While Sudan’s democratization process could lead to adverse outcomes for the GCC states in the short term, particularly for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they should continue to still support the transition as planned to ensure long-term stability.
As Sudan’s transitional government completes its planned term in preparations for the scheduled 2022 elections, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will continue to review their objectives within the country.
Sudan has consequential ties with the nations of the GCC. Sudanese troops have played a vital role in the War in Yemen; following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, Khartoum normalized its relations with Israel in 2020; hundreds of thousands of Sudanese work as expatriates on the Arabian Peninsula; and Sudan has a complicated but important relationship with Egypt, a major external partner for the GCC. For these reasons, the Gulf states would clearly benefit from a stable Sudan that is receptive to their interests.
Sudan’s democratization process, though relatively successful so far, has the potential to create adverse outcomes for the GCC. A push for representative democracy could undermine the leadership of the more autocratic Gulf states. More consequentially, several GCC capitals fear the resurgence of well-organized Islamist parties in an open and democratic system, as in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood won the nation’s first free elections in 2012.
On the other hand, the Egyptian model represents a successful instance of counter-revolution, by which a democratic transition was prevented through a military takeover. Egypt’s close physical and political proximity to Sudan has led to fears that external actors, possibly including certain GCC states, might seek to repeat the counter-revolutionary process, replacing the democratic transitional government with a military ruler. However, military dictatorships, while politically stable, are resistant to popular reforms, potentially leading to further unrest and greater instability—consequences which bode ill for the security and stability of the Gulf itself.
In short, while the democratization process could lead to adverse outcomes for some GCC states in the short term, particularly for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they should continue to support the transition as planned to ensure long-term stability in both Sudan and the Gulf.
New Government, Old Relationships
For much of his thirty-year rule, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir maintained a careful geopolitical balancing act with Iran on one side and the nations of the GCC on the other. Bashir carefully cultivated friendly political and commercial ties with both factions while scrupulously avoiding choosing a side in their ongoing regional cold war.
In his final years in power, however, the dictator abandoned his neutrality, leaning away from Tehran and toward Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In 2015, Bashir joined the Islamic Military Alliance, a Saudi-led military bloc created to increase Riyadh’s regional footprint and rein in Iran’s external influence. In the same year, Sudan participated in the Arab coalition’s war against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen; Al-Bashir placed four aircraft at the coalition’s disposal and deployed 6,000 troops in the war-torn country. Sudanese troops, many of them experienced veterans of the nation’s internal conflicts, played a key role in repelling Houthi fighters from Yemen’s western coast. In return for Bashir’s support, the GCC nations, and Saudi Arabia in particular, showered the near-insolvent Khartoum in loans and development aid, providing Bashir with a much-needed revenue stream after the loss of oil rents from South Sudan’s 2011 independence.
Considering their mutual support, one might suspect that the governments of the GCC would have opposed Bashir’s ouster in 2019. In fact, however, the new transitional government is also proving quite receptive to GCC interests. Sudan has continued its involvement in Yemen, albeit on a smaller scale. It has decisively broken with Iran in matters of foreign policy, and has reaped financial reward from the GCC; immediately after Bashir’s overthrow, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi supplied $3 billion to the transitional government, helping to keep it afloat during its critical early months. Simultaneously, the new government has substantially improved its relationship with the United States. In 2019, for the first time in 23 years, the two nations exchanged ambassadors, and after Sudan followed the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel, it was removed from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terror list, allowing for greater international investment.
In the two years following Bashir’s removal, Sudan has been led by an unusual troika: Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, an army general who participated in the coup d’etat against Bashir; Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia; and Abdalla Hamdok, a civilian economist and the country’s current Prime Minister. While the government appears stable, tensions remain below the surface, particularly between Burhan and Dagalo, whose RSF has steadily resisted integration into the Sudanese Army. Sporadic clashes between the two sides have continued, despite ongoing negotiations.
Why Sudan Matters for the GCC
The prospect of a renewed conflict in Sudan is worrying to the GCC. Sudan borders the Red Sea, a waterway of critical importance through which roughly one-eighth of world trade passes. On one end of the sea is the Suez Canal; at the other end sits the Bab el-Mandeb strait, adjacent to Yemen, where Houthi fighters have disrupted international commerce.
The potential for a renewed conflict in Sudan, and hence the creation of a second point of instability in the heart of the Red Sea, is understandably concerning to the oil-exporting nations of the GCC. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have maintained a particularly close relationship with Burhan and Dagalo, leading to worries that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could support one of them as Sudan’s leader, even at the expense of the democratic process. The International Crisis Group warned in 2019 that, by supporting the military’s primacy, the Gulf states effectively sought to “shepherd the country through a managed transition from one military-led regime to another” – therein avoiding any uncertainty that could prove detrimental to GCC objectives in Africa and the Red Sea region.
In the short term, a military government in Sudan would provide a certain measure of political stability, as General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has demonstrated in Egypt. However, there is an inherent risk in military rule. A military government would likely resist the demands of the Sudanese protesters, whose activism previously felled the Bashir regime; if the new government fails to meet their expectations, a resumption of protests could lead to prolonged instability, ironically creating the precise outcome that the Gulf states have tried to avoid.
Moreover, Sudan’s orderly and successful transition has prompted largesse from the nation’s creditors in Europe. The “Paris Club”, a group of European lenders, announced on July 16 that it would cancel $14 billion in Sudanese debt and reschedule the interest payments on a further $9 billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also entered Sudan into a relief program for heavily indebted poor countries, intended to reduce the nation’s total foreign debt by as much as $50 billion.
The IMF has explicitly tied its relief program to Sudan’s hitherto successful democratization process. If this process were derailed, and Sudan returned to military rule, foreign investment would certainly dry up, and sanctions might even be imposed, restoring the country’s precarious financial situation. To prevent this outcome and address Sudan’s challenging circumstances, continued political stability is essential.
Fortunately, the specter of a renewed military dictatorship seems distant, and Sudan’s leaders appear earnest in their commitment to a democratic transition. The timeline adopted in the 2019 Draft Constitutional Declaration has been followed; elections are scheduled for next year, and in November 2022, the 11-member Sovereignty Council, over which Burhan and Dagalo preside, is scheduled to disband. Crucially, the Sovereignty Council’s members have been forbidden from running for political office, ensuring a transition to civilian control.
If this program is completed according to schedule, Sudan is slated to have a fully elected government by early 2024. The completion of this process represents Sudan’s best chance for continued political and financial stability, and consequently for regional stability as well.
A final key factor in Sudan’s future will be its relationship with the United States. In marked contrast to the Trump administration, the Biden administration has signaled a renewal of the longstanding American goal of advocating for democracy around the world—and has criticized certain GCC states, including long-time U.S. allies, who have pushed back against this trend. Therefore, the situation in Sudan presents the Gulf with a rare opportunity. Khartoum is committed, at least in principle, to a democratic, secular government, principles that Americans of all stripes unreservedly support. By supporting the transition, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the other GCC states can help to strengthen their evolving relationship with the United States.
Many Sudanese, recalling Bashir’s support from the Gulf states, are understandably wary of Saudi and Emirati designs in Sudan. The GCC’s $3 billion aid package in 2019 actually led to protests from Sudanese who feared that Saudi and Emirati money would inevitably translate to political control. Still, at the present, Sudan is in no position to turn down foreign aid; it will need whatever help it can get. To assuage suspicions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE should continue to reaffirm their support for civilian control in Sudan, and in doing so, demonstrate to the United States that the three countries are once again on the same page. The benefits to the GCC of a friendly American president, of course, far exceed the benefits of a friendly Sudanese autocrat.
Trevor Filseth is an editor at the Gulf International Forum. He is also a current affairs writer at The National Interest.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.