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Sudan’s Loyalties Tested as Qatar Crisis Widens

Sudan-al-bashir and king Salman
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at King Khalid International airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

The Qatar crisis, which erupted on 5 June 2017 after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt announced they were cutting ties diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorism, is spreading.

After eight African countries cut or downgraded relations with the tiny Gulf state, Sudan is the latest to come under implicit and explicit pressure from the boycotting nations – as the Arab press describes them – to take sides in the dispute.

Since the start of the crisis, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour has remained vague on his country’s position. “We will not be a neutral party, nor will we take sides. However, we are at the heart of the issue,” he said.

Although Sudanese officials are well aware that their country has no political influence over the parties in the conflict, they breathed a sigh of relief that Sudan has, at least for the time being, been spared the heavy price it paid for supporting the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

However, the boycotting countries did not take the sensitivity of Sudan’s position and the embarrassment it could face into consideration. In a meeting with Ghandour on 17 June 2017, ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt demanded that Sudan clarify its position regarding the crisis. According to the Sudanese News Agency, the minister stressed his c ountry’s desire to play a role in achieving reconciliation by supporting the initiative taken by the Emir of Kuwait.

Economy a Key Question

Sudan cannot be aligned with any one party, nor does it have the luxury of ignoring the crisis. Sudan’s stagnant economy relies heavily on the money flowing to it across the sea from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. This reliance has become especially acute in the wake of international sanctions. Saudi Arabia is investing about $26 billion in scores of projects in Sudan, both through announced or unannounced funds that are paid in cash to the government. The UAE has also poured funds into Sudan through direct financial assistance and investment projects estimated at more than $6 billion in 2016.

Moreover, the possible lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United States (US) by next October 2017 indicates that Khartoum will need to overcome many of its political and economic crises in order to rejoin the international community as an acceptable member. In fact, Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in persuading the US to lift the sanctions, so Sudan cannot risk losing Saudi diplomatic support just months before the US decision comes into force.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is paying significant but unknown amounts to Khartoum in return for its involvement in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. This is in addition to the high salaries, by Sudanese standards, paid to thousands of Sudanese soldiers fighting in the conflict.

Thanks to these payments, significant amounts of foreign currency are transferred to Sudan and used to prop up the economy.

In August 2017, the Sudanese government deployed thousands of soldiers from its Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF) to swell the number of Sudanese troops already in Yemen. Originally made up of local militias involved in the civil and tribal war in Sudan, the RDF are known for their agility and ability to shift fighting fronts quickly using SUVs, a tactic that is more suitable for the war in Yemen than large and slow-moving armies. Besides, sending these forces abroad, despite repeated criticism by opponents, is a useful solution for the government: the rebel forces that the RDF fought in Darfur have been depleted and there is little left for them to do there.

At the same time, Qatar has also been generous to Sudan, supporting Khartoum during the bleakest years of its regional and international isolation. For years, Qatar has sponsored efforts to broker peace in Darfur between the government and rebels, and has invested huge amounts of money in these efforts and other economic activities. The ideological proximity between the countries, particularly through political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, has reinforced and strengthened the pragmatic relations between the two.

Furthermore, Sudan and Qatar are cooperating on one file that is a top priority for Sudan, namely, the efforts by supporters of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, to dominate eastern Libya. Haftar supports Darfur rebels against the Sudanese government, which in turn supports Haftar’s Libyan rivals.

Maintaining good relations with Qatar also brings Sudan closer to Turkey, which has thrown its weight behind Qatar and has important economic and political relations with Khartoum as well. Similarly, maintaining good ties with Qatar will keep the doors open for rapprochement with Iran, a relationship that Sudan compromised to please Saudi Arabia.

Lieutenant General Taha Osman, who was close to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is considered the godfather of rapprochement in 2014-2015 between Saudi Arabia and Sudan and has close ties with senior officials in Saudi Arabia. According to press reports, Osman tried to modify Sudan’s position and make it directly supportive of the boycotting countries. Osman was suddenly arrested and detained for a day in June 2017 before being released and allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he announced that he holds Saudi nationality and had been appointed as adviser to the Saudi foreign minister for African affairs. Two weeks later, he made an appearance at an African summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as part of a Saudi delegation trying to rally support for the Saudi position against Qatar, causing Sudan considerable diplomatic embarrassment.

On 19 June 2017, a week after Osman’s dismissal, al-Bashir visited Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah (minor pilgrimage) and meet with Saudi officials. He made another visit on 19 July 2017, followed by visits to Kuwait and the UAE. On 3 August 2017, he met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the Moroccan city of Tangier, amid confirmations that Sudan’s participation in the war in Yemen will continue and will even expand, possibly to contain any negative repercussions of Osman’s dismissal.

Sudanese Information Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman had to back down on his earlier criticism of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera channel during his visit to Egypt. Under immense pressure from the Sudanese parliament, which included calls for his resignation, the minister made a humiliating apology, denying that he made the statements.

The Sudanese government, however, allowed Qatar’s supporters to express their views. Ali al-Hajj, secretary general of the Popular Congress Party, an Islamist opposition party that has splintered from the ruling party, expressed support for Qatar. Addressing his party’s Shura Council, he added: “How can a figure like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi be designated as a terrorist?” He was referring to the decision by the boycotting countries to put 59 individuals, including al-Qaradawi and 12 entities linked to Doha, on their terrorism lists.

Moreover, Salah Abdallah Gosh, an MP for the ruling party and former head of the Sudanese National Security and Intelligence Services, condemned the decision to add the Palestinian Hamas movement to the same lists, noting that Sudan does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist movement.

So far, Sudan has managed to strike a reasonable balance that protects its interests while indicating its desire not to be involved in the crisis. However, prolonging or escalating the crisis will almost certainly have negative consequences for the country if it is unable to maintain the quasi-neutral stance it has so far adopted.