Amid rising tensions between the US and China, Huawei is expanding its 5G network and influence in North Africa.
As US-China relations become more heated and more and more Western powers turn their backs on the Asian giant, Huawei is gaining ground in the shifting sands of North African geopolitics. The still-developing relationship between Huawei and its North African partners is not merely transactional — with Huawei’s increased presence in the region, China is rapidly gaining diplomatic and financial influence.
On March 28, 2020, the US announced new regulations in the tech industry designed to ban Huawei from using US manufactured (or owned) technology and software. Though the move was far from unexpected, it came as a blow to Chinese tech giant Huawei.
President Donald Trump and his administration have alleged that Huawei is an arm of the Chinese government and its technology is part of a spying network. Trump has encouraged US allies to stand together against Huawei and deny the firm access to 5G networks. New Zealand, Australia, and most recently the UK, have followed Trump’s lead.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Huawei products would be off the British market by the end of 2020 and clear from the UK’s 5G network by the close of 2027.
China, meanwhile, has threatened to reciprocate by imposing restrictions on certain US tech exports, prompting speculation that a long-term economic war could be on the horizon and North Africa may be among the battlefields.
Huawei’s foothold in North Africa
Huawei has already gained significant ground in North Africa and has a strong presence in a number of countries in the region. Huawei has been active in Egypt since 1999, and the Chinese company has a strong foothold in the North African country already.
In April 2019, the Egyptian government and Huawei entered talks about the launch of a 5G network in the country. Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly welcomed Li Jie, Chairman of Huawei’s Supervisory Board at his office to discuss future collaboration, pointing to the fact that Huawei’s North Africa foothold is about more than business.
The Egypt-Huawei relationship going forward will include partnerships in education, training, and industry. Looking forward, the Egyptian government is interested in engaging actively with Huawei on strategic planning for rolling out 5G across the country.
Huawei’s North Africa hold is not limited to Egypt: Tunisia’s Ooredoo Tunisie has engaged Huawei to develop the necessary infrastructure to roll out 5G across the country in 2021. Tunisia plans to use Huawei’s 5G Single RAN radio solution with advanced Massive MIMO technology and its 5G Cloud Core technologies to develop the 5G network.
However, France has also thrown its hat into the ring to develop 5G in the North African country. While Ooredoo Tunisie has a market share of 40.2% and is eying up Huawei as a 5G partner, Orange Tunisie, who holds only 25.9% of Tunisia’s mobile network, has ruled out the Chinese tech company as a partner.
“We don’t foresee calling on Huawei for 5G,” Orange CEO Stephane Richard said. “We are working with our traditional partners – they are Ericsson and Nokia.”
Spotlight on Morocco
Huawei and Morocco have developed a positive relationship over many years and the Chinese tech company recently chose Morocco as the location for the launch of its new low-cost smartphone, Huawei Y7p.
Though the phone comes without Google Mobile Services due to the US embargo, Huawei has developed Huawei Mobile Services to cover the need for Application downloads and basic services.
Huawei has been operating in Morocco since 1999 when it opened its headquarters in Rabat. The company then opened a regional headquarters in Casablanca in 2018, to cover all of Huawei’s operations in North Africa.
The tech company also has eight active agreements with Moroccan universities to train 12,000 students over a period of three years.
On top of education, the Chinese tech giant has partnered with key companies, such as the National Railway Office (ONCF). Huawei provides ONCF with the technologies necessary for high-speed-line or LGV communication services.
In January, Huawei announced that it is ready to launch a 5G network in Morocco. The company’s vice-president for North Africa, Philippe Wang, said Morocco could become a hub for Africa’s digital sector. Morocco, he said, should increase efforts to encourage foreign direct investments in the technology sector and speed up digital transformation in the industry.
“Morocco must also further promote trade and partnerships with regional economics,” said Wang.
While Morocco traditionally boasts a strong and historic relationship with the US, the North African country’s decision to shift towards China through developing technology partnerships with Huawei points to a wider geopolitical shift.
China, North Africa, and shifting geopolitics
“China is setting up North Africa to play an integral role in connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe,” a 2019 Brookings report on China’s “growing footprint in North Africa” argued. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Huawei’s increasingly strong grip on the region’s telephone networks, among other sectors.
The Brookings reports warned that “China’s growing role in North Africa is likely to have far-reaching economic and geopolitical consequences for countries in the region and around the world.” The research center’s theory is far from groundbreaking — it has been clear for some time that the US’ status as a global superpower and unquestioned diplomatic force is waning, and China is among the understudies waiting in the wings to step in.
However, as the US, China, and Russia continue to square up against each other, using economy and diplomacy as weapons in a new type of cold war, North African countries may have to decide which side of the virtual iron curtain they want to be on.