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Sudan and the Gulf’s Power Rivalry

BY Ahmad Sas



Sudan  and the Gulf’s Power Rivalry

By Ahmad Sas – After popular protests overthrew the 30-year rule of Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019, intensive negotiations are being held in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, over the country’s future. The parties are trying to agree on a shared formula of power transition. The negotiations are ongoing between the Transitional Military Council (TMC), composed of ten senior military officers led by Abdelfattah Al-Burhan, and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), a coalition of civil opposition mainly composed of left-wing democratic movements and labour unions. Both sides share a similar vision of creating joint civilian and military councils to supervise the transitional period. In accordance with the demands of protestors, still on the streets, the negotiations are aimed to end the power monopoly by the military-led council which took over after Al-Bashir ousted from power. According to officials, the talks between the parties have, so far, been positive. Nevertheless, the crucial point of disagreement is on the civilian control over security and defence affairs, which the military-led council rejects. The resolution of this riddle, in one way or the other, could impact the controversial participation of the Sudanese military in Yemen’s war and the entire Sudan-Gulf relations more generally.

The fall of Al-Bashir’s regime viewed in the context of the Gulf crisis, which began when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar in 2017. Al-Bashir did not take sides. Now, in post Al-Bashir Sudan, the Gulf states are flirting with Al-Khartoum. On 19 April, Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs denied, in a statement, the news about refusing to receive a Qatari delegation headed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. This situation sparked a controversy over the likelihood that would be another arena of the Gulf Crisis. On 14 April 2019, the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, declared his solidarity with Sudan and supported the efforts of the TMC to provide peace and stability for the Sudanese people. The same position was conveyed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which also sent around $3 billion (USD) in humanitarian aid to Khartoum. Subsequently, the head of the TMC, who was also the head of the Sudanese troops in the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, expressed his commitment to continue participating in the war against the Houthis—the Tehran-backed militia.

Relations between Khartoum and the Arab Gulf states have long been ambiguous. Al-Bashir has repeatedly distanced himself from the international politics of the Muslim Brotherhood despite his ideological connection with them. Such a position led to fluctuating relationships with the international patrons of Islamism, Qatar and Turkey. Nevertheless, he was keen to maintain his relationship with them and distanced himself from the Gulf crisis in 2017. Also, Al-Bashir has always supported the Egyptian branch of Muslim Brotherhood and even hosted its leadership, after the 2014 power take over by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Such a position had a negative impact his relations with El-Sisi’s Egypt and its closest allies: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Also, Al-Bashir’s ties to Iran and its regional allies, along with charges of human rights violations and war crimes by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), made him the subject of sanctions by the international community, causing Sudan’s international isolation. Just ahead the Saudi-led operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, Al-Bashir’s Sudan broke relations with Tehran and deployed more than 12.000 soldiers to support the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. This policy shift helped him to restore relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, thus limiting his international isolation. After this convergence Al-Bashir expelled those Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that he welcomed in 2014 to enhance relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Sudan’s geostrategic position enhances its attractiveness for the Arab Gulf states, located on the Red Sea littoral and proximate to the Horn of Africa, and with access to one of the most globally important waterways, enhances Sudan’s political and economic significance. Saudi Arabia, after the newly-found convergence with Al-Bashir, launched the Council of Arab and African countries of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in bid to prevent Iran, Qatar and Turkey from gaining a foothold in the Horn of Africa. This council was a direct response to an agreement signed between Ankara and Khartoum “to repopulate” the historic island of Swakin in the Red Sea and renew its port. This agreement has been already declared vailed, by the TMC, due to its infringement on Sudan’s sovereignty. The council was also a strategic response to the agreement between Khartoum and Doha to develop Port Sudan—one of the largest ports on the Red Sea coast.

Sudan has the potential to be central for maintaining food security in the Arab Gulf. The country has 175 million acres of fertile lands, 52 million acres of forest, 102 million head of livestock and an annual rainfall of more than 400 billion cubic meters. If the local agricultural sector is properly supported with development programmes, these assets can transform Sudan into the Gulf’s bread basket.

At the time of this writing, Al-Bashir has been officially charged with killing demonstrators during the unrest that ultimately led to his demise. What will come next, remains unclear, however it is certain that Sudan will remain an important factor in the wider Middle East and should not be regulated as a footnote.
We at EGIC will continue to monitor the situation.