For Oman, the transition to cleaner energy sources is both an imperative and a practical economic path to a more sustainable future.
AGSIW's publications are also available in Arabic. Help AGSIW expand its Arabic-language analysis.Donate
When Sudan became engulfed in a crisis in mid-April – with Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s military ruler, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, fighting for control over Sudan – Gulf states emerged as the most important foreign actors in efforts to end the conflict. The extensive political, cultural, and economic relations between Sudan and the Gulf Arab states, and patron-client linkages developed between Sudanese and Gulf officials, particularly during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, have imbued Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with a unique strategic relevance in the power struggle.
Uneasy Gulf Relations Under Bashir
Engagement between Sudan and the Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, remained limited for much of President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year reign due to his Islamist background and close ties with Iran. However, with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan lost the oil reserves that had accounted for more than half of its revenue, leading it to fundamentally change its economic outlook and pursue new sources of financial support. In order to woo Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Sudan publicly downgraded its relationship with Iran in 2014 and joined the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen the following year.
These two steps transformed Sudan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making it a key strategic partner in their campaign in Yemen. In turn, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi ramped up aid to Sudan, providing $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively, in development assistance between 2015 and September 2020. Despite the flow of Gulf aid, Bashir remained a problematic partner for the Saudis and Emiratis. Around 2018, in a bid to reduce Sudan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bashir began deepening ties with Qatar and Turkey, which were positioned against Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the intraregional cold war sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings. Turkey and Qatar’s support for Islamists in the region and the Islamist origins of Bashir’s National Congress Party helped cement the relationship.
Bashir’s political machinations at the height of the Gulf rift made the Saudis and Emiratis increasingly distrustful of him, leading them to draw down the financial support Sudan depended on. After Bashir was forced to cut off subsidies on vital commodities in late 2018, he was faced with a mass uprising that ended with the Sudanese military removing him from power in April 2019 with the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the UAE quickly announced a $3 billion aid package for Sudan, further indicating their support for the new regime. Burhan, the head of the Transitional Military Council junta, emerged as the new military strongman in Sudan. Having coordinated the deployment of Sudanese forces to Yemen and worked alongside Gulf officials, Burhan was considered a trustworthy partner. Burhan also led the transitional Sovereign Council, where he shared power with civilian representatives of the Forces of Freedom and Change coalition, the backbone of the protest movement against Bashir. However, on October 25, 2021, shortly before he was set to relinquish control over the Sovereign Council, Burhan removed the civilian interim government in a coup.
Burhan executed the coup with the help of Hemedti, a former commander of the notorious Janjaweed militia who rose to become the head of the Rapid Support Forces and the deputy head of the Sovereign Council. Fighters from Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces were deployed to southern Yemen in 2015 and Libya in 2019, where they fought alongside General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army, which the UAE backed at the time. Hemedti’s militia also controls Sudan’s lucrative Jebel Amer gold mine, which supplies much of the gold on the Emirati market. All of this underscores the proximity between Hemedti and Abu Dhabi and Hemedti’s key role in the UAE’s statecraft on both sides of the Red Sea. For Abu Dhabi, Hemedti has served as a mercantile warlord client specializing in employing violence to secure political and economic capital in strategic theaters. For Hemedti, the UAE’s patronage allowed him to transform from an entrepreneur of violence into a political actor directly challenging the Sudanese state.
Enlisting the support of Hemedti and his forces to end civilian rule – a move similar to Bashir’s use of militias rather than the military to quell domestic threats – betrayed weakness on behalf of Burhan and the Sudanese military. Furthermore, Burhan’s push to rehabilitate Islamists, particularly in the civil service, and integrate the Rapid Support Forces into the military was seen by Hemedti as a threat to his political and military power. Therefore, it is unsurprising that it was only a matter of time before Hemedti would take on Burhan and the Sudanese military.
Cautious Saudi and Emirati Engagement
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reacted cautiously to the confrontation between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces, emphasizing the need for dialogue. Saudi Arabia fears a drawn-out conflict and the collapse of the Sudanese state would threaten regional security and undermine its vision to develop its Red Sea coastline. While the UAE may have favored a swift victory by Hemedti over Burhan, a protracted conflict will jeopardize its political and economic interests and could bring unwanted attention to Abu Dhabi’s links to Hemedti. Having lost its influence in Sudan with the ouster of Bashir, Qatar is likely to focus its efforts on aid diplomacy.
The power struggle and ensuing humanitarian crisis in Sudan have put a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s geographic relevance vis-a-vis Sudan and unique contribution of naval and military assets for evacuations. Since the crisis in Sudan erupted, the kingdom has emerged as an indispensable regional power, taking the lead in humanitarian assistance and rescue operations. In addition to relief work, it appears Riyadh is also attempting to demonstrate its mediation skills. Saudi Arabia is one of the only regional actors with working relationships with all the stakeholders involved in the conflict. Furthermore, due to its unique position as the leader of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia could be seen by both parties as an acceptable host for negotiations.
Like Saudi Arabia, Washington is anxious about the long-term impact of Sudan’s conflict on security in the Red Sea region. The U.S. director of national intelligence said the fighting in Sudan is likely to become a protracted conflict, expressing concerns about violence spilling over across borders and exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa. This has led both the United States and Saudi Arabia to propose a joint initiative to de-escalate the situation and arrange for a dialogue between the two sides. Therefore, it seems Saudi Arabia will be the United States’ frontline political ally on the Sudan file, again showing a critical geopolitical alignment between the two partners.
Meanwhile, Burhan’s recent engagement with Emirati officials, such as an April 30 call with Vice President Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, suggests that the Sudanese military understands it cannot militarily defeat the Rapid Support Forces, at least for now. Since Hemedti has worked alongside the Emiratis in multiple theaters, Burhan may be assuming that Abu Dhabi is the only power with meaningful leverage over him and will thus be vital in bringing him to the negotiating table. This may also reflect Burhan’s fears that the Sudanese military position could become vulnerable if Hemedti is able to secure military assistance from foreign actors. Egypt – up to now a strong backer of Burhan – has not shown interest in supporting the Sudanese military against Hemedti’s forces, making any potential Emirati support for Hemedti even more crucial. Regional players’ apparent hesitancy to offer military aid over fears of the crisis transforming into a protracted civil war and humanitarian disaster differs from past conflicts, such as in Ethiopia, where the UAE and Turkey allegedly provided weapons to the federal government. The current state of affairs suggests that, barring any open-ended external support, neither side will be able to make a decisive breakthrough.
In previous disputes with the Sudanese state, despite his bellicose rhetoric and demands, Hemedti eventually settled for more limited concessions that served him politically and empowered his base. This time, however, Hemedti is seemingly attempting to take over the entire state, not simply trying to extract more resources. Thus, the prospects for a resolution to the crisis will likely be shaped by what Hemedti is willing to settle for and whether the UAE has the necessary leverage to force his hand.
The military confrontation in Sudan has again put Saudi Arabia and the UAE at center stage, affirming that Gulf stakeholders continue to wield leverage across the Red Sea.
A recently signed security- and economy-focused pact marks the latest development in the United States’ close, long-standing partnership with Bahrain.
A substantial drawdown on global oil stocks is forecast for the fourth quarter amid record oil demand, accelerating the rise in oil prices to the $100 per barrel threshold.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More