In an official statement on April 14, the emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, announced his support for the military council in charge of guiding the post-Bashir transitional period in Sudan. He also promised “to explore the prospects of accelerating aid for the brotherly people of Sudan”.
This announcement followed the one issued by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which saw the designation of General Abdel Fattah al Burhan Abdelrahman as head of the transitional military council as “a step forward reflecting the ambitions of the brotherly people of Sudan towards security, stability and development."
Additional support came from Saudi Arabia at about the same time, with a statement from King Salman who also assured his support for the new body, also instructing Saudi authorities to send humanitarian aid, including oil, wheat and medicines.
Sudan, like other Eastern Africa countries, has been at the core of the Gulf countries’ interests for years, in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Since the 70s the Arabian Peninsula countries have considered Sudan a breadbasket to exploit in order to meet their internal demands for food. In light of their lack of agricultural land, the Gulf countries invested heavily in the Sudanese agricultural sector. For Qatar, which since 2017 has been under an economic and diplomatic blockade by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain, replacing traditional partners to meet its internal demand for food has become an even more urgent matter. In 2018, Doha announced it planned investments in the Sudanese agriculture and food sectors for $500 million.
As the Qatari example shows, in recent years these dynamics have also been acquiring a geopolitical dimension. In particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a strategy aimed at building trade as well political and military partnerships with several countries in Eastern Africa, including Sudan. With this move, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi intend to create a network of allies supporting their policies in the region. One of the main goals of Saudi and Emirati actions has been the containment of Iranian influence in Eastern Africa. In fact, in recent years Teheran had developed a partnership with Khartoum based on military cooperation and intelligence sharing, which turned Sudan into an important hub for arms transfers to the allies of the Islamic Republic in the Middle East. However, this has changed. The break-up between Sudan and Iran has been mainly linked to the heavy money-related incentives Riyadh has offered Khartoum (a deposit of $1 billion in Sudan’s central bank), and exemplified when, in January 2016, Sudan stood by Riyadh after the assault on the Saudi consulate in Tehran or, a few months before, when the country decided to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
However, at the outbreak of the intra-GCC crisis in June 2017, between the Saudi/UAE-led bloc and Qatar, Sudan was not among the sub-Saharan countries that cut its ties with Doha (as did Eritrea, Mauritania, Comoros, Senegal and Mauritius).
The Sudanese decision not to pick a side in this contention appears to be linked to the impossibility for Khartoum to give up on substantial Qatari investments, which, although not as considerable as the Saudi’s, are essential to sustaining Sudan’s fragile economy. Instead, Khartoum has been able to exploit the intra-GCC crisis by leveraging the two blocs: in fact, it managed to receive investments coming from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia throughout the past year. In March 2018, Qatar and Sudan signed an agreement worth $4 million regarding the management of Sudan’s port of Suakin on the shores of the Red Sea. Meanwhile, in October of the same year the Saudi ambassador to Khartoum declared that Riyadh’s investments in Sudan were worth $12 million.
However, after the outbreak of public protests in Sudan in December 2018, this trend has somehow stopped. In his visit to Doha in January, al-Bashir met Emir al-Thani, who once again expressed his support for “Sudanese unity and stability”. The Saudi Minister of Trade, al-Qasabi, during his visit to Khartoum the day after, also underlined Riyadh’s solidarity with the Sudanese president. And yet these declarations from both countries were not followed by any aid package. The lack of practical commitment was due to the uncertainty regarding al-Bashir’s destiny, with both countries worried that the Sudanese president lacked the internal support needed to guarantee that their investments would actually pay off.
Now, in this phase of uncertainty with the army playing a primary role, understanding the Gulf countries’ agenda is crucial. Sudan remains of vital importance for the food demands of the Arabian Peninsula and it thus it seems legitimate that these countries will aim at continuing their friendly relations with the Sudanese leadership. While Qatar has not yet taken a stance, it seems that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are looking at the military elites as the new Sudanese actors to support in the post-revolution transition. This in exchange for reassurance that Sudan still plays on the Saudi-Emirati team (by recommitting to the Yemen war) as well as restraining the possible insurgence of Islamic movements.
If we look at the Egyptian case, Riyadh’s substantial aid played a pivotal role in al-Sisi’s rise to power and in the consolidation of his leadership. In this regard, Saudi Arabia has had an active role, together with the UAE, in leading the counter-revolutionary axis in the post-Arab Spring – in order to prevent movements close to the Muslim Brotherhood from rising to power.
However, Egypt also stands as an important example of the perils of authoritarian stabilization: the illusion of stability created by managed transitions cannot cover up the lack of reforms which were at the very basis of protests. This perceived stability is nothing but a façade, likely to bring even more turmoil in the long run.