Sudan's Bashir is playing a dangerous game

The attempt of the Sudanese president to engage with rival regional interests in a bid to stay in power might fail.

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    Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been in power since 1989 [File photo: AP]
    Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been in power since 1989 [File photo: AP]

    Sudan's political crisis is sliding into a dangerous phase. Its economy is on the verge of collapse. The price of food and other basic commodities is rising by the day, worsening living conditions for ordinary Sudanese and stirring growing discontent in the country.

    The economic problems are compounded by a severe fuel crisis that has nearly paralysed the country and which the government is unable to solve. Some high-ranking officials have admitted that Sudan is virtually bankrupt. Many believe that, if the economic crisis continues on such a scale, the country will implode. 

    Amid this impending disaster, President Omar al-Bashir continues to insist on running again in the 2020presidential elections, worried about his two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

    To ensure the survival of his presidency, he has been playing a complex foreign policy game, balancing between different regional interests and rivalries. There are indications, however, that pressure on him to choose sides is increasing, and his balancing act might fail.

    Seeking a US approval, playing the Russia card

    In October 2017, the US lifted most of the economic sanctions that had been imposed on Sudan for nearly two decades. Sudan has been designated a state sponsor of "terrorism" since 1997. 

    Next month, Sudan and the US will start the next phase of the five-track engagement plan that involves negotiations over the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of "terrorism". Khartoum is hoping to get rid of the remaining US sanctions, including the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006, as a prelude to seeking debt relief and fully normalising relations with the US.

    The European Union is also accelerating its rapprochement with the Sudanese regime. Sudan has received millions of euros from the EU to curb migration from Africa to Europe.      

    Nevertheless, al-Bashir appears to be very suspicious of US intentions. Last year, reports circulated that the US had sent a message to al-Bashir telling him not to run in the 2020 elections - something the Sudanese foreign ministry denied. 

    Al-Bashir was incensed when then-US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan did not meet him during his visit to Khartoum in mid-November 2017. Al-Bashir suspects that there is a clique within his regime that has reached an understanding with the US regarding his future in power.

    Consequently, he has taken steps to dismantle this so-called "US clique" by removing his foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, the director-general of the National Intelligence and Security, Mohamed Atta, and Army Chief of Staff, General Emad al-Din Adawi from their respective roles.

    Al-Bashir has also recently replaced many senior officials in the ruling National Congress Party and has just reshuffled his cabinet to further consolidate his power before the 2020 elections.  

    Hoping to attract some attention in Washington, al-Bashir decided to pay a visit to Russia in December 2017. During his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he expressed support for Russia's position in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and denounced “US interference” in the region.

    Al-Bashir even asked Putin for protection against US aggression and invited Russia to establish a military base on the Red Sea. His remarks, which came just weeks after the lifting of US sanctions, were widely seen as a message of defiance to Washington.

    Playing Gulf games in times of crisis

    At the regional level, Bashir is trying to manage a delicate balance in relations with competing regional players. When Turkish President Erdogan visited Sudan in January, he and Bashir signed more than a dozen agreements to boost bilateral economic ties, including a deal to lease the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey.

    Ankara and Khartoum agreed that Turkish investors would rebuild Suakin's historical sites, develop the island as a tourist attraction and create a transit point for Muslim pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to reach the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

    In March, Sudan signed a further $4bn deal with Qatar to develop Suakin as Sudan's second biggest port on the Red Sea. Qatar's investment in Sudan already amounts to more than $2bn and expected to rise in the near future.

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    These deals have sparked speculation about a potentially significant shift in Sudan's regional alliances. Al-Bashir's moves to bring Qatar and Turkey to the Red Sea are no doubt viewed with concern by the axis of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and others who accuse both Qatar and Turkey of sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Al-Bashir had previously sought to win over Saudi Arabia and the UAE for financial and diplomatic gains by moving quickly to sever diplomatic ties with Iran in early 2016 and sending thousands of Sudanese soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen.

    When the Gulf crisis broke out last year, Bashir tried to stay neutral, deciding not to back the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar. However, earlier this month, media reports circulated in Sudan that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had presented al-Bashir with a set of tough conditions for continuing their financial and diplomatic support, including severing ties with Turkey and Qatar. The government was quick to deny these rumours, saying that “no party is applying pressure on the government”.

    However, there have been other signs of tensions. On May 2, Sudan's defence minister told parliament that the government was re-evaluating its role in the war in Yemen, with a decision on Sudan's continued participation expected soon. There are reports that hundreds of Sudanese soldiers have died and thousands have been wounded in Yemen.

    Khartoum's continued participation in the Yemeni war has been questioned by members of the Sudanese parliament, as well as pro-government newspapers and writers. There has also been growing criticism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for not helping Sudan to resolve its acute fuel shortage.

    Comparisons have been drawn with the substantial financial support given to Egypt by the two Gulf countries despite the fact that Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi has not sent troops to fight in Yemen. 

    Despite these criticisms, it is possible that the talk of withdrawal from Yemen is not genuine and is meant to pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE into helping Sudan to resolve its economic crisis. Hence, Sudan is expected to keep its troops in Yemen for the time being to ensure continued leverage.

    Whatever the case, it seems that al-Bashir's ability to play rival regional and international actors off against each other is diminishing, as some key players are telling Sudan "you are either with us or against us".

    In the end, his tactics of manipulating competing regional and international alliances are actually damaging to Sudan's national interests. They are turning the country into a battlefield for rival powers.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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