From the Gulf to Egypt, Foreign Powers Are Playing With Fire in Sudan
A cast of foreign actors is seeking to shape Sudan’s incomplete political transition after the fall of longtime President Omar al-Bashir, each nudging it in the direction they favor. Their competing agendas are complicating negotiations between the ruling Transitional Military Council and civilians in the pro-democracy movement represented by the Forces for Freedom and Change. The two sides reached a major agreement on July 5 to jointly manage a three-year transition to civilian rule, and there was a recent breakthrough on Aug. 4, as they finalized that July deal and thrashed out its details. Yet the transition remains fragile and vulnerable to spoilers.
The involvement of so many outside powers in Sudan’s affairs underlines the country’s strategic importance, not only to its African neighbors but to the broader Red Sea region and the Persian Gulf. The danger for Sudan is that it could get sucked into geopolitical rivalries that do not serve its national interests, dashing the hopes of its citizens for a peaceful, democratic future.
It is a challenge to untangle the interests and strategies of the various actors currently engaged in Sudan because of the opaque way they operate and the fact that their Sudanese suitors are each pursuing their own, often conflicting, goals. Aligned with the military council—or elements within it—are a collection of authoritarian Gulf states and their allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Above all, these governments’ agendas are antithetical to democracy. They value what they consider to be stability and security in Sudan and instinctively view the military as their natural ally in achieving this objective.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to keep Sudan onside with their chief foreign policy goals in the Gulf, namely to isolate both neighboring Qatar and their main rival, Iran, which they accuse of supporting terrorism, and to prosecute the war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both the Saudis and the Emiratis have established, or are in the process of negotiating, port and military access in the Horn of Africa. The Emirati base at the port of Assab in Eritrea has been used to train troops, supply the war effort in Yemen and even launch military operations there. Egypt’s top priority is for Sudan to keep a lid on its Islamists, who have historical links with the Muslim Brotherhood that briefly held power in Cairo after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, until President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by a military coup in 2013. The general who led that coup—now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—also wants a stable, pliant southern neighbor.
Ranged against this alliance are Qatar, Turkey and Iran, although Tehran to a more limited extent in Africa. Qatar has responded to its Gulf adversaries, which imposed a blockade against it in 2017, by developing strategic infrastructure in East Africa. In 2018, Doha signed a deal to build a container port in Sudan. Turkey reached a similar agreement months before, and has developed strong diplomatic, commercial and humanitarian ties in the region.
Sudan has sought to play a neutral role in the Gulf crisis that has pitted the Saudis, the Emiratis and their regional partners against Qatar, turning to governments on both sides of the divide for financial assistance to address its economic collapse. Ultimately, Bashir’s failure to steer a middle course between the Gulf rivals is thought to have played a role in the decision by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to acquiesce to his removal in April.
Foreign powers should recognize that their attempts to promote a stable future in Sudan could instead help tip the country into civil war.
Hemeti overcame humble origins as an illiterate camel-herder from the western periphery of Darfur to amass a feared militia that helped keep Bashir in power, before ultimately turning against him when anti-government protests peaked at the beginning of the year. He has used his firepower, clan ties and wealth derived from control of Sudan’s most lucrative gold mine to win influence in the wider region. RSF fighters have made a critical, ongoing contribution to the Saudi coalition in Yemen. In July, the first group of an expected 4,000-strong contingent of RSF militiamen arrived in Libya to assist the renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose offensive against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli is backed by the Saudis and Emiratis.
Hemeti’s diplomatic outreach took him to Saudi Arabia in May, where he met the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman just days before the RSF was unleashed on peaceful protesters in the streets of Khartoum. On the eve of another round of talks between the military council and civilian leaders, Hemeti visited Cairo, where Sisi assured him of Egypt’s strategic support for “stability and security” in Sudan. The Saudis and Emiratis had previously stepped in with critical financial support early in the transition, pledging to deposit $500 million in Sudan’s Central Bank.
In contrast to Hemeti, representatives from the Forces for Freedom and Change lack partners who are willing to commit large financial sums to their success. Instead, its nexus of support comes from African institutions and Western powers. The African Union has put diplomatic muscle behind the pro-democracy movement’s demand for a civilian-led transition. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also played an active part in the mediation effort. While he is viewed as an honest broker, Abiy has his hands full dealing with multiple domestic crises and cannot be expected to sustain the high-level effort required to see Sudan’s transition through to democratic rule.
The United States and the United Kingdom have amplified their support for the Forces for Freedom and Change since the June 3rd massacre and have coordinated more with the Saudis and Emiratis to push their respective partners toward a sustainable deal.
As various diplomats continue their work, parallel developments highlight the unhelpful role foreign powers continue to play in Sudan’s transition. Qatar has been accused by some quarters of backing an alleged Islamist coup in Khartoum on July 24 that appears to have provided the pretext for Hemeti to launch a purge of senior military figures and those linked with Bashir’s National Congress Party. It is unclear whether the coup was real or concocted, but Qatar’s activities elsewhere in the region lend credence to accusations of foreign interference.
Throughout its history, Sudan has been a victim of outside meddling, and has itself frequently interfered in the affairs of its neighbors. What is different this time is that the stakes in Sudan are higher, the range of external actors is broader, and their aims more clearly in conflict with each other. Foreign powers are playing with fire in Sudan and should recognize that, if they overplay their hand at such a critical moment in the transition process, their attempts to promote a stable future could instead help tip the country into civil war.
*Richard Downie is senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.