The United States has not developed adequate responses for dealing with hybrid groups like the Houthis.
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On October 25 Sudan’s military leaders seized power, upending the country’s precarious transition to civilian rule. Sudan is a major economic, political, and geostrategic partner of Gulf Arab states, so the events have raised concerns across the Gulf region and wider Middle East, as they jeopardize the country’s fragile political transition and struggling economy. Sudan’s strategic location along the Red Sea and in the vital Horn of Africa, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have increased their political, economic, and military presence in recent years, adds to its strategic value for Gulf states.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which maintain especially strong ties with military leader Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, could play a role in persuading the Sudanese military to release civilian leaders and return to the constitutional agreement set up to ensure a transition to civilian rule. Burhan has promised to announce a new prime minister and continue on the path toward elections in 2023. However, most of the region and the international community have expressed urgent concern, condemned the military coup, and called for a return to civilian rule. On November 3, the two Gulf states joined the United States and United Kingdom in calling for a return to the civilian-led government. United Nations-backed mediation efforts are underway in Khartoum, and the U.N. special envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, told reporters that, “There’s a general sense that a way out should be found.”
The October 25 Coup
Sudan’s leading generals detained the country’s civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, along with other civilian leaders in the interim government on October 25. The military leaders have allowed Hamdok to return to his home, but he is reportedly under house arrest and many other civilian leaders remain in custody. Burhan, head of the transitional Sovereign Council, Sudan’s civil-military transitional governing body that has been leading the country since August 2019, declared the end of the council and a state of emergency, saying he was protecting the country from civil war. The military leaders shut down the internet, and phone lines have been intermittently cut over the past week. Sudanese citizens reacted quickly, mobilizing thousands of protesters, rejecting the coup, and calling for a return to civilian rule and the democratic transition. On October 30, tens of thousands of Sudanese protesters took to the streets across the country, despite a violent crackdown on demonstrations, in which at least 12 people have reportedly been killed and hundreds injured. The message of the protesters has been clear across Sudan’s cities: “No to military rule.” These protests continued October 31, with more planned in the coming week.
The military takeover began just hours after U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with senior Sudanese leaders to help bridge differences between the military and civilian leadership weeks after a failed coup attempt. During the visit, Burhan reportedly expressed his frustration with the civilian government but did not suggest he was going to take power. The thwarted coup attempt in September was reportedly organized by military and civilian loyalists to Sudan’s former authoritarian president, Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown in April 2019 after a historic protest movement across the country. This prompted heightened concern in Sudan and from the international community about the military’s commitment to the transition to civilian rule.
The October 25 coup came less than a month before Burhan was due to hand over leadership of the Sovereign Council to a civilian, a major shift that would have likely led to declining influence for the military over the transition. Among other differences with civilian leaders, Sudan’s generals in the Sovereign Council, especially Burhan, have personal concerns over losing control, particularly regarding the decision over whether Bashir should be tried in Sudan or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Africa analyst Alex de Waal wrote, “They have good reason to fear that Bashir will name them as culprits in the alleged atrocities meted out during the Darfur war. Gen Burhan and his fellow officers have even more reason to fear that investigation into the massacre in Khartoum in June 2019 would also point the finger of blame in their direction.” Military leaders are afraid of opening themselves up to civilian legal accountability for their role in atrocities committed during decades of civil strife across the country, including in the Darfur region.
International and Regional Reactions
International condemnation over the military coup and the killing of protesters has been swift. The African Union suspended Sudan’s membership over the “unconstitutional takeover.” President Joseph R. Biden Jr. described the move as a “grave setback,” and Feltman called the events “utterly unacceptable.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European leaders, and others condemned the coup and called for the immediate release of civilian leaders.
Statements with varying degrees of condemnation also came from within the region. The Arab League issued a statement highlighting its “deep concern” over the “military coup.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation said that the country’s leaders should “abide by the constitutional document and what has been agreed upon during the transition period.” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry initially called “for restraint, calm, de-escalation, and to preserve all the political and economic gains that have been achieved and all that aims to protect the unity of the ranks among all political components in brotherly Sudan.” The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation “stressed the need to preserve the political and economic gains that have been achieved and all that aims to protect the sovereignty and unity of Sudan, emphasising its support for the fraternal Sudanese people.” Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized “the need to have the political process get back on track, in order to achieve the aspirations of the Sudanese people.” Sudan’s powerful neighbor to the north, Egypt, pushed for “all parties in the brotherly nation of Sudan to exercise self-restraint and responsibility to prioritize the welfare of the country and national agreement.”
On October 26 Reuters reported that Sudanese ambassadors to 12 countries signed a statement rejecting the coup, including the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. In reaction, the Sudanese army expelled several of its ambassadors, including the Sudanese envoys to the United States, the European Union, China, France, and Qatar as well as the head of the country’s mission to the Swiss city of Geneva.
The United States and international organizations have temporarily suspended critical aid to Sudan. The United States suspended $700 million in emergency assistance. The World Bank froze $3 billion in grants that Sudan was just this year able to access to support health care, agricultural development, education, transportation, and other essential public services. The coup has derailed this much-needed flow of financial support just as the economic benefits were manifesting.
On November 3, Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued a joint statement with the United States and United Kingdom, calling for a return to “a genuine civil-military partnership,” as well as the release of political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency. The statement continued, “This will help ensure Sudan reaches political stability and economic recovery so that it is able to continue the transitional period with the support of Sudan’s friends and international partners.” This clear public condemnation from two of Burhan’s regional allies further pressures and isolates the coup leader.
The Gulf Factor
Sudan’s ties with Gulf states are an important variable in Sudan’s story, which was made clear recently with U.S. officials reaching out to Saudi Arabia to discuss the political crisis in Sudan. According to reports, the United States has asked Gulf states to push Sudan’s generals to release civilian leaders and reinstate the civilian government. Sudan’s leaders, particularly those in the military, maintain strong links with Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have an especially close relationship with the two most powerful generals in Sudan – Burhan, who leads Sudan’s army and led the Sovereign Council before he disbanded it, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Both generals and their forces are implicated in major crimes, including killing and injuring protesters. But they have also been two key leaders, in partnership with the recently deposed civilian prime minister, Hamdok, in governing Sudan through the transitional period.
Gulf states’ links with the Sudanese government have fluctuated, even during the 30-year rule of the ousted president, Bashir. Some experts have described Bashir’s policy toward Gulf states as one of “neutrality” and strategic balancing, given the urgent need for aid and support while Sudan was under international sanctions. Others have argued that up until the final years of Bashir’s rule, Sudan enjoyed stronger ties with Qatar and Turkey, due to the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Bashir’s regime, as well as Iran. Sudan-Qatar ties were especially strong prior to 2017. Qatar was a mediator in negotiations regarding the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, leading to the signing of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur in May 2011. Qatar was also the largest Gulf Arab donor to Sudan from 2012-17.
However, in 2015, Bashir’s regime began to more closely align with the Saudi-UAE axis when Sudan provided around 10,000 troops to the Saudi-led coalition intervening in the war in Yemen. In return, Saudi Arabia deposited $1 billion in Sudan’s central bank in 2015. According to some estimates, by 2018, the UAE had supported Sudan’s struggling economy to the tune of around $7.5 billion, including much-needed currency for the central bank’s foreign exchange reserves and significant fuel subsidies. Saudi and Emirati development aid to Sudan also increased significantly starting in 2015. And, in turn, Bashir followed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in cutting ties with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked by protesters. Notably, however, Bashir did not follow the Saudi- and UAE-led move to cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, opting to remain neutral in the 2017-21 Gulf rift.
Following Bashir’s April 2019 ouster, the military and both armed and civilian opposition groups agreed to a roadmap for a transition from military to civilian rule and elections in 2023. The constitutional declaration set up the transitional institutions, such as the Sovereign Council that Burhan disbanded. Further peace talks among armed factions took place in Juba, South Sudan, and most of Sudan’s warring groups signed the Juba Declaration in October 2020. While many hailed this as a victory, Jean-Baptise Gallopin argued, “It offers no response to the intercommunal conflicts that have come to define the new patterns of violence in Sudan’s peripheries since the revolution (2018–2019), and is silent on key issues of implementation … The deal may turn out to merely grow the ranks of Sudan’s bloated and unruly military and security apparatus.” But he did point out that it was historic in pushing rebel groups to cease fighting, and it shifted Sudan’s balance of power away from traditional power holders.
Sudan’s transition led to an even greater opening in terms of relations with Gulf states. Sudan’s economy was in a particularly perilous place in 2019, and Gulf states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have offered support for the military-dominated transitional bodies with pledges of billions in aid packages and investments. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also cultivated greater ties with key Sudanese political actors, especially military leaders – through growing security cooperation with groups like the powerful Hemedti-led paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which was deployed to Libya and Yemen to fight alongside Saudi- and UAE-backed actors – and through increasing economic aid.
The influence of these Gulf states and their connection to key Sudanese generals, as well as broader foreign interference in Sudan’s transition, is a growing concern for many Sudanese citizens. For example, protesters organized to reject the 2019 Saudi-Emirati aid package and denounced Saudi and Emirati influence over Sudan. Many Sudanese citizens reportedly perceive Saudi and UAE political and financial support for military and other political leaders as an indication of their support for authoritarianism over democracy because of the role that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as allies such as Egypt, have played since 2011 in supporting the “counter-revolution” movements following the Arab Spring protests.
Moreover, Sudan followed the UAE’s lead and signed a normalization agreement with Israel in January, further strengthening ties between Sudan’s political leadership and Abu Dhabi. The agreement started the process for normalization, but its future is uncertain as it is subject to approval by a parliament that has yet be formed. Sudan’s signing of the Abraham Accords pushed the United States to remove the country from the list of state sponsors of terror, lifting barriers to international financing and aid that had been in place for decades, though that aid is again in jeopardy due to international concerns over the coup.
Sudan is at Risk
Burhan’s power grab jeopardizes Sudan’s political transition and fragile economic recovery. The violent repression of protests and the freezing of major aid packages from the international community as a result of the coup are already generating instability in Sudan, which does not serve the interests of Sudan’s Gulf partners. The United States is pressing Sudan’s major Gulf partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their links with the military, to push for a return to the transitional process toward civilian rule and elections. Time will tell how intense this Gulf pressure will become and whether the generals will respond to the demands of their citizens and the mounting international pressure, but it is looking less likely by the day. Sudanese people have shown they do not accept the military coup, and protests will likely continue, which, in tandem with a fragile economic recovery stressed by cascading suspensions of international assistance, are likely to subject Sudan to further instability that will have implications for the already volatile Horn of Africa region.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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