(Bloomberg) -- An American president will host a state visit for an African leader for the first time in 16 years, as the world’s biggest economy struggles to build influence on a continent forging closer relations beyond Washington’s top competitors China and Russia.

Kenyan President William Ruto’s visit to the White House on Thursday comes as President Joe Biden commitment to engage with African countries is being drained by wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the aggressive economic competition with China.

Filling that vacuum, middle powers including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are jostling to expand their geopolitical clout. At the same time, Russia is growing closer to juntas that seized power across West and Central Africa, while China has taken a dominant position mining critical minerals. 

African countries “want to benefit from all parties, and resent being forced to pick between them,” Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said by telephone, highlighting Biden’s challenge to woo the continent’s leaders.

The last state visit to the US by an African leader was in 2008, when then Ghanaian President John Kufuor was welcomed by George W. Bush. Since then, engagement from countries such as the UAE, China and France have overshadowed the US, which for years has been focused on security agreements and humanitarian aid.

Washington is trying to catch up. It’s started using tools such as political risk insurance and investment guarantees to promote American deals across Africa. 

Read More: Biden Moves to Get Chips Act Funding for Kenya as Ruto Visits

On Thursday, the International Development Finance Corp., which loans to private firms rather than governments, plans to announce several hundred million dollars in new investments in Kenya, bringing its portfolio in the country to more than $1 billion, according to a US government official. 

Biden’s outreach to African leaders has included hosting a 2022 summit in Washington. Yet that all may be too little, too late despite the pomp and circumstance of a state dinner, analysts said.

Africa is always the lowest priority for the US, according to Ken Opalo, an associate professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

“In a world full of crises, it means that African countries rarely last long enough on the list to allow for the emergence of strong mutually beneficial Africa-US relations,” he said via email. “This is why Washington has never had a coherent strategic approach to the region beyond aid and humanitarianism.”

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The UAE has pledged more investment than any other country in the last two years, and increasingly exerted geopolitical influence in countries including Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. 

India is also escalating its engagement, hosting its first Africa summit in nine years later this year, after committing $10 billion of investments at the last meeting in 2015. South Korea has also joined the fray, with its first meeting with African leaders scheduled for June 4-5. 

Interest from new players “is a good thing because it provides Africa with options, choices and opportunities that they didn’t have before,” Mvemba Dizolele, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week. “I think that Washington is learning late,” he said.

One of the DFC’s flagship African projects is a $2.3 billion rail line to connect the mineral rich Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia to global markets — an effort to counter China’s dominance of the supply chain from Africa for critical minerals including cobalt. 

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The impending expiry of a US preferential trade pact with Africa is likely to come up in the Biden-Ruto talks. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows duty free exports of goods from Africa to the US, expires in September 2025. A bipartisan bill to extend it to 2041 has stalled in Congress.

The law, enacted in 2000, hasn’t helped the US keep up with China, by far Africa’s biggest trade partner, or India. US imports from the continent claimed under the duty free program dropped 6.1% last year to $9.7 billion, according to official data. US exports to Africa declined 2% to $18.2 billion, official statistics show.

Separately, Kenya and the US are negotiating a Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership. 

Ruto’s White House visit is widely seen “as a reward to a strong US partner in Africa,” said Gyude Moore, who served as Liberia’s minister of works and is now a fellow at the Center for Global Development, a policy institute in Washington. 

Security Ties

Kenya has been an ally in the fight against the Somalia-based Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, and is in talks to lead an international police force to Haiti to confront rampant gang violence that has pushed that Caribbean nation deeper into chaos. The US is one of the top donors to support the Haiti mission.

On Thursday, the White House announced that Biden would designate Kenya a “Major Non-Nato Ally,” a largely symbolic move but a first for a sub-Saharan African country. “This designation is granted by the United States to countries with close and strategic working relationships with the U.S. military and defense civilians,” the White House said in a statement. 

Meanwhile in West Africa, US troops are being pushed out by military-backed countries including Niger and Chad, despite Islamist insurgencies in the region. 

Read More: US Aims to Complete Military Pullout From Niger by Sept. 15

“This trip comes at a time when the US has seemed to be on the back foot in Africa,” said Meron Elias, East and Southern Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Russia has seized the opportunity to offer security assistance and has been extending its influence in Africa in countries including Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic and Burkina Faso.

The region is starting to realize that US-Africa relations have only served the superpower’s interests, according to Ibrahim Hamidou, head of communication for Niger Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine.

“This relationship needs to be reworked,” Hamidou said by telephone. “The tables are turning.”

--With assistance from Katarina Höije and Michelle Jamrisko.

(Updates with details of Non-Nato Ally designation in sixth-last paragraph.)

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