The crisis in Sudan has killed hundreds and displaced more than 1.2 million, affecting Sudan's neighbors, including the nearby Persian Gulf monarchies. They see this crisis as an effective threat to their financial investments, security of trade and shipping, and their supply of agricultural products.
At the moment, the monarchies share in common an interest in stability in Sudan. But they do not necessarily agree with one another on how to achieve this goal, with each preferring its own stabilization strategy.
The power struggle and military clash in Sudan began April 15 between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the command of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as "Hemedti."
The Persian Gulf Monarchies share in common a desire to establish a ceasefire and stabilize the country. Each has big plans for Sudan, due to its its geographical size (the third-largest on the continent), its potential in agriculture and mining, and its proximity to the Red Sea, Suez Canal, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and the Arabian peninsula.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have long-term plans for Africa, and for Sudan as their gateway to it.
The security of Sudan is essential for Saudi Arabia, with which it shares a sea border. Riyadh has invested heavily in its tourism sector on the Red Sea coastline, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and its two major ports are less than 200 miles apart. The Neom project and the Saudi smart and linear city, worth $500 billion, are located in this area.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has made many investments in Sudan's mining, agriculture, and infrastructure sectors and has pledged $3 billion to Sudan. Riyadh may participate in the long-term plan to build a railway from Port Sudan to Chad.
Because of Saudi Arabia's interests in Sudan, Riyadh is seeking a comprehensive peace. Saudi officials are in contact with both sides of the conflict and are engaged in talks to establish a ceasefire. They try to show a moderate, impartial, and pragmatic position in the crisis.
The presence of Sudanese forces in the 2015 Saudi Arabia-led coalition attack on Yemen has given them the influence to force both sides to agree on a one-week ceasefire in the peace talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah in May, along with the U.S. Earlier, in a show of commitment to peace and humanitarian aid, Riyadh helped evacuate 8,455 civilians.
The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, has many economic and investment interests in Sudan. The UAE is Sudan's largest export destination, accounting for 53.3% of total exports in 2021. It is also one of the major buyers of gold from Sudan, purchasing $2.85 billion in 2021. In December 2022, the Abu Dhabi Ports Group signed a $6 billion contract to build the Abu Amama port on the Red Sea coast. This is a major part of Abu Dhabi's vital and strategic step to control ports in the Red Sea and secure economic and political interests in the Red Sea and Africa.
The UAE has also maintained contact with both groups involved. Abu Dhabi enlisted the support of RSF forces in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar in 2016. Likewise, SAF leader al-Burhan traveled to the UAE in March 2022.
However, it cannot be hidden that the UAE has a better relationship with the RSF than it does with the SAF. Hemedti's relationship with the Abu Dhabi authorities is reportedly intimate, perhaps partly a result of gold smuggling by Hemedti to the UAE. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that Libya's Khalifa Haftar, who is close to the UAE, is accused of supporting Hemedti in a proxy war. And the UK Telegraph reported the existence of footage of thermobaric shells apparently supplied by the UAE to the RSF and captured by the military.
A leaked document also revealed that RSF purchased more than 1,000 vehicles from UAE dealerships in the first six months of 2019.
UAE and Saudi Arabia are the two key Gulf Cooperation Council players in Sudan. They have remained officially neutral because they do not want to jeopardize their future presence by supporting the losing side. In addition, both countries are conservative and prefer stability and standing by old and established institutions.
Even so, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are at cross-purposes with one another.
Instead of supporting one group over the other, Saudi Arabia has turned to mediation between them. The UAE, in contrast, would prefer a government that does not have Islamism in its political policy. It is more sympathetic to the secular and democratic ideals of Hemedti, who in a series of tweets denounced his rival Burhan as a "radical Islamist" and an obstacle to Sudanese democracy who had reinstated Islamist elements from the previous government. Also troubling for the UAE is the Muslim Brotherhood's official announcement of support for the SAF.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, would likely prefer Sudan's future military to be a unified, formal army, and for militias such as the RSF and other scattered armed proxy groups to be disbanded before they cause future crises. This weighs in favor of Burhan and accounts for his support by Egypt. But the UAE is not willing to give up Hemedti because the RSF is a powerful financial-military lever in the Horn of Africa for the Abu Dhabi authorities.
In Sudan, Saudi Arabia is exercising soft power and demonstrating its mediation skills to the international community. It seems that Saudi Arabia, due to its unique position as leader of the Islamic world, can be an acceptable host for the Arab League and the groups involved in Sudan. This cannot be pleasing to Abu Dhabi due to the rivalry between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the U.S. supports Saudi mediation, and Riyadh seeks to consolidate its presence in an era of Washington's reluctance to intervene again in the Middle East and North Africa. Abu Dhabi is engaged in economic and geopolitical competition with Riyadh, such as attracting foreign companies, foreign investment, and commodity tariffs. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that the two old friends are increasingly at odds over such issues as oil and Yemen.
The Persian Gulf Monarchies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have a common interest in peace and stability in Sudan. But considering the political and social conditions and their very different relationships with the groups involved in the crisis, their common interest is, paradoxically, a cause of division between them.
Dr. Mohammad Salami, a Ph.D. in International Relations, is a research associate at International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis.
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