In early October, the chief of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The visit was their first joint foreign trip since Sudanese military and civilian representatives ratified a power-sharing agreement in August, and it illustrated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s enduring importance as Sudan’s international partners.
The support of Saudi and Emirati officials for Sudan’s Transitional Military Council received widespread scrutiny after the Sudanese security forces killed more than 120 demonstrators in Khartoum on June 3. Ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s admission on August 19 that he received $25 million from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tarnished Saudi Arabia’s reputation, as did the derisive attitude of Sudanese protesters toward the $3 billion Saudi-UAE financial assistance package that was unveiled in April.
In spite of these countervailing pressures, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s efforts to preserve their position of primacy in a post-transition Sudan is apparent in their willingness to assist in economic development, provide humanitarian assistance, and strengthen security cooperation with its government. Since the transition agreement was finalized, Sudan has unveiled ambitious economic development plans. In August, Hamdok announced that Sudan needed $8 billion in foreign assistance over the next two years to rebuild its economy, and in September, Hamdok unveiled a 9-month emergency economic plan to curb inflation and increase the availability of consumer goods.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s willingness to aid Sudan’s economic development ambitions, at a time when Sudan is barred from receiving financial support from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, has boosted their geopolitical advantage over rival regional powers that have not provided sizable funds, such as Qatar and Turkey. During his visit to Riyadh, Hamdok met with Saudi business owners at the Council of Saudi Chambers and stated that economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia would increase Sudan’s appeal as an investment destination. The Saudi Foreign Ministry also announced that it would assist Sudan’s efforts to be removed from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list. This pledge was welcomed in Khartoum, as this designation prevents Sudan from cooperating with the IMF on economic reform.
To demonstrate that their commitment to Sudan’s economic development extends beyond rhetoric, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have followed through on their pledged assistance: Sudan’s finance minister, Ibrahim Elbadawi, announced on October 8 that Khartoum received $1.5 billion in economic assistance from its Gulf allies. As the remainder of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s financial assistance is scheduled to be dispersed by the end of 2020, both countries remain the most important contributors to Hamdok’s capital-raising plans.
In addition to providing emergency funds to Sudan’s cash-trapped economy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided substantial humanitarian assistance to Sudan. On August 7, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced that they would supply 540,000 tons of wheat to Sudan to cover Sudan’s basic food needs for three months, and this delivery was completed in early October. As rising bread prices were a catalyst for the anti-Bashir protests in December 2018, this Saudi-UAE food supply package could help contribute to Sudan’s future stability and prevent the Sudanese pound from experiencing a more severe currency crisis. These aid donations could present a more constructive image of Saudi and UAE involvement in Sudan, at a time when speculation is growing that the UAE is seeking to divide Sudan for material gain.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s humanitarian assistance initiatives could also undercut Qatar’s efforts to court Sudan through financial assistance. Under Bashir, Sudan did not join the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, and in January, Khartoum unsuccessfully turned to Doha for financial assistance after the UAE halted fuel supplies to Sudan. Qatar has tried to rebuild its influence in post-transition Sudan by supporting Khartoum’s removal from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, inviting the Sudanese leadership for a state visit to Doha and providing humanitarian relief to flood victims in Sudan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE hope to dilute the impact of Qatar’s initiatives by taking a proactive stand in addressing Sudan’s food security challenges and providing disaster relief to 30,000 Sudanese families afflicted by floods.
The third pillar of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s engagement with post-transition Sudan is security cooperation. Since 2015, Sudan’s partnership with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been strengthened by the deployment of 15,000 Sudanese troops to Yemen. Burhan’s coordination of Sudanese troop deployments to Yemen reportedly played an important role in Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s decision to back his political ambitions. Although Sudan recently announced a troop drawdown to 5,000 personnel, it remains committed to the Saudi-led coalition’s military objectives. On November 4, Brig. Gen. Amer El-Hasan, the spokesperson for Sudan’s armed forces, stated that Sudanese troops “are deployed on all fronts,” and called Houthi allegations that 4,253 Sudanese troops had perished in Yemen “baseless.”
While Yemen remains the primary theater of Sudan’s security cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Khartoum’s positions on Libya and Iran also align closely with those of its Gulf allies. A recent U.N. report accused Sudan of violating Libya’s arms embargo, and the deputy chairman of the Sovereign Council, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, reportedly deployed 1,000 Sudanese troops to eastern Libya in July. According to the report, these forces guarded strategic infrastructure in territories occupied by the Libyan National Army, allowing General Khalifa Hifter to commit more military resources to his offensive on Tripoli. After the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and Saudi oil infrastructure in May, Hemedti expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia against the Iranian threat. As Sudan is in close proximity to important theaters of Iranian power projection, such as the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Saudi Arabia and UAE view Sudan as an increasingly valuable security partner.
In spite of endorsements of Sudan’s power-sharing agreement by Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir and his Emirati counterpart, Anwar Gargash, it was initially unclear whether Saudi and Emirati influence in Sudan would survive a political transition. Through a combination of economic development investments, targeted humanitarian assistance, and strengthened security cooperation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have worked to ensure their positions of primacy as Sudan forwards its transition from military to civilian rule.