Turmoil in Sudan, as fighting continues between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is causing grave concern in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which have vested stakes in the country’s future.
As a Red Sea country with an important geographic location, Sudan is important for accessing sub-Saharan Africa, as well as global trade routes and supply chains via the Bab al-Mandab strait. Gulf Arab countries also have interests in Sudan related to investments, food security, and other domains.
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The two Gulf Arab states with the most influence in Sudan currently are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This has been especially noticeable in the years since the overthrow of longtime Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
Since then, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have put much effort into trying to increase their sway in the country, with the former particularly involved.
Late last year, Sudan’s military authorities and two UAE-based companies signed a $6bn preliminary agreement for the construction of the Abu Amama port, located on the Red Sea. For the UAE, this large project is part of a wider policy in the Red Sea and Africa, with the Emiratis attempting to expand their sphere of influence, and build up a network of strategic outposts, of which Abu Amama would be a critical node.
“The UAE’s interests are in controlling ports in the Red Sea,” Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese researcher and a political analyst on Sudanese affairs, told Al Jazeera. “The UAE has political and economic interests in the Red Sea, and it’s expanding into central and west Africa.”
According to Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, the UAE has been waiting to see if the political landscape in Khartoum was changing in its favour.
“The Emiratis have played a game of supporting both Hemedti [Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo] and [Abdel Fattah] al-Burhan over the past couple of years,” Krieg told Al Jazeera, referring to the generals in charge of the RSF and the army respectively. “Now, they are realising that this is a policy that doesn’t play out well because you’ve basically created two strongmen that are now competing with one another.”
The Egypt factor
With seven international borders, Sudan’s violence has the potential to spill into many other countries. From a GCC perspective, the risks of the crisis having destabilising effects on the Gulf and Egypt are particularly concerning. GCC officials want to see the Arab League and its members step up diplomatic efforts aimed at winding down this violence before it spirals further out of control.
“While many Western analysts might see Sudan as a country in Africa, which it obviously is, for the GCC and other Arab countries it is an Arab country. So, any sort of instability, civil wars, disruptions of this magnitude, in particular, are a grave concern for everyone also because it is very close in terms of proximity to the Gulf,” said Krieg. “The major concern is about this becoming potentially a regional conflict with spillover into Egypt.”
With Cairo supporting al-Burhan and Abu Dhabi backing Hemedti, Egypt and the UAE are not on the same page.
With Egypt reportedly giving military support to the Sudanese army, while Libya’s renegade general Khalifa Haftar and others back al-Burhan, there is a real possibility of different Arab and African actors exacerbating the conflict by arming the different sides in Sudan.
“Egypt supports Burhan and sees the Sudanese army reflecting the Egyptian army as the only institution that can maintain the stability of Sudan. Egypt sees Hemedti as a mercenary,” explained Mashamoun.
The leadership in Cairo believes that Arab national armies, not non-state actors, are the entities that Egypt must support. This was the case in Syria’s conflict as well as in Sudan’s current crisis. “A country with a respected army will respect an army over a militia,” added Mashamoun.
“The Egyptians are very fiercely opposed to Hemedti,” said Kreig. “We’ve seen in recent years disagreement developing between Egypt and the UAE on what’s happening in Libya, on who both sides are supporting in Ethiopia … and now you have Sudan, where the Emiratis have obviously supported Burhan, as well, but at the same time have developed this two-pillar approach of supporting two strongmen, which was never going to be a sustainable approach.”
Depending on the trajectory of Sudan’s internal fighting, the UAE might shift course according to some experts.
“If Hemedti looks like he’s getting the upper hand in the struggle against Burhan, I think the Emiratis could come and support him more forcefully, and maybe not too directly, so perhaps through a surrogate like Khalifa Haftar that we’ve seen in Libya moving arms and support,” Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera. “The Hemedti social media pages are being managed from the UAE and Hemedti is copying many UAE narratives about Islamism, basically equating Burhan with political Islamism after delegitimising him.”
Washington’s blind eye
The United States has long coordinated with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Sudan, despite some tensions over other issues, such as oil production.
“Even before the current crisis, the Biden administration had been coordinating its diplomatic efforts with the so-called Quad countries [Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK, US] on efforts to establish a civilian government in Sudan,” Gordon Gray, the former US ambassador to Tunisia, told Al Jazeera. “So, I would not characterise the administration’s current engagement with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the UK as a change in policy or practice.”
Realising that no Arab state has as much influence over Hemedti as the UAE, the White House sees Abu Dhabi as having a particularly important role to play in terms of trying to rein him in. But it is far from clear what the Emirati leadership can do to influence Hemedti at this stage.
“The Emiratis have been extremely naïve to think that Hemedti is someone whom you can control,” said Krieg, who explained how the tensions between the army and the RSF had been a problem brewing for years.
“We knew this was a crisis in the making. Everyone turned a blind eye, particularly the United States. The fact that the US now has to reach out to the UAE and Saudi Arabia shows that the US grand strategy for Africa is failing,” added Krieg. “They have to now rely on two partners in the Gulf that the US probably only reluctantly engages on this issue.”
The military in Sudan sought to disempower civilians after its October 2021 coup, a cause that united different factions within the security sector, including Hemedti. Now, with civilians removed from the political process, the inevitable clash between Hemedti and al-Burhan erupted.
As Mashamoun told Al Jazeera, the US has a role in this crisis.
“[The Americans] outsourced Sudan’s transition to regional partners [chiefly Saudi Arabia and the UAE]. That’s why there’s no holistic plan for how to help Sudan’s plan for transition to democracy,” said Mashamoun. “At the ultimate end, it’s democracy that will bring stability to Sudan. Yes, civilians are disunited on everything. But at least they don’t kill each other and cause casualties.”