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Nothing is in the air in Saudi-Sudan relations

President of Sudan Omar Al Bashir (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) at Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 23 January 2017. [Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout - Anadolu Agency]
President of Sudan Omar Al Bashir (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) at Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 23 January 2017. [Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout - Anadolu Agency]

It is abundantly clear that Sudanese and Saudi relations have come a long way since the day in August 2013 when the Sudanese Presidential plane that Omar Hassan Al-Bashir was travelling on was unceremoniously refused entry into Saudi Arabian airspace. The journey had to be aborted and the beleaguered president was forced to return home with his "mission unaccomplished".

The president had been on his way to Tehran to take part in the inauguration ceremony of the new Iranian President Rouhani. Iran, since the dawn of Al-Bashir's leadership in 1989, remained one of its strongest and closest allies. Such was the relationship that cultural and military ties between the two countries were robust. Cultural exchanges with journalists and women's' groups were frequent, and the docking of Iran's naval warship in the Red Sea occurred on no less than three occasions. Moves which caused alarm bells to ring across the Gulf region.

Saudi Arabia and Sudan completed joint air exercises above Sudan's pyramids on 5 April 2017.

Saudi Arabia and Sudan completed joint air exercises above Sudan's pyramids on 5 April 2017.

However, just three years after a visible thaw in relations between the countries; ties between Sudan and Saudi Arabia are literally "sky high". Last month, the two nations staged a major exhibition of Sudo-Saudi military aircraft. Saudi sent its Eurofighters on their first mission outside the kingdom, in addition to the US F-15s and Typhoons, while Sudan deployed its Russian and Chinese Mig-29s and Sukhois. The display took place over Merowe, the site of Sudan's ancient civilisation and pyramids, illustrating a new found strategic friendship between the two neighbours who now appear to be only divided by the Red Sea.

Trusting friendship

Over the past few years, Khartoum has rediscovered its friendship with the kingdom where Sudanese citizens reside in great numbers and Saudi businessmen are being sold prime real estate land in the Sudanese capital to allow for investment and job creation. As for the Red Sea, Saudi trusts its western neighbour Sudan to protect its trading route which has been vital to the "petroline" industries of the kingdom.

Observers are clear that the key turning point came in 2014 when Khartoum announced that it was closing the Iranian Cultural Centre, citing attempts by Tehran to cause "intellectual and social" instability. In other words, the cultural centre, which was propagating Shi'ism, was now being viewed as a threat. Al-Bashir later argued that Sudan had enough "tribal differences" without inviting another issue of potential conflict. But given Sudan's political and economic position at the time cynics regarded Iran's exit from the Sudanese stage as "political expediency".

Sudan was disappointed with Tehran's response in its dispute with South Sudan. Shortly after secession when a trade war of words broke out about the distribution of oil revenue between the two countries and after losing 75 per cent of its oil revenue, the Sudanese felt Tehran did next to nothing to help it weather the storm. Instead, Iran appears to have pressed full steam ahead in its bid to increase the Shia population in Sudan which is estimated to be around 12,000.

Saudi Sudani Joint Air Exercise emblem.

Saudi Sudani Joint Air Exercise emblem.

Sudan is a staunch Sunni Islamic and some would say "Sufi" country, but the relations with the Shia dominated country had been important during the years of imposed sanctions from the United States and the United Nations. But resuming the Saudi connection has given Sudan its now strategic and important role. Some $5 billion of Saudi exports trawl through the Red Sea and Saudi investment in agriculture, food production and animal husbandry make Sudan well placed to meet the needs of its neighbour. Saudi frigates, instead of Iranian ones, are common sights now in the Red Sea. Sudan is seen by Saudi as a gateway to access South Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad which means that Sudan is a vital conduit for the Saudi investment portfolio.

A significant role

In explaining the rejuvenation of Sudan-Saudi relations, Khartoum has been reluctant to admit the friendship went cold. However, for a time, Saudi had suspended financial dealings with Sudan which was one of the only ways Sudan could get access to the international markets and Gulf States were specifically instructed not to deal with the East African state.

In addition to joining an initiative to combat the spread of Shi'ism in Africa, Khartoum appears to be doing its utmost best to align its self to the Saudi agenda. Its role in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen is small but nevertheless extremely significant. Sudan's military forces are on the frontline of the battle against the Houthis and the attempts to ensure that Daesh militants do not take hold in the region ideologically or otherwise.

Media reports emerging at the time of the divorce from Tehran suggested that shortly afterwards Saudi Arabia had placed $1 billion in the country's central bank with the aim of shoring up Sudanese foreign reserves. Estimates of investment by Saudi vary but are thought to be in the region of $15-20 billion over the next five years.

The completion of the dams in Upper Atbara and Setit in the east of Sudan also means that up to 2,000 megawatt of electricity will be created, but this will also allow Saudi to begin to cultivate an area of land in the region of one million acres. An agreement called "Vision 2030" will also permit the Saudis to have unfettered access to underground water for irrigation which will be leased to them for 99 years.

Egypt's President Sisi with Saudi King Salman [file photo]

Egypt's President Sisi with Saudi King Salman [file photo]

Different and changing alliances in the region are beginning to occur as a result of the relationship. When Egypt supported the Russian Federation's proposal to attack Aleppo last year, Saudi criticised the country it had propped up after the overthrow of Egypt's democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Riyadh was even less impressed when Egypt tried to impede it from establishing a base in Djibouti. In return, Saudi cut off its discounted oil sales to Cairo and has since strengthened its ties with Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

It is expected that the two countries will next be in the skies together in a few months' time as plans are underway for another air show to be staged in Saudi. But while the two countries, plus Ethiopia, appear to be preparing to make a "long haul" commitment to achieve economic, military and political gains, the alliance will no doubt further inflame the Egypt, South Sudan and perhaps Ugandan axis that appears to be mounting a concerted opposition to protect its competing interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEgyptIranMiddle EastSaudi ArabiaSudan
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