The Gulf states and the Sudan coup – all is not what it seems.
Over the past ten years, Arab Gulf countries have become increasingly involved in the politics of the Horn of Africa. By providing economic, political, and even security backing, they have sought to shape political transitions and dynamics in what they consider to be their Western strategic flank. Therefore, when the Sudanese military launched a 25 October coup, taking control of the government and derailing the fragile military-civilian transition process that had been underway since the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were rapidly identified as being partly responsible. But their position is in fact more nuanced than this.
Sudan is probably the most important Horn country for the Gulf. Since the 1970s, it has been the largest recipient of Gulf foreign aid in the Horn of Africa by far. Saudi Arabia especially has long-standing historical and cultural links with Sudan. During the Bashir era, Gulf countries stepped up their economic backing in exchange for the support of Sudanese troops in Yemen and the severance of Khartoum’s relationship with Iran in 2016. In 2017, however, Bashir resisted pressure to take sides in the GCC–Qatar crisis. His ambivalence undermined the trust of his Gulf patrons and a halt in Saudi and Emirati financial support for his regime precipitated his downfall in April 2019. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since played an active role in trying to shape the political transition in Sudan. They threw their support behind the Transitional Military Council and pledged an aid package of US$3 billion.
From the beginning of the transition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a clear preference for the military leadership of General al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. They had cultivated strong ties with both men during the war in Yemen. While Burhan has closer ties to Egypt, Hemedti gets some support from the UAE. Gulf backing strongly reinforced the security services’ hand in the negotiations with the civilians, which explains why today some international experts believe there are Gulf fingerprints on the military coup. Moreover, the mild condemnation voiced by Emirati and Saudi leaders immediately after the coup raised additional suspicions, although it was followed a week later by a joint statement with the United Kingdom and the United States calling for the restoration of the civilian-led government.
Despite appearances, coup offers little advantage for Gulf nations
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Egypt, continue to favor the military in Sudan. But that does not mean that they view the coup positively. Several Gulf and Egyptian diplomats and officials have privately expressed their surprise and concern over what they see as a reckless move. While an initial coup attempt had taken place the month before, and the developments were a result of long-standing dynamics, observers acknowledge that the military takeover itself looked fairly improvised.
From a Gulf perspective, the benefits of a coup are limited given that the military was already consolidating its authority in Khartoum, leaving civilians with little room for maneuver. On the contrary, the coup now exposes the strong asymmetry between the military and civilians. Moreover, Gulf states are aware that the Sudanese military and the security forces are deeply divided. While the coup gives the army a false appearance of unanimity, it only postpones future confrontations with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, headed by Hemedti. The coup now opens the door to unpredictability and instability that could precipitate a civil war.
Such instability in Sudan is not in the interests of Egypt nor the Gulf states. The spill-over effects – such as economic repercussions, refugee flows, terrorism threats and arms smuggling – are perceived as highly problematic. From Egypt’s perspective, Cairo would also lose a partner on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis if Khartoum were to become absorbed by internal issues.
Gulf states are also highly sensitive to the reputational risks of being associated with the coup. In June 2019, the massacre of peaceful protesters in Sudan, only a few days after Hemedti’s visit to Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi, had already damaged the Gulf’s reputation. After pressure from the US and the UK, Gulf nations resolved to play a constructive role and facilitate the civilian-military agreement that was reached in August 2019. In general, and even more since US President Joe Biden’s election, they have been keen to appear as constructive and reliable partners of the US in the region. Their role as facilitators in the Eritrea–Ethiopia peace deal in 2018, or more recently in the GERD crisis and the Sudan–Ethiopia border dispute, has provided them with valuable diplomatic credentials.
The population in Sudan and other Horn of Africa countries has often criticized Gulf interference in their internal politics. Following the coup, protesters in Khartoum held banners bemoaning Gulf interference. Gulf leaders have become aware during the past few years of the importance of popular perceptions when dealing with Horn of Africa countries.
Finally, there has been speculation that military leaders in Khartoum may have received financial reassurance from external backers before launching the coup. Sudan secured a US$2.5bn International Monetary Fund loan and debt relief package in June 2021, which could be threatened by recent developments. Some experts were, therefore, quick to suggest that Gulf countries could fill Sudan’s budgetary gap as a reward for the coup. This appears quite unlikely, however. Saudi Arabia and the UAE worked closely with the IMF earlier this year to help to secure this financial package. They know that the IMF’s support for Sudan is dependent on the civilian rule in Khartoum, and they have reduced their support for deposed prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, for this reason—as evidenced by Riyadh’s re-commitment in March 2021 to deliver the aid promised in 2019. They have also reportedly been engaging in discreet talks with Burhan to convince him to reintegrate Hamdok into the government and to stabilize the situation.
Facing their own financial constraints and uncertain economic futures, Gulf states have become more restrained in their delivery of financial aid in recent years. It seems unlikely that they would be eager to come to the rescue of a Sudan that is unstable and marginalized from the international community.
Far-reaching influence, little leverage
More than revealing the Gulf’s far-reaching influence in the Horn of Africa, the Sudanese coup is instead a perfect example of the difficulties and challenges that Gulf states face in trying to control political dynamics in their direct neighborhood. Their involvement in the Horn of Africa has been a learning process, met with regular setbacks and adjustments.
While they have achieved a degree of influence, Gulf states are aware that they lack the leverage fundamentally to affect the strategic calculations of African leaders. Emirati financial backing to Sudan, for example, did not stop Burhan from restoring his diplomatic ties with Qatar in May this year, offering Doha a mediation role in the GERD crisis even though Abu Dhabi was already involved.
But as the US shows growing signs of disengagement in the region, Arab Gulf countries will increasingly have to take care of their own regional security and stability, albeit with more pragmatism.
Author: Camille Lons is a Research Associate based in the Middle East office in Bahrain. She covers political and security developments in the Gulf region, with a specific focus on Gulf countries’ economic and political relations with Asian powers and the Horn of Africa.