Clashes broke out on April 15, 2023, between forces loyal to the Sudanese Armed Forces Chief Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, and those loyal to Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Chief Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar swiftly released statements that called for a de-escalation of hostilities. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also called for peace and praised Saudi Arabia’s role in evacuating foreign nationals from Sudan.
The GCC’s united response to the violence underscores the region’s common interest in stability in Sudan, which has historically managed to overcome similar conflicts. As the violence worsens, GCC countries will likely leverage their commercial and personal ties to warring parties and try to facilitate a peace settlement as talks started in Jeddah between representatives of RSF and Sudanese Armed Forces. These measures could bolster the status of GCC countries in Africa and create opportunities for cooperation with the United States in a major regional crisis.
The Evolving Positions of GCC Countries in Sudan
Since a Burhan-led coup overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, the countries of the GCC have developed similar positions on Sudan, especially after the Al-Ula Agreement of 2021 that ended the GCC crisis and the blockade of Qatar. Due to a shared aversion to liberal democracy and grassroots Islamist movements, Saudi Arabia and the UAE welcomed Burhan’s takeover. Burhan returned the favor by enthusiastically welcoming a Saudi-UAE delegation to Khartoum shortly after while refusing to receive Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. Due to his dispatch of RSF forces to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi courted Hemedti. In January 2021, Hemedti visited Doha to discuss the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute and the Sudan-Ethiopia border conflict with Qatari officials. In April 2021, Burhan reactivated 36 agreements and protocols with Qatar, which were suspended following Bashir’s ouster. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s endorsement of the December 2022 civilian transition agreement further healed rifts among the GCC members. This agreement, which was signed by the Quad and Troika (Norway, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United Kingdom and the United States), called for intra-Sudanese dialogue, condemned “spoilers” who undermined Sudan’s democratic transition and championed the creation of a swift civilian-led government.
Aside from the easing of regional tensions, the convergence in GCC positions can be explained by their shared desire for a stable Sudan. The UAE is an especially active investor in the Sudanese economy. In December 2022, Abu Dhabi Ports Group and Invictus Investments struck a $6 billion agreement to build the Abu Amama port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. In February 2023, Sudan and the UAE signed a digital technology investment agreement, which will expand Sudanese public access to broadband. The UAE has combined these investments with humanitarian aid shipments, such as its August 2022 distribution of 380 tons of essential food items and 4.5 tons of medicine to Darfur.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also sought to rebuild their Bashir-era economic presence, as they possessed $12 billion and $4 billion in respective investments before the 2019 coup. In March 2021, Saudi Arabia pledged to invest $3 billion in the Sudanese economy. In August of that year, soon-to-be ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok claimed that Riyadh could increase its investments to $10 billion. After talks between Hamdok and al-Thani, Qatar proposed the construction of an investment zone in Sudan in May 2021. Although Qatari economic forays in Sudan ebbed after the October 2021 coup against Hamdok, Darfur leader Minni Arko Minawi courted agricultural, mining, and infrastructure investments from Qatar in September 2022.
The GCC’s Response to the Conflict
After the December 2022 transition agreement, GCC countries tried to assuage tensions between rival factions in Sudan. In early 2023, Qatar reportedly attempted to facilitate talks between Libya-based Darfur fighters from the Democratic Path Forces Coalition and the Sudanese Armed Forces. Qatar wished to congregate these rival forces in Doha in March 2023 and create a “political security roadmap.” Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic efforts to prevent a Burhan-Hemedti conflict lasted until the outbreak of hostilities on April 15. These diplomatic efforts provided a foundation for ongoing GCC mediation efforts. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S., and Egypt have coordinated on mediation efforts, and Saudi officials reportedly wish to host talks between Burhan and Hemedti in Riyadh.
The prospects of a successful mediation deal brokered by a GCC country remain unclear. Past successes, such as Saudi Arabia hosting the September 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace summit and Qatar brokering the August 2022 Chad reconciliation agreement, bode well for current GCC initiatives. The strength of Saudi and Emirati coordination with the U.S.—evidenced by their April 17 joint statement on the crisis and President Joe Biden’s public expression of gratitude for Saudi Arabia’s role in evacuating foreign nationals—also boosted the GCC’s aspirations. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also members of the Quad, including Britain and the U.S., and engage regularly with the Trilateral Mechanism, which consists of the African Union, the Djibouti-based Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the United Nations.
Despite these advantages, the UAE’s impartiality as a mediator in Sudan has been questioned. The UAE’s close ties with Hemedti, which have most recently revealed themselves with his replication of Emirati anti-Islamist rhetoric against Burhan and the UAE-based management of his social media pages, raise questions about Abu Dhabi’s impartiality. The UAE’s dominant role in Sudan’s gold sector, which included the purchase of all $1.315 billion in Sudanese gold exports in the first half of 2022, has historically enriched Hemedti. Algunade, a gold company that Bashir bequeathed to Hemedti’s family, was revealed by Reuters to have shipped $30 million in gold to Dubai in one four-week period in late 2018.
The Sudanese public is also deeply suspicious of the UAE’s intentions in Sudan. An alleged audio recording of Sudanese Army Chief Kamal Abdel Marouf, in which he accuses UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed of encouraging Hemedti to advance his political aspirations through force, has spread widely on Sudanese social media. The UAE has also faced criticism for its role in promoting social medica campaigns, such as the “No to Freedom and Change” hashtag which attacked Forces of Freedom and Change—a wide political coalition of civilian and union groups pushing for transition to democracy in Sudan—and boosted support for Emirati investment in Abu Amama port. Suspicions about Emirati role in Sudan could bolster the momentum of rival mediation efforts from Egypt and Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya. The UAE’s toxic reputation in Sudan could encourage Saudi Arabia to coordinate mediation efforts with Turkey, which no longer sees Riyadh as an unambiguous rival in the Horn of Africa.
Following two weeks of hostilities in Sudan, the GCC countries have showcased a unified front and positioned themselves as potential mediators. However, the task of mediation is complicated by incendiary rhetoric, such as Hemedti’s portrayal of Burhan as a traitor for embracing Bashir loyalists and Burhan’s assertions that Hemedti was absent during the RSF’s perpetration of atrocities. Given that the roots of Sudan’s conflict are primarily local and driven by personal rivalries, it remains uncertain whether the GCC’s deployment of soft power and utilization of financial incentives will lead to a decisive resolution.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.