Let’s not Leave Sudan to the Gulf States!


© Shutterstock - esfera - colorful painted big national flag of sudan on a massive old brick wall

In recent days, announcements have been circulating, suggesting that Sudan might be the next Arab country signing a peace agreement with Israel. Although so far Sudanese officials have denied this, the meeting between U.S., Emirati and Sudanese representatives in Abu Dhabi on Sudanese-Israeli relations on 21. September speaks for itself. For the Sudanese government, agreeing to such a deal could mean urgently needed economic aid as well as the country’s removal from the United States’ sponsors of terrorism list. How might the Sudanese military react to such a step? And how would this move affect Saudi Arabia’s, the UAE’s and Europe’s plans for Sudan?

Stuck in Political Deadlock

Following decades of authoritarian rule, Sudan has now entered a period of unprecedented political and economic instability. After the downfall of the Bashir-regime following massive protests in summer 2019, the Sudanese military and joint forces of civil society organizations and political parties (represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change, the FFC) signed a power sharing deal. This declaration stipulated a mixed civilian-military body known as the Sovereignty Council serving as the head of state. Currently, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan chairs the Council with General Daglo, better known as Hemedti, as his deputy. In May 2021 Burhan is supposed to hand over the position to a civilian member of the Council. Economist and politician Abdallah Hamdok was appointed Prime Minister and currently heads a 20-member cabinet.

Sudan’s fragile interim government has worked towards a transition to constitutional rule of the country’s political and economic environment. A three-year transition period shall finally lead to a peace deal with armed groups, a new constitutional order and free elections. A Transitional Legislative Council is to be formed and shall act as the parliament, overseeing the cabinet and the Sovereignty Council, and representing the country’s diverse groups.

One year into Hamdok’s rule though, this transition process seems to be at a standstill. This is mostly due to a highly fragmented political environment: Prime Minister Hamdok’s civilian cabinet and the FFC have lost significant political support and trust by the protest movement, in addition to being overruled by the generals who dominate the Sovereignty Council. The government and the FFC have also not yet delivered on establishing strong political institutions standing in the way of a potential power grab by the military. Last not least, the FFC itself is divided into its base and political parties declaring to represent it, while quarreling over positions and posts. Due to the complex power-sharing agreement between Sovereignty Council, cabinet, the FFC and the military, political actors are all interdependent, while at the same time trying to dominate the others. The best example is the ongoing rivalry between Council chairman Burhan and his deputy and commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Hemedti.

The Generals are calling the shots

In addition to the political asymmetry of power, the currently rampant economic crisis also risks undermining the already fading support for the transitional government. By April 2020, inflation had risen to almost 100% and the Sudanese government has so far been hesitant to fully commit to the structural reforms international donors such as the IMF are demanding in return for funding. The main obstacles for international financial support are the country’s non-transparent public finances and the unsolved issue of revenue mobilization.

Another major problem is the security forces’ control over the economy: According to ECFR expert Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, the military and the security apparatus are indirectly in control of the wealthiest companies in the country which to a large part operate independently and avoid tax authorities. These parastatal companies capture much of the country’s wealth and are not controlled by civilian authority. Cracking down on them is an urgent economic priority on the one hand, but might bear the risk of the generals uniting against the civilian leaders as well. At the moment, the generals are keeping the civilian government financially alive, ensuring that it remains dependent on them.

Hamdok desperately needed some positive news: In late August of this year, his interim government signed a peace agreement with key rebel groups which is intended to dissolve Sudan’s armed movements and incorporate them into the regular army. This may pave the road towards the country’s removal from the United States’ sponsors of terrorism list as well as for restructuring Sudanese politics along lines that better resemble the true political balance in the country. The next crucial step would be to incorporate the protest movement into some form of national compact. Even though the peace deal is internationally considered a success for Hamdok’s government, it was General Hemedti who headed the Sudanese delegation, who signed the deal for Khartoum and who, according to sources monitoring the peace process, seems to have pulled the strings in the background of the conference in Juba. Nationally and in the region, it is the general who appeared as the peacemaker, not the civilian Prime Minister.

The Red Sea – Ports are Politics

The political transition in Sudan has affected the larger geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East and East Africa and has called two major actors, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the plan. Both have had longstanding interest in controlling the country’s port in Port Sudan as they have been working on expanding their influence over the most important Red Sea ports for several years now.

In order to safeguard their influence on the new Sudanese rulers, the Gulf States have taken advantage of the revolution and provided generous financial and diplomatic support to military and security forces during and after the overthrow of President Bashir in 2019. Together with Egypt, Chad, South Sudan, Eritrea, and, initially, Ethiopia, they supported the new junta against the demands of revolutionary demonstrators and promised USD 3 bn in support to the generals. According to Gallopin, this move was also strategically sidelining their regional rivals Turkey and Qatar, which had long supported Bashir’s regime and the Sudanese Muslim brotherhood. Clearly not in favor of a democratic transition process, the UAE have been working on the sidelines to undermine Hamdok’s government and positioning Hemedti as Sudan’s next ruler by providing advisors, weapons and indirect financing to him and the RSF. Hemedti is in charge of handling relations with the UAE and other Arab powers with massive financial interests in Sudan, thereby determining the country’s economic dependencies and geopolitical positioning.

The Red Sea region - especially Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia - has become a geostrategic focal point for several players by now. In addition to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, China’s interest in the Horn of Africa has increased for years, as shown by the Road and Belt Initiative investments in this area. The economic prospects this megaproject offers are tempting to most of the poor African countries and present alternatives to lengthy and cumbersome IMF or WB loans and commitments. The Arab Gulf States can rely on long-standing relations with Sudan though, which are partly based on the fact that most Sudanese migrate to the Gulf for education and work. It seems safe to say that a fair amount of Sudanese returning from Saudi Arabia have been subject to Wahhabi ideologies for years. As the largely well-educated, elitist and Khartoumi protest movement weakens, Riadh and Abu Dhabi are doing everything they can to secure their economic and political influence.

Securing the civilian character of Sudan’s transformation

The Gulf States merely filled a void created by Western inaction. Having failed to provide quick and outspoken financial and political support for the civilian wing of the government, Hamdok’s cabinet is slowly but surely cast aside by the generals. At the moment, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, credible scenarios for Sudan include anything from a military takeover and a civil war over an economic collapse to Burhan’s refusal to step down as president of the Sovereignty Council in 2021. The democratic transition process can only succeed if Sudan’s economy is stabilized long-term and if strong political institutions such as the Transitional Legislative Council are established, thereby tilting the balance of power towards civilian rule.

In order to ensure that Sudan’s fate is not entirely determined by the Gulf countries, Germany’s and the European Union’s actions must now aim at securing the civilian character of Sudan’s transformation. Prime Minister Hamdok and his cabinet desperately need foreign backing and international partnerships for winning back their national credibility. With regards to domestic policy, Germany could support civilian projects such as the government’s newly rolled out Sudan Family Support Program (SFSP) with funding. On the diplomatic level, Germany should broaden the basis of the so-called Friends of Sudan Group by promoting the inclusion of civil society actors such as the FFC. The Friends of Sudan Group comprises multilateral organizations as well as Germany, France, the US and the UK who work on finding solutions for Sudan’s economy together with the Gulf States. While its informality has been an asset, the group’s statements have no binding character which has been the reason for the meetings’ limited outcome so far. But this platform provides the rare opportunity for direct dialogue between Western countries and institutions, Sudanese civil society and the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It should therefore be promoted and enhanced. On an economic level, Germany and the EU should make it clear to the UAE and Saudi Arabia that their economic investments in Sudan will only be secure if Sudan regains access to financial markets. This meanwhile will only be possible with the support of the international community. The biggest challenge in this regard is to convince the Gulf States as well as the generals that in the long run, cooperating with Hamdok’s cabinet serves all players’ interests.

Both Germany and the EU have numerous reasons for supporting the civilian actors in Sudan’s transformation process – last not least their interest to keep migration to Europe at bay. But the dire prospect alone of Saudi Arabia and the UAE dominating the entire Red Sea region, if only indirectly, should be enough to finally develop a coherent foreign and security policy with regards to Sudan. As of now, there is still a chance to turn the tide in Khartoum – although this window of opportunity may soon close.

About the Author

Sophie Schmid
Sophie Schmid is the Regional Project Manager at FNF MENA. She holds a B.A. in Islamic Science and Anthropology as well as an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Zurich and the Freie Universität Berlin where she graduated in 2016. Before joining FNF, she has worked for the German Near and Middle East Association in Berlin as Regional Manager. At FNF her main responsibilities are in Monitoring and Evaluation. Sophie Schmid is a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). She lives in Amman, Jordan.