Sudan Becomes Pawn in Middle East Chess Match

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sudan wasn’t exactly a rich country even before sanctions were imposed against it and it lost oil-rich South Sudan in 2011. The country has been especially shaky following a military coup three weeks ago that inspired protests against the decades-old dictatorship of General Omar Bashir.

So you’d think that a pledge of $3 billion in emergency aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, announced on April 21, would be unanimously welcomed.

The Gulf countries plan to deposit $500 million into the Sudanese central bank to prop up the ailing currency, and to deliver the rest in food, medicine and fuel. What’s not to like?

It’s impossible to gauge Sudanese public sentiment, but some protesters aren’t happy. They say they fear that conservative Gulf rulers are trying to stop a revolutionary process in its tracks.

They note these same countries also rushed to support the Egyptian government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in 2013, following the ouster the elected Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in response to similar street demonstrations in Cairo.

Since then, Egypt has experienced both alarming political repression and impressive economic revitalization.

The Gulf countries are obviously seeking to stabilize the situation in Sudan, which is crucial to Egyptian security and important to their joint intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Their critics charge that these countries are acting in Sudan out of hostility to democratic change and that their aid is intended to prop up a new autocratic junta. The Gulf countries insist they are only trying to help,

But the struggle over Sudan is more complicated.

It’s happening amid a burgeoning rivalry between the two Gulf powers and a newly assertive regional coalition led by Turkey and Qatar that promotes what they call “revolutionary” change in the Arab world, not to build democracies but to empower their Islamist Muslim Brotherhood allies.

Sudan has long been a wild card in the competition among Middle Eastern regional alliances.

Before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Sudan was closely identified with Muslim Brotherhood groups and, like many of them, was loosely affiliated with Iran under the rubric of an “axis of resistance” against Israel, the West and the Arab status quo.

During the Arab Spring era, however the Saudis wooed Khartoum away from Iran and into a broad anti-Iranian Sunni coalition.

But with the war in Syria subsiding in the past 18 months, and Turkey emerging as leader of an assertive new Sunni Islamist coalition, Turkey and Qatar have been attempting to win over the Sudanese strongman with support and investments.

Especially significant was a $4 billion deal signed in March 2018 for Qatar to help develop Sudan’s Red Sea port of Suakin and give Turkey a naval outpost there.

When protests first broke out in January, Bashir, who has been indicted by the international criminal court for murder and other crimes against humanity and is cautious about travel, went directly to Qatar to seek financial and diplomatic support.

At the very least, he was clearly willing to play both sides against the other.

The tumult in Khartoum gives Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. a chance to prevent Sudan from drifting into Ankara’s orbit.

It’s especially helpful to the Saudis that the Sudanese generals who have taken over are close to Riyadh. But unless Islamists had taken charge, the Gulf coalition would probably have swung into action to try to restore order and keep any new Sudanese government in their camp.

The pro-democracy movement in Sudan has been inspiring, and it’s heartening to see another brutal dictator overthrown, especially one wanted for war crimes and genocide.

But neither Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. nor Turkey and Qatar are interested in Sudanese democracy for its own sake. Both sides, after all, had been competing for the affections of the same murderous dictator, and seemed perfectly comfortable with him as long as he cooperated with them.

There are no pro-and anti-democracy coalitions among Middle Eastern states, or “revolutionary” versus “counterrevolutionary” ones either.

The outcome in Sudan is entirely in the hands of the Sudanese. But in the regional competition for influence, the Saudis and Emiratis seem to be winning out over the Turks and Qataris.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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