The sacking of the President’s Director of Office today and the circumstances of his detention at Khartoum International Airport present a dramatic picture of the extent to which differences over Sudan’s neutral stance in the Gulf crisis are beginning to emerge. His departure also puts into question how long Sudan can hope to remain neutral in the ongoing Gulf crisis.
The decision by Saudi Arabia on 5 June to cut ties with the State of Qatar days after the Arab-Islamic American conference attended by US President Donald Trump sent shock waves through the corridors of power in Khartoum as much as it did elsewhere in the world.
Over the past few months, the Sudanese president has paid a series of short shuttle visits to a number of the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. To cap it all, the visit by the Qatari Princess Sheikha Moza to the Merowe pyramids in March was a highly publicised and successful visit that brought positive world interest in Sudan’s heritage even while eliciting negative media ridicule and condemnation from Sudan’s troubled neighbour, Egypt.
In sporting terms, Al-Bashir was playing a “blinder” by solidifying a new flourishing relationship with the Gulf States through political, economic and military cooperation agreements and repairing its relations with the United States of America whose outgoing President Barack Obama gifted Sudan with a temporary lifting of the 20 year-old economic sanctions imposed on Khartoum. Indeed, Sudan had even taken a bolder stance in its disputes with Egypt and stepped up its attempt to win back the disputed Halayeb border area by taking a more public approach to its diplomacy.
Arguably at the centre of that new found strengthening of diplomatic ties was the Director of the President’s Office, General Taha Osman Al-Hussein, who doubled up as state minister to the presidency. Al-Hussein, a former security intelligence officer, was made a personal envoy to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and at the height of the attempts to court American favour, Al-Hussein made an unannounced visit to Washington to talk to congressmen and former President, Jimmy Carter. He was viewed as someone who had the president’s ear and a man with the “Midas” golden touch.
Seemingly, Al-Hussein was not shy in reminding his colleagues in government of the role he was playing in the transformation of Sudan, from a rouge state to the darling of the Gulf and the stalwart unwavering partners to West in the war against terrorism and to the European Union in the fight against illegal human trafficking.
However, varying reports suggested that not all Al-Hussein’s colleagues were enamoured by his self-credited achievements. Reports say the First-Vice President, Hassan Bakri Salah, had major differences with Al-Hussein over policy and intelligence chiefs at Sudan National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) had also been at loggerheads with the office director.
There is also a suggestion that his presence and unilateral maverick style did not make him any friends at Sudan’s foreign ministry either. When Sudan cut ties with Iran in January 2016 and switched sides to join the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia, Al-Hussein alerted the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, before the Sudanese foreign ministry were given the official news.
Although the exact nature of the dispute that led to his departure is not known, it appears that Sudan’s keenness to hold on to a neutral stance in the current Gulf crisis may have been the trigger to his dismissal. Sudan’s diplomatic statement following the outbreak of the crisis has been challenged by a number of opposition groups in the country including the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the Justice for Peace Party (JFP), who are part of the coalition government but have stated in no uncertain terms that Sudan should voice its commitment to Qatar and condemn the siege on Doha.
In an open parliament session, speaker after speaker spoke in glowing terms about the Qatari government and dismissed the designation by the Gulf States that Qatar is sponsors terrorism because of its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas. In a one size-fit all statement, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, said:
We will not stand neutral and we will not take sides but we are at the heart of the issue.
The sacking of Al-Hussein has shed some light on the careful balancing act that Khartoum is playing by adopting a stance that seeks not to alienate any of the sides to the conflict. On balance, despite the unwavering support that Qatar has given Sudan over the years – in particular in negotiating a peace deal with rebels in Darfur in July 2011, Sudan hopes that two major factors will allow it to maintain the position of neutrality for as long as the dispute remains unresolved.
Firstly, Sudan is hoping that the Gulf states will recognise and indeed respect its right to make its own foreign policy decisions understanding the careful balance it must pursue; and secondly, Khartoum is banking on the notion that the Gulf states would be unwilling to isolate Sudan for its neutrality for fear that the African nation would pack its bags and re-establish its ties with Tehran putting the military coalition in jeopardy and jettisoning lucrative agreements that would resolve the region’s dependency on importing food.
By all accounts, Al-Hussein, who is a Saudi citizen, was not permitted to leave Khartoum’s airport until internal and external mediation had taken place. Reports in the New Khaleej online news platform say that Sudan had deliberated for almost four days on the decision to fire Al-Hussein. The reports suggest that the government had monitored the calls between the office director and Saudi Arabia and the UAE and heard him confirm wrongly that Sudan would support the three Gulf state position. He was also reported to have handed over documents that allegedly show Qatar’s support for terrorism.
Al-Hussein had been in his job since 2008 and observers say his close relationship with the Gulf leaders allowed him to open doors on Sudan’s behalf. He was the reported instigator behind Sudan’s military cooperation in Yemen and the automatic choice to replace the president in Riyadh at the Arab-Islamic America conference after pressure was placed on the Sudanese president not to attend. The events leading to his dismissal may have been a combination of factors but the reported lengthy deliberation on whether he stayed or went was no doubt hinged on Sudan’s determination not to weaken its ties with any of the Gulf States and its determination to hang on to its neutrality policy.
It remains to be seen whether Sudan can maintain that stance in the next coming days and weeks given the internal pressure from those inside calling for Sudan to stand firmly behind Qatar; and in light of the external pressure from the Gulf states that might increase with the departure of Al-Hussein, Sudan’s Gulf envoy.