Cash and contradictions: On the limits of Middle Eastern influence in Sudan
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have been heavily involved in Sudan following al-Bashir’s downfall. But not everything is going their way.
In Sudan, the revolutionaries who overthrew President Omar al-Bashir and who continue to organise are well aware of the threat posed by neighbouring Arab countries. Protesters’ murals show the people rejecting the interfering hands of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One of the most popular chants is “Victory or Egypt”, voicing activists’ determination not to succumb to a military counter-revolution as happened in their northern neighbour.
These concerns over meddling are well-placed. After senior military figures in Sudan removed al-Bashir in April, Gulf monarchies promptly stepped in to shore up the new Transitional Military Council (TMC). They transferred $500 million in cash and promised a further $2.5 billion in commodities. Leaders from the respective countries have met regularly and many Sudanese believe that the 3 June crackdown in which scores of protesters were killed only came after the green light from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
This Arab troika is openly contemptuous of the African Union’s (AU) democratic norms, forums and institutions. When the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) rejected the military takeover and demanded power be transferred to civilians, for example, Egypt undermined this move by insisting the deadline for a handover be extended from 15 to 90 days. Following the 3 June killings, it then tried to twist the arms of the PSC members not to suspend Sudan.
In this struggle between the “Pax Africana” and Arab authoritarians, there’s no doubt that the democrats have the weaker hand. But not everything is going the Arab troika’s way.
From the massacre to the deal
To begin with, some African states are resisting, albeit weakly. Following 3 June, for instance, the PSC defied Egyptian lobbying and suspended Sudan, in large thanks down to the vigorous chairing of Nigeria.
Following this, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki, appointed his long-term advisor, Hassan Labat, as envoy to report back on whether Sudan was meeting the conditions for re-admission. Labat’s style is secretive: he shared his proposals with no-one. The whispers around the AU are that Faki, a former Chadian foreign minister, has fallen in line with Chadian President Idriss Déby’s preference for a strong role for the military in Sudan’s government and that Labat’s agenda was drafted accordingly.
Then in early June, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed personally intervened to try to broker a compromise between the TMC and opposition Forces for Freedom and Change (FCC). It was a trademark Abiy initiative, undertaken with minimum preparation or consultation, and advocating brotherly love as a solution to a political problem. Nonetheless, it provided an opening for the two sides to talk. Moreover, its power-sharing formula eventually formed the basis for the TMC-FCC agreement signed on 5 July.
The AU’s role in this deal was, however, limited and largely symbolic. The real work was done behind the scenes by US and UK diplomats. In April and May, Western countries had hardly gone beyond routine statements in support of democracy. But by the time of the 3 June massacre, they had begun to see the dangers of the transition drifting perilously off track.
This led the US State Department in mid-June to bring Donald Booth, its former Special Envoy for the Sudans, out of retirement. Since 2018, US and UK officials had been discussing how to coordinate their strategies towards Gulf states and the Horn of Africa. These internal consultations now began to pay off. There’s an established routine of regular meetings between senior diplomats of the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June the focus was, for the first time ever, on Sudan.
In a quick-fire series of meetings in Arab capitals and London, the Western partners laid out the problem. As they presented it, a bloody crackdown in Khartoum risked further reputational damage for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Coming on the heels of US Congressional rebukes to Saudi Arabia on account of the war in Yemen and a British High Court decision ruling arms sales to the Kingdom illegal, they also warned that there is a constituency in Western countries ready to demonstrate against atrocities in Sudan.
Along with these cautions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s security chiefs were likely taken aback at the resilience of the Sudanese protesters. Soon after the 3 June massacre, the people were back on the street and planning a “march of the millions” for 30 June. Sudan wasn’t following the script of Bahrain, where the demonstrators dispersed after a single crackdown, or Egypt, where the army took control through co-option and repression.
The US and UK also had reason to push for an agreement in Sudan. Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings in which the Islamists formed a major part of the protest movements, Sudan’s uprising was against an Islamist regime. The TMC and the FFC were both hostile to Sudan’s Islamists, who were sure to be the winner if the two fought one another. Furthermore, a breakdown in order in Sudan risked opening the door to extremists.
These joint motivations finally led to a semi-secret meeting in Khartoum in which TMC and FFC leaders were joined by representatives from the UK, US, Saudi Arabia and UAE. In this gathering, the participants used the previously-drafted Ethiopian formula to hammer out a deal, which was signed on 5 July. The AU envoys Labat and Ethiopia’s Mahmoud Dirir were on hand to provide a public face for the agreement.
Splits within the Arab troika
This story suggests the Arab troika’s influence is limited. Two other dynamics further suggest that Middle Eastern leverage in Sudan is constrained.
The first is divisions within the Arab troika. A major split between Saudi Arabia and the UAE was on show in July when the latter abruptly withdrew most of its forces from Yemen. No official explanation was given, but the decision was evidently not coordinated with Saudi Arabia, which remains bogged down in an intractable war. The UAE’s decision also shows it can be mercurial and that its policies towards the Horn of Africa may be less strategic and more opportunistic than commentators have assumed.
There’s also a deeper division between Egypt, which regards Sudan as its backyard, and the Gulf monarchies. Egypt prides itself on understanding Sudan and sees Saudi Arabia and UAE as newcomers seeking influence solely by dispensing money. Egypt limited its demands on Sudan to handing over Egyptian Islamists in exile, suspending the deal for Turkey to develop a naval base, and ceding its territorial claim to the Halaib Triangle.
Many Egyptian and Sudanese generals, who have a long-standing close relationship, also dislike and fear the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) who is the deputy leader in the TMC. They cannot understand why Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ready to back him so uncritically.
As Arab countries find themselves pulled in to the internal negotiations among the Sudanese, they will face another potential point of contention. Sudan doesn’t just need democracy, but peace. This means a role for the Islamists both in Khartoum and the provinces. For a decade, the custodian of the Darfur peace process has been Qatar, the troika’s arch rival, and it will be impossible to ignore Qatar’s role or that of Sudan’s diverse constituency of Islamists. Some of these dynamics are already playing out and reveal the lack of a common strategy among the Arab troika.
Among the military officers and politicians arrested on 27-28 July following an alleged coup were veteran Islamists and military officers with no discernable political leanings. What united this otherwise disparate group was their common fear of a government run by Hemedti. It’s likely that senior Egyptian military officers share those misgivings, to the extent of being prepared to deal with selected Islamists. Immediately after the incident, Hemedti flew to Cairo in a clear effort to assuage President al-Sisi.
An impending economic clash
The second dynamic is economic and just beginning to surface.
The nub of the problem is as follows. After the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan lost 75% of its oilfields and an even greater proportion of its hard currency earnings. The following year, it literally struck gold and within a few years, gold was providing 40% of Sudan’s exports. As much as a third of it, however, came to be smuggled to Libya, Chad or directly by plane to the region’s biggest gold market in Dubai.
The government in Khartoum, desperate to control the commodity, responded by using the Central Bank of Sudan as its sole buying agent, paying above the market price to gold traders and printing money to cover this outlay. Buying gold to convert to hard currency became the engine of Sudan’s inflation, which skyrocketed. By 2018, the price of essential commodities such as bread and fuel was so high relative to stagnant wages that the people across the country took to the streets to protest.
The biggest winner in this macroeconomic distortion was Hemedti. His RSF militia controls the gold mines and he personally owns a number of concessions. Through Sudan’s monetary policy, vast resources were transferred from wage earners in the centre of the country to militiamen and gold traders in the peripheries.
Hemedti has also benefited massively from providing mercenaries, which may be Sudan’s second biggest source of foreign exchange today. A few months after the Saudis launched their war in Yemen in March 2015, Sudan volunteered to send troops. The first contingent was a battalion of the regular army, but then Hemedti struck a parallel deal to dispatch several brigades of RSF fighters. Within a year, the RSF comprised by far the biggest foreign contingent fighting in Yemen with at least 7,000 militiamen. Hemedti was paid directly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for this service. He says he deposited $350 million in the Central Bank, but has not said how much he kept to himself for his own enrichment or political spending.
In short, the Central Bank of Sudan has become an instrument for Hemedti’s political finance. And since becoming the central actor in Sudan’s ruling cabal in April, he has exerted an even tighter grip on gold production and exports while moving aggressively into other commercial areas. He has increased the RSF’s deployment in Yemen and sent a brigade to fight in Libya alongside General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt and the UAE, almost certainly in return for Emirati financial rewards. Hemedti is also expanding his family business conglomerate, the Al-Junaid companies, and running his political business on the basis of personally handing out cash to key constituents such as tribal chiefs, the police, and electricity workers.
The issue is that none of this addresses Sudan’s macroeconomic crisis: its rampant inflation, rapidly increasing arrears on international debt, and ostracism from the dollar-based international financial system. In fact, Hemedti’s political financing only exacerbates it.
For the time being, Sudan’s Gulf patrons are bailing out the country with a $200 million monthly subsidy in cash and commodities, but the bailout amounts needed will quickly become too big even for the oil-rich Gulf States’ deep pockets. What Sudan needs is a comprehensive package of debt relief and financial normalisation designed to redress the country’s macroeconomic imbalances. This, in turn, requires an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which will require the central bank to be run in a conventional manner that restores discipline to fiscal and monetary policies.
What this means is that a clash between Hemedti’s political market logic and Sudan’s macroeconomy is looming. The Sudanese technocrats associated with the FFC are well aware of this, which is why the economists called upon to put themselves forward for cabinet positions have been reluctant to agree. There is a race between Hemedti’s consolidation of power and a re-run of the economic crisis and protests that led to al-Bashir’s downfall.
The limits of influence
This dynamic will play out in the streets of Sudanese cities. But it will also play out in debates among the advisers to the Crown Princes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made a substantial political investment in the TMC on the basis of a security analysis, but economic calculations will increasingly enter the equation. The Arab leaders will come under additional pressure from their own economic advisers and businessmen who have sunk money into Sudanese investments.
So far, the troika has not grappled with the contradiction in their Sudanese policy. That as Sudan’s economic crisis deepens, they will have to turn to the IMF and western creditors for assistance. The limits of their influence will again be demonstrated.
The economic crisis isn’t the only structural challenge facing Sudan’s democrats. The FFC needs also to deal with the challenge of establishing a common agenda with the armed groups, mostly representing constituencies in Darfur and the “two areas” of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. They will have to work out how to handle the country’s bloated and fragmented security sector. The Arab troika has no agenda at all for these fundamental challenges either.