Sudan has been at the center of the diverging interests of wealthy Gulf states for many years. Having been close allies of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had longstanding business, military and political interests in the country prior to the Gulf crisis in 2017. In June of that year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — known as the Arab quartet — cut diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar.
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After almost four years of severed ties, reconciliation in January led to the subsequent lifting of the blockade against Qatar and the formal restoration of relations. The resolution of the dispute is a positive regional development. However, it remains fragile because the issues that sparked the rift in the first place were never resolved.
It is therefore unlikely that the Gulf reconciliation will usher in a new beginning or bring about a return to pre-crisis normalcy. Deep-rooted mistrust between the Gulf countries, ongoing rivalries between them, divergence in their policies and geostrategic competition in Africa could trigger the next diplomatic crisis among member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Sudan’s Attempt to Play All Sides
Most Arab and sub-Saharan African states tried to resist pressure to join the anti-Qatar coalition and delicately maneuver their way into neutrality. These states were uneasy about their move because they feared that the Arab quartet would use their economic might against them. As a result, some African states cut or downgraded ties with Qatar.
Financial influence in Africa has helped GCC states capitalize on their geostrategic location, increase their food security and advance their diplomatic and security goals. By offering substantial economic incentives, they have been able to bolster peace agreements between warring factions. Some GCC states have achieved notable success, growing influence and African allies that support their policies. Sudan is a case in point. In 2019, Saudi investments in Sudan were estimated at $12 billion, the UAE at $7 billion and Qatar at $4 billion, as per the Sudanese Bureau of Statistics.
Due to Saudi Arabia’s large investments, Sudan supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen in 2015 by deploying Rapid Support Forces and severing diplomatic ties with Iran. However, Bashir’s relationship with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi began stalling in the last few years of his rule. As part of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s regional efforts to counter what they considered political Islam, Bashir was expected to root out Islamists in Sudan. However, since Islamists were deeply engrained in Sudan’s government, he could not risk alienating them and did not oblige.
The Gulf dispute put Bashir in another uncomfortable position. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar were all key investors in Sudan and he could not afford to alienate any of them. Therefore, Bashir took the safest route of remaining neutral while offering to mediate between the opposing sides.
The Sudanese leader’s reaction to the Gulf rift was not surprising. Historically, he cooperated with all regional powers, never fully aligning with any of them. His hands-off approach and ability to easily switch from the role of an army leader to an advocate of political Islam, enabled Sudan to simultaneously ally with rival GCC camps. It seems that Bashir’s key goal was to benefit economically from all Gulf states.
Sudan Under the New Transitional Government
Unfortunately for Bashir, Sudan’s economy collapsed, nationwide protests erupted in December 2018 and none of his Gulf allies came to his rescue. The GCC states were probably influenced by growing uncertainty regarding Bashir’s future. Their goal was to protect their investments, not Bashir. Without GCC financial support, the Sudanese president found his days in power numbered.
In April 2019, Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed a military coup that ended three decades of Bashir’s rule and led to the creation of a Transitional Military Council (TMC). The GCC duo promptly promised a staggering $3 billion in aid to support the TMC. However, growing international pressure pushed the TMC to sign a power-sharing agreement with Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. The TMC transferred power to a sovereignty council for a transitional period. Elections to usher in a civilian-led government are planned in late 2023 or early 2024.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have vested interests in backing the Sudanese military and ensuring it maintains control of the political transition. Consequently, they continue to offer economic and humanitarian support to Sudan. In return, the TMC has supported their war efforts in Yemen and, more recently, in Libya.
After the 2019 revolution, Sudan temporarily cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamists. Qatar had a close relationship with Bashir’s former ruling National Congress Party that drew the ire of the TMC. However, Qatar has since rebuilt its influence by supporting Sudan’s removal from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST). In October 2020, Doha announced that a peace agreement had been brokered between the transitional government and rebel forces. Qatar has also provided much-needed humanitarian relief.
Sudan remains a country of great economic and security importance to the world. It has an abundance of natural resources. The African Development Bank Group estimates that approximately 63% of Sudan’s land is agricultural but only 15-20% is under cultivation. This offers vast investment opportunities in agriculture. Sudan is also strategically located on the Red Sea just south of the Suez Canal, a key shipping passage for world trade.
Major Challenges and Future Scenarios
Sudan’s transitional government recently set its priorities for 2021, which include a focus on the economy, peace, security, foreign relations and the ongoing democratic transition. However, the challenges facing the transitional government are dire. Foreign debt has risen to over $60 billion and inflation has crossed 300%. The country faces massive unemployment and chronic shortages of bread, fuel and foreign currency. Sudan is in the throes of a complex power struggle between civilians and the military. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) threatens Sudan’s water security. Sudanese and Ethiopian troops have clashed at the border. If this was not daunting already, Sudan has registered nearly 32,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of April 9.
In response to some of these challenges, the transitional government has instituted seismic constitutional changes. After nearly three decades, the US removed Sudan from the SST list in January, eliminating a major hurdle to debt relief and bringing an end to the country’s isolation from global financial systems. However, the transitional government remains under pressure to deliver quick economic wins. If it fails, power may shift back toward the military. In these tough circumstances, the transitional government’s success and Sudan’s democratic future depend on outside financial support.
For Sudan, the Gulf crisis served as a minor inconvenience. The revolution and Sudan’s removal from the SST list are more significant developments. GCC states are now encountering a growing number of new regional and international players who are looking at Sudan with increased interest. This could very well cause a shift in Gulf–Sudan relations.
Although GCC states have a shared strategic interest in Sudan’s stability, this takes a back seat to alliances that promote the individual interests of these Gulf countries. They are all trying to increase their regional influence and are turning post-revolution Sudan into another theater of GCC rivalry. Given Sudan’s fragile economic and political situation, it needs financial support. Economic forces played a major role in the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and will determine the survival of the transitional government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.