On May 19, while Arab leaders were meeting at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, militants across the Red Sea ransacked Qatar’s embassy in conflict-ridden Sudan. This attack followed similar incidents at several other Middle Eastern countries’ diplomatic missions in Sudan’s capital since the country’s ongoing armed struggle erupted on April 15. Although officials in Doha refrained from blaming any faction, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) accused the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. Hemedti), of carrying out the assault. Regardless of which actor bears responsibility, the episode highlighted the dangers and risks of maintaining a diplomatic presence in Khartoum amid the ongoing crisis and cycles of violence.
Qatar, however, by being less involved than either Egypt or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and less identified with any of the warring parties, stands to have less direct exposure to risks of blowback than Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the May 19 attack notwithstanding.
Qatar and the GCC’s Interests in Sudan
Sudan’s crisis, which has thus far resulted in at least 1,800 deaths and at least one million people being displaced, is troubling to officials in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The potential for violent instability in Africa’s third-largest nation to spill into Egypt and across the Red Sea concerns GCC capitals.
Therefore, it was no surprise that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar immediately called on Sudan’s warring factions to de-escalate and engage in dialogue. Qatar and other GCC members also hailed Riyadh’s evacuation efforts from Port Sudan, while Arab officials made Sudan an important topic at the May 19 Arab League summit in Jeddah.
A New Era of Diplomacy and Cooperation in the Gulf
It is important to take stock of the Gulf’s evolving geopolitical environment to understand GCC states’ reactions to the conflict in Sudan. Tensions between Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, have cooled significantly since the al-Ula summit of January 2021, which resolved the 2017-2021 GCC crisis. The subsequent rapprochements between Qatar and its immediate neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula have made it so intra-Gulf rivalries are not playing out in Sudan’s current crisis. This is significant given how Sudan was an arena for competition between the Qatari-Turkish alliance and the Saudi Arabia-UAE axis during the second GCC crisis. Today, Gulf states are mostly on the same page. Qatar’s support for Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic efforts to help wind down Sudan’s conflict is illustrative of the Gulf’s post-al-Ula environment.
Qatar has limited means to act unilaterally in Sudan and is mostly responding to the Sudanese crisis through multilateral channels. Doha’s diplomatic efforts will probably continue to rely heavily on coordination with the Arab League and the GCC, reinforced by direct consultations and possibly offers of help to Cairo and Riyadh.
Despite Qatar’s previous investments in Sudan and admirable record of mediating talks between Omar al-Bashir’s autocratic government and groups in Darfur, and between Sudan and South Sudan, Doha’s influence in Khartoum has waned in recent years. Although both the Bashir and post-Bashir governments in Sudan resisted Emirati and Saudi pressure to join the anti-Qatar camp during the 2017-2021 GCC crisis, the UAE and Saudi Arabia did manage to strengthen their influence in Khartoum both after Bashir’s 2019 ouster and the 2021 military coup.
By contrast, Qatar, which has advocated for civilian rule in Sudan, lost clout after al-Burhan removed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2021. However, that did not eliminate Qatar’s role as an outside player in Sudan, especially in Darfur, where the gas-rich Gulf emirate continued being courted the following year for investments across various sectors from agriculture to mining and infrastructure. Following the political transition framework agreement of December 2022, the Qataris tried to facilitate talks in Doha between certain militants from Darfur based in Libya and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) with the aim of advancing a “political security roadmap” involving these different actors.
Qatar as a Mediator?
Due to Doha’s record of supporting civilian rule in Khartoum and because of Qatar’s past associations with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose local branch’s leader, Hassan al-Turabi, orchestrated the 1989 coup which brought Bashir to power, Doha may well remain less of an influential actor in the country as power is concentrated in the hands of two military leaders fighting each other for control of the nation. This reality leads analysts to doubt that Qatar could step up as a mediator between the SAF and RSF.
“Qatar wants stability in Sudan, prefers a civilian government, and has been pushing for a transition away from military governance. But, in this pursuit, Qatar does not have an active role to play beyond a humanitarian one,” explained Dr. Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, in an interview with the Gulf International Forum. “Qatar’s networks in Sudan are not influential enough to actually make a difference. This lack of leverage makes Qatar less well positioned than Saudi Arabia to play a mediator role. Hemedti’s narratives and his ideological proximity to the UAE make it quite difficult for him to accept Qatar as a mediator at this point.”
Looking ahead, Qatar’s most realistic path toward (re)gaining influence in Sudan amid the current situation could go through humanitarian assistance. Doha has already been responding to the bloodshed that began in mid-April by using its resources to assist people in Sudan. In May, the Qataris sent a relief flight to Port Sudan with roughly 40 tons of food. It returned to Doha with 150 evacuees from Sudan.
With this conflict in Sudan showing no signs of coming to an end any time soon, the worsening humanitarian disasters in the country will position Qatar to continue playing a non-politicized role in the crisis as a relief donor and provider of humanitarian assistance. Mindful of the high levels of support that the UAE and has provided Hemedti and Egypt has given Burhan, Qatar’s current posture toward Sudan’s crisis is less likely to create controversy or lasting grievances even if Doha’s influence will probably remain somewhat limited by the fact that other Arab powerhouses have more clout in conflict-ridden Sudan.
“The Qatari position may reflect to some degree a diminished political engagement in Sudan,” said Dr. William Lawrence, a professor at American University in Washington, DC, in an interview with the Gulf International Forum. “But it also reflects a strategic decision given the changing Sudanese and Gulf contexts. Qatar’s relationships with civilian leaders—some of whom are aligning with Hemedti and with Islamist organizations, some of whom are aligning with al-Burhan—have not disappeared and give it several advantages.”
Doha’s relationships with these different actors in Sudan can be useful in terms of facilitating humanitarian support to the country down the line, as well as supporting peacemaking efforts. “If peace returns and political transition talks begin, Qatar will be well positioned to do what it can best contribute: playing a leadership role in post-conflict recovery, investment, and human development,” added Dr. Lawrence. One sign of Doha being able to play such a constructive role was when al-Burhan’s envoy, Dafaallah al-Haj, came to Qatar on May 29 and met with the Gulf country’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi for discussions about the ongoing crisis in Sudan, reportedly with a focus on exit “scenarios” amid this period of violent turmoil and humanitarian disasters.
In conclusion, Qatar’s involvement in Sudan’s crisis reflects its limited influence amidst competing regional powers. Qatar’s focus on post-conflict recovery and investment positions it for bigger role in Sudan’s future when peace is achieved. However, the country’s influence remains constrained by the clout of other Arab powerhouses in the conflict-ridden nation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.