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The recent regional alignment between Saudi Arabia and Sudan sheds light on a shift in the Saudi geopolitics of aid. Following an announcement at the end of February of the suspension of a major military aid package to Lebanon, Riyadh granted $5 billion in military aid to Khartoum, marking a change of alliance for the regime of Omar Al-Bashir, a longtime Iranian ally.
Saudi Foreign Aid Policy
Since the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010, foreign aid (particularly military aid) has been the most relevant tool of Saudi regional politics. Because of the oil boom in the 2000s, Saudi Arabia has been able to partially invest its budget surplus toward foreign policy, coopting clients and forging allegiances on a regional basis. Such a strategy boosted monarchical resilience in Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states and fostered counterrevolution in Egypt.
With the subsequent decline in oil prices, Saudi Arabia needs to reconsider its foreign aid policies. Decreased revenue will force the kingdom to become more selective about the strategic allocation of foreign aid. However, Riyadh’s decisions are not tied to fixed spending cuts. They are primarily driven by geopolitical considerations, framed by the Saudi-Iranian competition for hegemony in the Middle East and beyond. This explains Riyadh’s cancellation of military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces while signing expensive agreements with Morocco and Sudan.
Sudan Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Saudi-Sudanese relations have been reviving since 2015, due to a convergence of interests. Saudi Arabia aims to build a tight Sunni front vis-à-vis Iran, specifically military, while the Sudanese regime is increasingly concerned about sanctions-induced isolation in the international system and budget security. For authoritarian governments, such as the Sudanese, budget security is fundamental, since it means regime security. The alliance between Sudan and Iran was strong for decades. For instance, Tehran helped Khartoum in conducting military training and constructing an indigenous military-industrial complex for small arms and munitions, therefore contributing to upgrading the role of the military in the national economy. On the other hand, the Sudanese regime has delivered weapons to Iranian-friendly insurgent groups in Africa and the Middle East, particularly the Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting Saudi-backed forces.
Alliance politics is always a two-level game, at the interplay of the international and domestic arena. For this reason, the collapse of Sudan’s economy and the rising popular discontent have pushed Bashir to shift from Tehran to Riyadh while a geopolitical window of opportunity was open: At the same time Saudi Arabia was broadening diplomatic outreach efforts in Africa. Since the oil-rich South Sudan gained independence in 2011, Khartoum’s oil production has fallen from 450,000 barrels per day to 100,000. The 2013-15 South Sudanese Civil War only worsened this trend. Similar to many other authoritarian governments that are based on coercion rather than consensus, the Sudanese regime spends 70 percent of its budget on security and military functions.
Therefore, the regime had to replace the revenue coming from domestic energy resources with external aid in order to survive. In 2015, Khartoum closed its Iranian cultural centers, condemning Tehran’s attempts to spread Shiism. Sudan then broke diplomatic ties with Iran after Saudi diplomatic sites in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked following Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric and activist Nimr al-Nimr. Moreover, Sudan began to narrow distance with the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and also began supporting the Saudi-backed Tobruk-based government in Libya.
Yemen’s War as a Game Changer
Most of all, Khartoum’s military engagement in the Yemeni conflict has represented a real game changer in Saudi-Sudanese relations. In summer 2015, Houthi-aligned militias and the pro-Hadi government faction backed by the Saudi-led coalition were trapped in a difficult stalemate in Yemen. Due to the refusal of Egypt and Pakistan to participate with ground forces in the coalition at the time, Saudi Arabia lacked military manpower with counterinsurgency expertise able to fight in Aden and Taiz. According to the coalition’s statements, Sudan sent at least 6,000 troops (ground forces and élite units) to Yemen to join the UAE’s Presidential Guard units, and at least two Sukhoi-24M were deployed to Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Air Base. During a recent meeting with his Sudanese counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir emphasized Khartoum’s contribution in the Yemeni war. Sudan has also taken part in the Raad al-Shamal massive Saudi-led military drills in Hafr al-Batin and joined the Islamic Alliance envisaged by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-Sudanese realignment is based on a “money for proxies” informal pact: external financial-military aid from Riyadh to Khartoum in exchange for direct military commitment of Sudanese troops for overseas operations. Such military interdependence has also boosted economic ties and joint projects between Sudan and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab Gulf states. This includes Sudanese gold production and the exploitation of offshore mineral resources in the Red Sea, where Saudi Arabia and Sudan share a common area, the Atlantis II joint venture. In 2015, the Sudanese central bank received $1 billion from Saudi Arabia and, previously, $1.22 billion dollars from Qatar. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi hosted the Saudi-Sudanese and the UAE-Sudanese Investment Forum, respectively. On November 2015, Saudi Arabia committed $1.7 billion for the building of three dams in northern Sudan, to be constructed within five years, plus $500 million for water and electricity projects and the cultivation of agricultural land in eastern Sudan.
Saudis Toward “Defense Sectarianization”
Beyond Sudan, the entire Horn of Africa has been decisively aligning with Riyadh, in the framework of the Middle Eastern “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has additionally strengthened its relations with Djibouti and Somalia. In January, both countries cut ties with Iran; on the same day Somalia announced severing relations, it reportedly received a pledge of $50 million in aid from Saudi Arabia. Given the degree of transnational linkages in the area, the subregion encompassing the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the Gulf of Aden, and East Africa, will be more and more critical for the Arabian Peninsula’s stability, in order to contain jihadi networks and the possible resurgence of piracy in Somali and Yemeni waters. Aden lies within this regional security complex, and Yemen can’t be stabilized if Aden is out of control.
As underlined by the Sudanese case, the allocation of Saudi military aid contributes to establishing patron-client relations of interdependence in the Arab region, implicitly based on political conditionality. Saudi Arabia has been designing a “defense sectarianization” pattern in the Arab region, promoting security coalitions (such as the Islamic Alliance) and bilateral agreements constructed along sectarian lines, but for anti-Iranian, power politics purposes. Such a defense scheme excludes countries with nonhomogeneous societies, where Iran plays a key role (as in Lebanon and Iraq), enhancing internal divides. In this risky zero-sum strategy, foreign aid still plays a crucial role for Riyadh and, for pragmatic reasons, for Khartoum too.
is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.
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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