The anti-government protests in Sudan over the past five decades are part of a vicious circle in a region rife with sectarian and political conflicts. Ever since long-serving ruler Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown last April, the country has been in the midst of a political crisis. A deepening identity crisis also lurks there, with foreign governments still meddling in its affairs; with every step that Sudan takes, the oil-rich Gulf States are never far behind, pulling the strings.
There is no question about the relief felt by the people of Sudan following the ousting of Bashir, and hearing technocrat Abdalla Hamdok’s claim that he is determined to seek peace. It was all very uplifting. However, he is burdened with the gargantuan task of steering Sudan out of crisis and into a period of economic stability and growth, even while corruption and institutional weakness plague the transitional authority’s ability to function. Frustration is thus on the increase, as support trickles away.
Months after Al-Bashir was ousted, the economy remains burdened by foreign debt of more than $60 billion; real inflation stands at over 100 per cent; soaring unemployment; and chronic shortages of bread, fuel and foreign currency, all key triggers for the protest movement against the former president.
With much-needed investment a priority, Hamdok is intent on getting the US to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Without outside help, including financial assistance, the risk is that the democratic future that Hamdok is advocating for Sudan will be impossible.
However, to navigate the political challenges in his country, one of Africa’s biggest and most strategically important, it seems that the Sudanese Prime Minister is taking an extremely secular and broadly western-oriented approach. This has triggered protests by those who point out that Sudan is a Muslim country with Islamic values.
Events during Bashir’s overthrow also paved the way for other states — particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia — to get back into the game hiding behind such labels as mediators and aid providers, just as they wanted. Last month, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash felt the need to respond to comments made by the secretary-general of Sudan’s Communist Party, Mohammad Mokhtar Al-Khatib, who criticised UAE and Saudi efforts in his country after the army’s ouster of Bashir. During a seminar in Omdurman last month, Katib accused them of “conspiring to abort the Sudanese revolution.”
Gargash tweeted in response: “His statement and passive approach to the UAE-Saudi role in supporting stability and peaceful transition in Sudan is regrettable, our relations with Khartoum are historical, and the Arab role in supporting Sudan in its current circumstances is necessary.”
The necessity of their presence in Sudan’s tense political climate is boiling down to the fact that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are only trying to further their influence in the Middle East and North Africa, fighting back against the rise of democracy. They were quick to make their influence felt, vowing jointly to provide $3 billion in aid in April, in a move which many Sudanese protesters saw as a bid to shore up military rule and stifle the pro-democracy movement.
The two absolute monarchies have already delivered half of the $3 billion. The remainder is expected to be delivered by the end of this year, making it clear that Sudan is still in their clutches, despite claiming that their interventions have been aimed at staving off Islamist extremism and promoting regional stability.
A 42-year-old journalist based in Sudan, who wished to remain anonymous fearing government reprisals, told MEMO, “Sudan is always going to be dependent on Saudi and UAE money. The army is very much in the pocket of the Saudis and Emiratis, so General Mohammed Hamdan and transitional council head General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan are like their favourite children. The West is not going to give them money without strings attached.”
It’s no secret that the wealthy Gulf States including the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been vying for influence and have close ties with Sudan’s top military commanders. In addition, Saudi Arabia has said that it is working to have Sudan removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Since then, Sudan has undergone large-scale changes.
Generals Al-Burhan and Hamdan have a close working relationship with the Saudi and Emirati leadership, having been directly serving UAE interests by overseeing Sudan’s 10,000+ ground troops in Yemen. These troops include thousands of militiamen from the Rapid Security Forces headed by Hamdan, who is now a powerful figure within Sudan’s military leadership.
The extreme lengths being taken by Sudan are actually mimicking the reform agenda in Saudi Arabia, which include attacks on anything deemed to be remotely “Islamist”. The start of this year saw the Sudanese Anti-Corruption Committee, for example, close four media outlets: Ashorooq and Teiba TV channels, and El-Ray El-Aam and El-Sudani newspapers on the grounds that they were part of ousted President Al-Bashir’s Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) and its affiliated entities. Sudan’s transitional authorities insist that the NCP funded these media organisations, but has yet to provide any evidence.
It was a controversial move which met with criticism from international human rights groups concerned about press freedom. Reporters Without Borders said: “Instead of closing media outlets, the authorities should make sure the Sudanese media comply with a code of ethics.”
Having witnessed Sudanese events for some 15 years, the journalist noted above speaking off the record insisted that the move was politically motivated. Any large media organisation operating in post-secession Sudan, she pointed out, would have had to take money from Al-Bashir’s NCP as it extended its control over the media.
Significantly, El Ray El Aam was bought out after the April revolution by relatives of the family of Ghazi Salah Al-Din Al-Atabani, a former Sudanese minister and advisor to Bashir, who became a prominent critic of the former president. He called for an investigation into the killing of protestors and for a national consensus dialogue to begin, but Bashir instead ordered an investigation into the dissidents within the party.
“Ghazi Salah Al-Din is an Islamist and one of the very few clean politicians. That is why he’s not liked by this new government because they are completely anti anything to do with political Islam,” said the journalist. Given that “newspapers don’t make money in Sudan,” she added that it would be more logical if cash cow companies working in telecoms, gold, construction or other areas were confiscated.
There are some in the government who clearly believe that severing ties with Islamist movements and personalities will be beneficial in securing better relations with Western countries, and Hamdok is going along with that viewpoint.
Anti-Islamic reforms are also being discussed in the educational system, as recent announcements by the Director of the National Centre for Curricula and Educational Research, Dr Omar Al-Qairi, illustrate. He has suggested eliminating memorisation of the Qur’an from the curriculum in the younger years and learning nationalist songs instead to instil in children a love for their country. It is another move that has triggered a popular backlash.
Moreover, earlier this month a secret meeting in Uganda between Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made international headlines. It has been condemned widely by Palestinian groups as a “stab in the back”. Hundreds of Sudanese gathered in Khartoum to demonstrate against the meeting that followed the release of US President Trump’s so-called “peace plan”, which has been slammed for giving Israel everything it wants while providing Palestinians with none of their legitimate rights.
It was no surprise, therefore, that a senior Sudanese military official described the meeting in Uganda as a calculated step orchestrated by the UAE and aimed at helping to remove Sudan from the listing in the US. And Burhan’s efforts seem to have yielded results. In a statement last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the meeting with Netanyahu and “thanked the Sudanese leader for his leadership in normalising ties with Israel.” In a phone conversation, Pompeo invited Burhan to visit the US, an important ally of Israel.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have forged quiet relationships with Israel in recent years, driven primarily by a shared animosity toward Iran.
Soon after his meeting with Burhan, Netanyahu announced that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate toward normalising ties. He added that the meeting was discussed beforehand with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and argued that Sudan should work in its own interest, “regardless of the Palestinian issue”.
It’s an all too familiar pattern, from developing backchannel ties with Israel, to establishing formal relations and selling Palestine for peace with the occupation state. Most critically, attempts to normalise ties run the risk of the transitional administration losing the support of the Sudanese street which is already on the line due to the country’s persistent economic crisis.
Surely, Hamdok must be aware that the Gulf States don’t have the best interests of the people of Sudan and the revolution at heart, and that the timing of these developments is significant, with important shifts in the region focusing on the potential benefits of opening relations with Israel over solidarity with the Palestinians.
The hunger for money and power to have Sudan removed from the US terrorism list is blinding the prime minister from understanding that the terrorism delisting almost certainly won’t result in immediate economic benefits, especially if it remains tied by the bonds of bankruptcy that have subjugated it to both Western and Gulf wishes.
Sudan is a tough country which pushes mixed messages, even for some of its citizens. It has long been stuck in an abysmal cycle in which one ruler who fails to serve the people is replaced by another. With Hamdok allowing the Arab regimes to shape Sudan’s future and compromise its identity instead of taking control with good leadership, it probably won’t be long until he too is overthrown.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.