also prove interesting for the Saudis include the DRC, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but Khama was at pains not to promote partnerships in those instances "because that takes us back to the traditional role of Africa being a supplier, rather than a partnership of equals".

In terms of red flags when considering partnerships, Khama said evidence of poorly run state-owned entities would rank near the top of Riyadh's list.

"What is really needed is to bring the private sector but also very skillful, experienced large scale miners and metal producers who can do this. The temptation is always in Africa, at least in some quarters, to see state not just as the owner but also as the investor. The result has been disastrous. This to me is one of the single most important thing we want to avoid. Let us regulate, let us govern transparency, let us negotiate and push the envelope. But once done, let us hand it over to the private sector and let them get on with it," said Khama.

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.

Riyadh said in January during the Future Minerals Forum 2023 that its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), would join forces with Ma'aden, the nation's state-owned mining firm, to invest in mining assets globally.