Sudan: While US, Saudi diplomats talked, generals rearmed

By The Africa Report

Premium badge Reserved for subscribers

Posted on July 11, 2023 13:29

 © The Sudanese flag flies from a machine gun belonging to Mohamed Dagalo Hemeti’s Rapid Support Forces. (Umit Bektas/REUTERS)
The Sudanese flag flies from a machine gun belonging to Mohamed Dagalo Hemeti’s Rapid Support Forces. (Umit Bektas/REUTERS)

Attempts by Saudi Arabian and US diplomats to negotiate a ceasefire between the Sudan’s warring factions have ground to an ignominious halt, raising questions about their motives for trying to intervene in the conflict.

After brokering nine nominal ceasefires, which both sides in Sudan used to resupply and move their forces, the diplomatic effort by Riyadh and Washington is over. Last month, they announced that the Jeddah talks have been suspended indefinitely.

For many Sudan activists and community groups, the US-Saudi mediation has achieved nothing, and some argue it has worsened conditions on the ground.

Several thousand people have been killed, much of the country’s modern economy has been destroyed, over two million have fled the country and the fighting threatens to spill into Chad, perhaps triggering another insurgency in its eastern provinces.

The US-Saudi Arabia mediation bid was less about Sudanese realities than an attempt to show that Washington and Riyadh could cooperate on regional security as US President Joe Biden tries to resuscitate ties with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

MBS was angered by US intelligence reports in 2021 that he had ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. His close collaboration with China on the regional rapprochement with Iran sent an alarming signal to Washington about how geopolitics were changing in the Middle East.

US officials fear worsening reputational damage if they persist with still more failed mediation bids in Sudan. Instead, they are monitoring the progress of negotiations under the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union. UN agencies have been sidelined by all parties.

Yet Saudi Arabia officials are reluctant to use the substantive leverage they have with the Rapid Support Forces under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemeti’ and the Sudanese Armed Forces under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Riyadh’s priority is to protect its commercial and strategic stakes in Sudan

As the richest economy in the Gulf, with extensive investments in Sudan, Saudi Arabia could wield influence with its fellow oil-fuelled autocracy in the United Arab Emirates – which is backing Hemeti’s forces – and with Egypt, whose President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is backing Al Burhan’s forces.

Saudi Arabia despatched its naval ships and air force planes to Sudan, evacuating more than 8,000 people to Jeddah across the Red Sea.

It publicised its efforts and uncharacteristically welcomed foreign journalists, who dutifully reported on Riyadh’s beneficence.

Less well-covered is the fate of tens of thousands of Yemenis and Syrians who had relocated to Sudan due to the devastating wars in their countries. In the Yemen war – one of the most destructive wars of the past decade – Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the leading protagonists, along with Iran.

Riyadh refused entry – and even transit visas – to the Yemeni and Syrian refugees from Sudan. Now they are camped out around Port Sudan in the most appalling conditions; more collateral damage in this latest conflict. 

When asked which side in Sudan is favoured by Saudi Arabia, regional analysts argue that Riyadh’s priority is to protect its commercial and strategic stakes in the country.

“Saudi Arabia’s interests are to mediate an end to fighting for both humanitarian and political reasons, and to maintain its influence in Sudan through that process,” says Ryan Bohl at RANE, a risk intelligence company.

Saudi Arabia is reluctant to pick sides because it lacks the capacity to make a settlement, adds Bohl.

Security, economic interests

Riyadh’s strategic goal is to stabilise Sudan and ensure that the democratic aims of the revolution that toppled Omar al-Bashir in 2019 are blocked.

It fears further turmoil could threaten security in the Red Sea and sabotage its plans to build tourist attractions as part its diversification of the Saudi economy.

“For Saudi Arabia, Sudan is not just about scoring a diplomatic success, it’s about ensuring the security of the strategically significant Red Sea region,” says Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The kingdom wants to cut its reliance on oil under its Vision 2030, which includes building a $500bn zero-carbon megacity in the desert. Yet oil exports will remain the powerhouse of its economy for the next decade at least.

Saudi Arabia wants to bolster its regional role, including its leadership of the Red Sea council and a more active role in mediation and security, adds Jacobs.

“The security of the Red Sea is very important to Vision 2030, which includes major projects along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast that will depend on the stability of the region,” she says.

Other economic interests are at stake. Saudi Arabia said it would allocate $3bn towards a joint fund for investments in Sudan after the overthrow of the Bashir regime.

In 2019, trade between the two countries was running at $8bn. Saudi Arabia state media claimed Riyadh had invested nearly $15bn in Sudan from 2000 to 2020, mostly in the agriculture sector, although there was little sign of that by 2019.

Saudi Arabia’s agricultural investments in Sudan are a key part of the Kingdom’s food security strategy, says risk analyst Bohl.

The UAE sees Hemeti as a bulwark against the rise of Islamist militants within the Sudanese army ranks

Its geopolitical aims include blocking any resurgence of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brothers) in Sudan. In the 1990s, the group had backed the National Islamic Front under Bashir and his ideological leader Hassan al-Turabi.

That is problematic for Riyadh as the Islamist successors to Bashir and Turabi are now in the forefront of the Sudan Armed Forces under Gen. Burhan and his deputy commander, Gen. Shams al-Din Kabbashi. 

Riyadh wants to ensure that Sudan, which at one point sent troops to support Saudi Arabia’s intervention into Yemen, is still capable of functioning as a military ally, says Bohl.

“It wants to prevent chaos that might allow Iran, once Khartoum’s ally, to return its influence to Sudan and engender the growth of Islamist militants like al-Qaeda or ISIS that will attempt to attack Saudi Arabia itself.”

UAE takes similar approach

The United Arab Emirates shares Riyadh’s concerns about a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood amid Sudan’s war. Its ruling family has cultivated ties with Hemeti in recent years, facilitating his gold trade and exports, much of which end up in Dubai.

The UAE sees Hemeti as a bulwark against the rise of Islamist militants within the Sudanese army ranks, primarily from allies of ex-president Bashir. That’s an image that Hemeti and his aides have assiduously promoted on social media.

The UAE joined other countries in the Quad, a group that includes Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain, which was meant to mediate in the Sudan conflict.

“Sudan is a critical hub for regional economic connectivity between the Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa. In December, Sudan signed a deal with Abu Dhabi ports to build a $6bn Red Sea port,” the ICG’s Jacobs says.

“The UAE is a global leader in trade and logistics and has clear economic incentives for supporting the security of Sudan and the stability of the Red Sea region. The UAE, and other Gulf Arab states, seem to want political stability, though they may have different ideas for how to achieve this,” she says.

Egypt is making a foray into regional diplomacy, announcing it would host a summit of Sudan’s neighbours on 13 July as part of its efforts to bring the fighting to an end.

There's more to this story

Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.

Subscribe Now

cancel anytime