President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Independent Media

The president seems to take the high-handed view that conducting foreign policy is his prerogative and he need not justify or explain it, writes Peter Fabricius.

At a time of great conspiracy theories around President Jacob Zuma’s domestic activities, it is perhaps not surprising that hidden motives are also being ascribed to his foreign activities.

And the two are being linked. So when he visited Dubai last month, for instance, the EFF claimed he had gone there to expatriate money for his business cronies, the Gupta brothers.

And a commentator for Al Jazeera has read a great deal into the coincidence of Zuma’s state visit to Saudi Arabia and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s state visit to Iran at the same time last month.

The article suggested that Nigeria was showing more allegiance to Iran, while its African rival South Africa was shifting allegiance from its traditionally greater ally Iran, to Saudi Arabia.

This interpretation was inspired by the fact that in the last week of February, Zuma first announced he was making a state visit to Iran the next week, and then, days later, his office announced he was postponing it indefinitely. On about the same day the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, visited Zuma in Pretoria. The meeting was announced quietly on the Saudi foreign ministry’s website but not at all by the South African government.

This sequence of events led the Al Jazeera commentator to conclude that the Saudis were offended that Zuma was paying a state visit to Tehran before his state visit to Riyadh and so had demanded he postpone the Iran visit until after his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Some South African official sources confirmed this interpretation and even berated their colleagues for having been so insensitive to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as to tag a Zuma visit to Riyadh on the end of a visit to Tehran.

The apparent success of Zuma’s state visit to Saudi Arabia late last month only added to the speculation that Pretoria was shifting allegiance.

The Saudis announced a host of joint projects, including a new ammunition factory in Saudi Arabia, investment by the Saudis in South African solar energy, petrochemicals, agriculture and oil refineries - coupled with greater oil sales.

The latter suggested that Riyadh might be tying to forestall South Africa’s expected switch back from Saudi to Iranian oil, now that Iranian oil sanctions are being lifted.

The defence co-operation between South Africa and Saudi Arabia has also inspired some pretty imaginative speculation, including one media story that the two countries have agreed to establish a joint military drone factory in South Africa which, in fact, will be a front to enable Saudi Arabia to buy drones from Israel.

It seems very unlikely that South Africa would risk its reputation with the Palestinians and others by helping Israel in that way. But who knows what Saudi Arabia’s inducements might have been, conspiracy theorists would ask.

Senior South African officials dismiss all the conspiracy theories out of hand.

They insist that Zuma postponed his state visit to Iran, originally scheduled for February 28 and 29, only because he suddenly had to travel to Burundi, heading a delegation of AU leaders trying to resolve the crisis there.

Zuma will now make this state visit to Iran next weekend.

They also scoff at the EFF accusation that Zuma made an unscheduled trip to Dubai after his Saudi visit to drop off cash for the Guptas.

They say the working visit to the United Arab Emirates after the Saudi visit was always on the cards. And they add that Zuma was also scheduled to visit Qatar last month, but that this visit was postponed to next month, also because of a clash of schedules.

The senior officials insist that the timing of the Saudi Arabia and Iran visits have nothing to do with each other. They say relations with both are good and neither has any issue with Pretoria’s good relations with the other.

All the Middle East visits were decided on last year as part of a strategic decision that South Africa needed to bolster its relations with the region, the officials say.

If we are to accept this authorised version - and, admittedly, there is no hard evidence to the contrary - it must at least be said that Pretoria has done a poor job of articulating its Middle East policy.

As with much of his domestic decision-making - like firing Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene - the president seems to take the high-handed view that conducting foreign policy is his prerogative and he need not justify or explain it.

He should not be surprised then if others join the dots for him. Often in imaginative ways.

Sunday Independent