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Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Red Sea Dynamics

By Amani Al Taweel
Posted on Wednesday, 25 November 2020 17:17, updated on Wednesday, 2 December 2020 10:02

A general view of old Suakin in the Red Sea state. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Files

Following Sudan's revolution over a year ago, a peace agreement has been signed and political changes are taking shape with increasing speed. But attention must be directed to elements that can make or break peace in Sudan, including dealing with past atrocities, centre-periphery relations and the role of the military in nation building. In this eighth part of our series, we explore how Sudan's peace determines the stability in the Red Sea basin.

This is part 8/9 of a series.

After three decades of authoritarian rule, President Omar Al-Bashir was ousted from his office in April 2019, following months of demonstrations. Since then, Sudan has sought to redefine its internal power balances to maintain a fragile peace, regional relations to increase political leverage, and international affairs to bring it on the path of development.

READ MORE Why protesters are fed up with Sudan’s tricky transition

What happens next is a delicate balancing act with four key variables: regional positioning, economic development, power-sharing, and the role of the Islamist elites in the political structures of the country. How much weight each variable gets is defined by the fragmented security landscape of the Red Sea region. With this in mind, Sudan’s political cornerstones are currently being laid on volatile ground.

1. Regional positioning: Redefining allies and adversaries

During his rule, al-Bashir was known for pulling the strings of allies for his benefit, yet at the cost of regional stability. For example, Sudan is known to have hosted Iranian naval fleets on its coasts, a move that Gulf players have not forgotten to this day. The act of building relations with unsavoury allies has been the unfortunate outcome of Sudan’s attempt to use all means available to keep it from a financial and political collapse. This approach has tinted Sudan’s role in the region to this day.

A Turkish worker assists a Sudanese worker as they restore an old building in Suakin, in the Red Sea state, October 10, 2011. REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Another concrete example of Sudan’s legacy of pitting adversaries against each other was seen a year prior to its revolution in 2018, when the historical Suakin Island was leased to Turkey. The decision gave Turkey increased influence in the region, yet angered rivalling Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With the move, Sudan hoped to bid favours from the two to help its ailing economy.

READ MORE Africa and the Middle East: Proxy wars or economic partnerships

The tense regional dynamics have been exacerbated by shifting neighbour relations, of which Ethiopia is a prime example. About 15 kilometres south of Sudan’s border to Ethiopia lies the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Construction of the massive dam began in 2011, with the aim of boosting the country’s energy supplies to speed up development. Sudan’s initial political stance leaned toward Ethiopia, with the two signing a strategic alliance with a military component in 2017. The move was all but well received by Egypt and Gulf actors.

LISTEN GERD: 1959 Egypt/Sudan treaty -‘The worst agreement Khartoum could have signed’

However, once Sudanese leadership realised that downstream countries, Sudan included, would end up at the mercy of Ethiopia, tides turned and alliances washed away.

The filling of the water reservoir behind the dam began in July, without the consent of downstream countries. Egypt and Sudan see the dam as a significant threat to their water reserves, especially at times of drought, and the dispute has been on the United Nations Security Council’s agenda for years.

A resolution has yet to be reached and the political and technical developments around the dam are followed closely by the entire region – no less so due to vested interests across the Horn from various Gulf players. The dam is not only affecting the flow of water; it is changing power dynamics between and beyond neighbouring countries.

2. Breaking down the balance sheet

Sudan has a long history of economic difficulties, with the secession of South Sudan in 2011 acting as a dramatic turning point. The division of the country deprived Sudan of its oil revenues, which had a direct impact on the flow of foreign currencies to the country, crippling an already fragile state.

Despite the hopes of the protesters, economic difficulties did not leave with al-Bashir and international support for the transitional government has not translated into financial stability.

The chain of events set in motion a decade ago is one of the underlying factors sparking the revolution in 2018. Despite the hopes of the protesters, economic difficulties did not leave with al-Bashir and international support for the transitional government has not translated into financial stability. This is so for two main reasons.

READ MORE Sudan declares an economic state of emergency

Firstly, since 1993 until the end of October, Sudan has been on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List, along with Iran, Syria, and North Korea. For decades, the list directly affected Sudan’s ability to access international loans and debt relief. Even though President Donald Trump agreed to remove Sudan from the list, it will take time before the positive impacts of the move materialise.

READ MORE Can Trump be trusted to remove Sudan from its terror list?

Secondly, Sudan struggles to secure foreign development aid. A recent pledging conference held in June closed with less than $2bn, and even though every million counts, the funds are far from enough. Prior to the pledging rounds, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok estimated a need for $10bn in international loans. This in the context of a 24% unemployment rate and an inflation rate that recently hit 200%.

Sudan’s financial weaknesses have a direct impact on the Red Sea, as the country holds almost a third of the sea’s western coastline.

These realities have had detrimental implications on the government’s ability to build a stable economy in a region already dominated by armed conflicts and problematic neighbours. These pressures reached a new peak with the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the intense floods that hit Sudan in September.

Financial needs have been alleviated with the support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which has also solidified Sudan’s positioning on the Emirati-led Gulf-axis. This positioning is thought to be behind Sudan’s recent move to normalise relations with Israel.

READ MORE Sudan weakened by US demands on compensation & ties with Israel

Sudan’s financial weaknesses have a direct impact on the Red Sea, as the country holds almost a third of the sea’s western coastline. Yet, as it stands and despite domestic calls to keep external influencers at bay, Sudan has limited negotiating power when faced with deals to, for example, manage its ports. In the Gulf, Sudan’s weaknesses are seen as opportunities to establish a presence on the other side of the sea.

3. The critical question of peace

A demand for peace has echoed throughout Sudan’s modern history. The call was there again in December 2018, and with the demands of the protesters in mind, the transitional government set its goal at reaching a just and comprehensive peace agreement.

After a year of negotiations, the government announced the signing of the Juba Peace Agreement with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an alliance of several political and armed groups from different parts of the country. The agreement signed this year on 3 October, is a historical milestone, yet two key players remain outside of it.

The first of the two, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, controlling the Nuba Mountain region in the south, is said to be making progress, but the Sudan Liberation Movement active in Darfur, led by Abdul Wahid al Nur, is far from reaching a deal. The latter group is involved in armed clashes to this day.

The agreement is said to reflect an American and French way of engineering peace and relies on political confessionalism or proportionality in allocating power and resources among communities. The agreement seeks to integrate marginalised areas into centralised political decision-making, yet risks creating political independencies that could potentially result in new breakaway regions. Nervous glances are directed at Darfur.

READ MORE Sudan’s transition overlord Hemeti still wreaking havoc in Darfur

Overall, the peace agreement seeks to harmonise government and regional relations through the distribution of wealth in the form of development funding and entitlement to local resources.  Furthermore, the agreement lays emphasis on accountability. The individuals convicted of violations committed in Darfur will be handed to the International Criminal Court, including the deposed president. Al-Bashir is facing several charges for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.

READ MORE Catch me if you can: Omar Bashir and the ICC

When it comes to the demands for peace, hopes and fears are equally high. In the months leading up to the signing of the agreement, there was widespread concern that the power-sharing provisions of the agreement will add weight to the military actors of the Sovereignty Council, a council that holds the collective role of head of state in Sudan. The council divides authority between military and civilian components, yet despite an equal share in seats, the balance is not even. In addition to control over armed forces, the military holds significant economic power, with large stakes in the private sector. Fear is that the balance of power will tilt in favour of the military after the transitional phase.

Whether these fears materialise or not relies on a matrix of factors ranging from regional dynamics to whether the revolutionary factions remaining out of the agreement arrive at the negotiating table. Regardless of the outcome, the demand for peace remains. So does the will of the people who remain determined to see this demand met.

4. Extent of Islamist influence

Sudanese identity has always existed between the Arab and African worlds. For decades, political Islam was at the core of governmental decision-making with the Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, nesting in the country since the early 1990s. The removal of al-Bashir presented a window to diminish the role of the group from Sudanese politics and with it, redefine regional relations. Yet, the past year has shown that even without the nation’s former head of state, the political props of al-Bashir’s rule remain in place.

Sudan’s political landscape is characterised by several Islamist factions which are far from unified, yet aware of their joint impact. The factions are thought to be among those who seek to strengthen the military component in Sudan’s political equation, against the civilian one. In light of the peace process, they represent a potential destabiliser.

As it stands, the way the groups position themselves in relation to one another and the regional landscape will determine political power balances in Sudan.

Making or breaking peace

Pressed between rivalling nations, surrounded by powerful actors, and pulled in various directions by internal struggles, Sudan’s future is being built on volatile ground.

In terms of regional positioning and policy regarding the Red Sea, Sudan is likely to align itself the United Arab Emirates, due to its important role in backing the peace process and thus the political stability of Khartoum.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction in Guba Woreda, Ethiopia, on 26 September 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

Relations between Sudan and Egypt will also witness a state of stability on more than one front, reflecting Egyptian economic assistance to Sudan and its support of the transitional government at the political level. This equation also depends on finding an agreement with Ethiopia regarding the GERD. This would then enable successful Afro-Arab cooperation more broadly and in particular on the Red Sea.

READ MORE Ethiopia/Egypt/Sudan: Trust, linkage, and cooperation can end dam dispute

In terms of financial stability, it is clear that Sudan is in dire need to get its house in order to avoid sliding into instability. Even though the national budget demands urgent reforms and diplomatic moves to enable the flow of foreign capital into the country, recent moves to this end, such as recognising Israel, have not been received well by the general public – or by the elites.

The risk is that short-term solutions will generate pressing needs in the long-term, resulting in prolonged instabilities on domestic turf. Just as before, external support will act as a band-aid along with strings attached.

This leads to the general question of redefining power structures in Sudan. The question remains whether there is a genuine will to move from a system relying on military authority towards one that is more inclusive and democratic. Laying the foundations for peace on stable ground is not only in Sudan’s interest, but also for a region that sits on one of the world’s busiest trade routes and volatile security complexes that can not risk losing its balance.

*Dr. Amani Al Taweel is a researcher and expert on Sudanese affairs at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt.

For part 1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?

For part 2: Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

For part 3: The Red Sea: ‘A vital artery for the world economy’

For part 4: The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea 

For part 5: Yemen: What happens here sends waves all across the Red Sea

For part 6: Somalia: Caught in the middle of a deeply divided region

For part 7: To avoid another Yemen, the Red Sea needs fresh governance 

For part 9: The Red Sea: A magnet for outside powers vying for its control

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