Since the removal from power of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been stepping up their role in Sudan’s transition, reflecting a broader trend of Gulf powers’ growing interest in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region. Though they do not always see eye-to-eye, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been coordinating their efforts at least since 2014 to project greater power across the region. With the 2017 Gulf crisis, pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey, Sudan had become one of the main battlefields for competition between the two camps in Africa.
Al-Bashir had aligned Sudan with the Saudi/UAE stance on Iran by severing ties with Tehran in 2016 and by sending troops to Yemen to fight against the Houthi rebels, in exchange for economic aid. However, he did not follow the Saudi/Emirati line on cracking down on political Islam, as support from Islamists was one of the main pillars of his government. Indeed, according to reports, it was al-Bashir’s mishandling of his relationship with the UAE to ultimately lead to his fall.
With the removal of al-Bashir and the establishment of a new civilian-military transitional government, the balance seems to have decisively shifted towards the Saudi/Emirati axis, while the Qatar-Turkey camp appears to have lost its leeway in the country. The halt of the al-Bashir-approved works on the island of Suakin, where both Turkey and Qatar had stakes, seems to be a case in point.
The military component of Sudan’s transitional government, in particular, seems to be tilting towards the Saudi/Emirati axis: the vice-president of the Transitional Military Council, and former al-Bashir ally, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti), has strong links to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok appears instead busy in striking a difficult balance between the need to protect the transitional government from the generals’ excessive interference, and the need to get Sudan back on track, for which the Gulf’s economic and political assistance is key.
Drivers and instruments of the Saudi/UAE involvement in post-Bashir Sudan
There are economic and security reasons for Saudi/Emirati interest in cultivating Sudan’s new leadership, which can be summarized in the desire for ensuring that the new Sudan perfectly aligns itself with the two Gulf powers’ vision for the region.
This means first of all a strong stance towards political Islamism. Since the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s Islamist parties, some of whom long sustained his regime, have been decisively pushed aside. In November 2019, Sudanese authorities arrested Ali al-Haj, the leader of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), the Islamist party founded by Hassan al-Turabi. The “Salvation Regime Dismantlement Committee” set up in November 2019 to dismantle al-Bashir’s old power structure, has been reversing the al-Bashir era laws imposing conservative Islamic social codes, restricting women’s freedom of dress, movement, association, work and study. The committee has also been seizing al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NPC) assets and in April 2020 it announced the dismantlement of the Islamic Dawa Organization (IDO), the “social” arm of the NPC. While being in line with the new Sudanese leadership’s objective to reverse the legacy of the old regime, all these measures also appear in line with the strong Saudi/Emirati stance against political Islamism. During an official visit to Khartoum last January, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash praised Sudan’s new leadership’s effort ‘to build a modern system to extricate their country from the tough years […] of al-Bashir and the Muslim Brotherhood [which] has left behind a gross failure in administering the country, and providing stability and welfare’.
Second, but equally important, is Sudan’s security cooperation with the Saudi/UAE axis, as well as its alignment with their security interests. Sudanese fighters, drawn principally from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF, an offshoot of the Janjaweed militias), have been fighting in Yemen since 2015, operating both in the UAE sector inside Aden, and in the Saudi sector that extends along the Saudi-Yemeni border. The decision to join the Saudi-led coalition was taken in 2015 by al-Bashir in exchange for financial assistance, including debt relief, and the Saudi promise to help Sudan in having US-imposed economic sanctions lifted and its name removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Over the last year, as the war has been gradually winding down, and as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are looking for ways out of the conflict themselves, Khartoum has been reducing its commitment, thus conceding to popular pressure to withdraw troops from Yemen. According to reports, however, an unspecified number of Sudanese mercenaries hired by the UAE Black Shield security firm remain on the Yemeni battlefield.
The UAE have also reportedly been seeking a more active Sudanese role in Libya to back the UAE-sponsored General Khalifa Haftar in his offensive on Tripoli, in exchange for financial aid. Sudanese troops have been fighting in Libya at least since 2019, when Sudan’s Radio Dabanga reported that the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of Sudan, General Dagalo, had sent around 4,000 RSF troops to Libya to protect oil installations in order to allow forces loyal to Haftar to concentrate on the Tripoli attack. In January 2020, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Darfur fighters are fighting for Haftar’s forces in Libya as mercenaries, significantly bolstering their military capability and gaining money and weapons from the Libyan conflict.
The UAE appear to have also been the mastermind behind last February’s surprise meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, between the head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting, which paves the way for a normalization of ties between Israel and Sudan, has been described by the head of the PLO Monitoring Committee Saeb Erekat as ‘a stab in the back of the Palestinian nation’, as it envisages a future Sudanese support for the US ‘peace-plan’ in exchange for Sudan’s removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Saudi/UAE good offices and mediation with the US to have Sudan removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism seems to be one of the two main leverages the two Gulf countries have over Khartoum. Sudan has been on the list since 1993 over allegations it was harboring members of al-Qaeda. The new Sudanese leadership pursues removal from the list, as the designation makes Sudan ineligible for debt relief and financing from the IMF and the World Bank. The second leverage is of course the supply of financial aid and, after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, medical aid. A $3 billion Saudi Arabia-UAE joint aid package aimed at supporting Sudan’s economic and financial stability was approved in April 2019, in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s removal from power. Part of this package was allocated to support Sudan’s food security, as the rise in the price of bread had been one of the main drivers of the anti-Bashir protests, ultimately leading to his ouster. As of October 2019, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had been shipping 540,000 tons of wheat to Sudan. Moreover, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE have been providing health assistance to Sudan, sending $20 million worth of pharmaceutical aid and medical supplies.
Conclusion: The risk of a hijacked transition
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been increasing their foothold in post-Bashir Sudan. The wave of political transitions sweeping the region over the past years has offered a new opportunity for the two Gulf powers to cultivate friendly regimes in an area increasingly regarded as strategic. The main instruments are economic aid and political support, while the demands are a general alignment with the bloc’s vision for the region, security cooperation, and a stronger stance against political Islam. In its first year after the ouster of al-Bashir, Sudan seems to have followed this path, with the generals strongly supporting the Saudi/Emirati line, and Prime Minister Hamdok left performing a balancing act. The Saudi/Emirati interference, however, risks having implications for Sudan’s domestic politics, as there are signals that the precarious balance between the civilians and the military is tilting towards the generals. This is what appears, for example, from Hamdok’s recent turnaround on Sudan’s position regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, inching closer to Egypt’s position, in line with Generals al-Burhan and Dagalo’s view. More generally, in the future Sudan could find itself forced to make hard choices, taken between the need to satisfy its Gulf supporters and to not alienate its population. Last April, al Jazeera reported that the Sudanese government is in the process of handing over the control of Port Sudan to the UAE giant DP World. Crucial for the operation appears to have been the former-Israeli-intelligence-agent-turned-lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, hired by the UAE to lobby both Sudan – where he has ties to General Dagalo – and the Trump administration. The news has raised worries about the political implications of privatizing the port and depriving Sudan of control over its most strategic infrastructure. Already in 2018 Port Sudan’s workers protested against a similar deal signed by al-Bashir and ICTSI Middle East DMCC, a Philippines-owned company with offices in the UAE. The deal was then suspended because of strikes and protests.
The risk, in conclusion, is for Sudan’s fragile political transition to be taken along a path which ultimately undermines the country’s independence and sovereignty.