Chinese and Arabs Share Ethiopia, in Their Own Way
Islam making major inroads in the east African nation. China pumping millions into infrastructure and industry. An Italian reporter gauges changes in the former colony.
On the flight from Rome to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, flight attendants hand out Chinese-language magazines. And in the city’s Bole International Airport, the only cigarettes available are of the made-in-Chinese variety. Marlboros aren’t an option.
Outside the airport, at the first traffic light, my taxi jockeys for position with a economy car driven by a man who appears to be Chinese. “Since they began arriving a few years ago I see them everywhere,” my Ethiopian taxi driver complains. “We used to call white people ferenji, which means foreigner, but now we mainly use it for the Chinese. They built everything here: the African Union (AU) headquarters, the new light rail system, the Modjo-Hawassa highway, even the railway to Djibouti.”
Here in Ethiopia, where the Italian Empire went to ruin in the ashes of World War II, China is building a new empire of its own.
Heading out from the capital of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, another feature of the landscape catches the eye. A minaret soars over every urban center, community, or village that appears in the distance — many have even more than one. “Those are all financed by oil money,” the driver explains. “For the last 20 years Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have been building mosques here.”
Money and influence
It doesn’t take long upon arriving in Ethiopia to understand the forces at play. While China builds roads and highways in exchange for access to the country’s lucrative natural resources, the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf establish their influence in rural areas by building mosques and spreading Sunni Islam.
Journalist and Africa expert Howard W. French says that Chinese “neocolonialism” began in the East African nation, Ethiopia, about two decades ago, in 1996. That year, in a visit to Addis Ababa, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin proposed the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Upon his return to China, Zemin urged industrialists to invest in Africa. Since then the Chinese presence on the continent has grown and become ever more visible, with Chinese-built roads, railroads, and industrial hubs popping up across Africa.
Buckling under the pressure of a food crisis and an influx of refugees escaping long-running instability in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government sold the country’s best land to Chinese investors, who used it to produce grain for export.