Sudan and the Arab Gulf: A strained friendship

Haitham Nouri , Friday 26 Jan 2018

Gripped by a deep economic crisis, Khartoum appears to be using its international relations to curry favours

Mansour bin Zayed, Taha Othman
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, in a meeting with Taha Othman Al Hussain, Sudanese Minister of State in Khartoum

Relations between Sudan and the Arab Gulf countries have been strained during the past year despite the fact that Khartoum has been an active member of the Saudi-led Arab coalition that has been fighting a nearly three-year-old war in Yemen.

This may have been what led Khartoum to lean towards the Doha-Ankara axis and agree to the establishment of Turkish facilities, of an officially undefined nature so far, in Suakin on the Red Sea, setting off alarm bells in Cairo, Riyadh and even Abu Dhabi.

Last week, UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed flew to Khartoum on an unannounced visit, during which he met with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and a number of other Sudanese political and security officials.

At the same time, the Saudi Ambassador to Khartoum Hassan bin Ali, addressing a society at the Sudanese parliament, said that certain parties were trying to undermine relations between his country and Sudan.

The two moves were significant against the backdrop of the tensions in the Gulf with Qatar, which have reached a level unprecedented since the 1990s.

“The Gulf cannot do without Sudan,” said Walid Sayed, a Sudanese diplomat posted in his country’s embassy in Washington. “Sudan is an energetic participant in the ‘Storm of Resolve’ operation in Yemen. It sided with its brothers in the Gulf and severed relations with Iran so that all could unify ranks against Tehran’s interventions in the Arab world.”

For two decades, Sudan had forged strong relations with Iran, a major ally of the Islamist regime in Khartoum. They were so strong, in fact, that some prominent members in the Sudanese government claimed that their country had become part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance”, although not many believed the claim.

The Sudanese press devoted considerable attention to the UAE deputy prime minister’s visit and the Saudi ambassador’s speech in parliament. The Sudan Today news site wrote that President Al-Bashir expressed to the Emirati envoy his dismay at the Saudi attitude towards Khartoum, which was standing by Riyadh’s side in Yemen. Al-Bashir, the report relates, mentioned the “great Sudanese sacrifices in Yemen, which were unappreciated by the Saudis and which led to a strong naval presence of the Houthis” in the Red Sea, threatening Sudan’s maritime interests.

According to Sudan Today, Al-Bashir also complained that his country was gripped by economic crisis as a result of the largest protest demonstrations since 2013 and the return of bread and fuel lines, but that Riyadh was not lending a helping hand.

Simultaneously, a chorus of calls rang out urging the government in Sudan to withdraw its forces from Yemen. Al-Tayeb Zein Al-Abidin, political science professor at Khartoum University, suggested they were orchestrated by Al-Bashir in an attempt to cast himself as facing popular pressure in order to obtain more in return from the Gulf.

Fayez Al-Slek, editor-in-chief of the Sudanese newspaper Al-Tayyar, believes that Al-Bashir had expected an offer from the Gulf in exchange for not fulfilling his agreement with Erdogan over Suakin. “But apparently the UAE sent its delegate merely to seek clarification on the Suakin deal.”

Sudan Today, however, reports that Abu Dhabi did, indeed, make an offer to Al-Bashir to persuade him to renege on his pledge to the Turks but that he resisted.

“That is unlikely,” said Al-Slek. “It is well known that Al-Bashir is a pragmatist. No agreement is worth more than his own interests.”

On the other hand, Mohamed Abu Al-Dahab, a journalist close to the government, said that Al-Bashir turned down the UAE offer because “Abu Dhabi did not try to stop Egypt from attacking Sudan.” He explained, “Sudan anticipates an attack from Eritrea but Asmara cannot do this alone without help from Egypt.”

Sudan has amassed its troops, backed by informal militias, along the border with Eritrea on the grounds that Eritrean forces, allegedly backed by Egyptian forces, are readying to launch an attack against Sudan. Al-Bashir, himself, has refuted this pretext and said that the forces are there in order to prevent smuggling in the eastern state of Kassala.

Several days later, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt would never fight its brothers in Sudan or anywhere else.

Some Western media attributed the tensions between Egypt and Sudan to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in which Sudan has taken sides with Ethiopia. That Khartoum is inclined towards the Islamist groups that are hostile to Egypt is another source of mutual tension.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, argues that it has not abandoned Sudan, as Al-Bashir claimed. In his speech to the Saudi-Sudanese Parliamentary Friendship Society, which took place in the Sudanese parliament building, Saudi Ambassador Hassan bin Ali said that relations between the two countries could not be better. He denied rumours of tension and added that Riyadh and Khartoum were in the process of concluding economic and military agreements. He also stressed that Saudi investors were preparing to enter the Sudanese market now that the Americans had lifted sanctions against Khartoum in October.

In a related development, Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Prince Mohamed bin Salman sent Assistant Defence Minister Mohamed bin Abdullah Al-Ayesh to Khartoum to meet with Sudanese Defence Minister Awad Mohamed Ibn Ouf and Chief-of-Staff Emadeddin Mustafa Adawi. The visit occurred a few days after the announcement of the Sudanese-Turkish agreement over Suakin. Fayez Al-Slek read the visit as an attempt on the part of Riyadh to dissuade Khartoum from shifting entirely in favour of Ankara.

Professor Zein Al-Abidin believes that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are trying to keep Doha from monopolising influence over Khartoum, which is gripped by economic straits.

There appears to be another dimension involved here. “There is increasing talk in government and pro-government circles about amending the constitution to enable Al-Bashir to run for a seventh term as president in 2020,” Zein Al-Abidin said. He pointed out that Al-Bashir could not easily engineer a constitutional amendment given the current economic and political situation in the country, the deterioration in living standards and the fact that the army is involved in a war that the Sudanese have nothing to do with. “Given such a situation, Al-Bashir could press ahead with military confrontation against Eritrea as a means to silence all opposition voices calling for improvements to the conditions affecting people’s lives in Sudan.”

Omar Al-Bashir came to power through a military coup in 1989 and served as chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council until 1993 when an appointed parliament appointed him president. In 1996, he was elected president and he was re-elected in the presidential elections in 2000.

In 2005, Al-Bashir signed a peace treaty with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPML). The agreement granted him another five-year term, lasting until 2010. He was re-elected again in the general elections that were held that year and then again in the elections that were held in 2015. His current term is due to end in 2020 by which time he will have ruled Sudan for more than 31 years.

Apparently, some pro-Bashir circles fear that he will go the way of former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe or that of former leader of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore who was forced to stand down in the face of the furore triggered by a constitutional amendment project. On the other hand, there were a number of cases in which African leaders succeeded in abolishing the two-term limits in their countries’ constitutions, such as Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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