The Sudan Crisis: How Regional Actors’ Competing Interests Fuel the Conflict

The outbreak of military clashes between the Sudanese Army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands of Sudanese, underscores a complex interplay of domestic, regional, and global actors who have contributed to the protracted conflict. While the violent confrontations reflect a power struggle between General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the army leader, and his deputy, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemedti), they also expose a web of regional dynamics and conflicting interests in Sudan. Since the removal of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, regional actors, including Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, have been heavily involved in the country, each with its own agenda and interests. Their support for the warring factions has further exacerbated the situation, fueled the conflict, and resulted in the current state of chaos. The lack of consensus and cooperation between these parties will only prolong the ongoing crisis, perpetuating the suffering of the Sudanese people.

A Feud Between Two Generals

The clashes between al-Burhan and Hemedti come as no surprise. The power vacuum that resulted from al-Bashir’s 30-year rule presented a golden opportunity for the two generals to vie for power and assert their influence. Initially, they allied against former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s civilian government, which resulted from an August 2019 power-sharing agreement between the country’s military and civilian forces. But in October 2021, they staged a coup against Hamdok’s government and took power, abruptly ending the short-lived transitional period, only two years after removing al-Bashir.

Since then, however, divisions and disagreements between al-Burhan and Hemedti have grown significantly, to the extent that the latter apologized for participating in the coup against Hamdok and blamed al-Burhan for the deterioration of economic and security conditions in Sudan. Tensions between the two reached a boiling point following the signing of a framework agreement last December. This agreement sought to facilitate the army’s exit from politics and the transfer of power to civilians. It also aimed to integrate the RSF into the army’s ranks, a move that has evoked sensitivities and sparked significant disagreements between the two sides.

Al-Burhan has sought to expedite the process of integrating the RSF into the army, a move that would diminish the influence of his rival Hemedti.

Over the past few months, both factions have sought to leverage the provisions of the agreement to advance their interests and achieve their agendas. Al-Burhan has sought to expedite the process of integrating the RSF into the army, a move that would diminish the influence of his rival Hemedti, who emphasized the necessity of transferring power to civilians in order to curtail al-Burhan’s authority as the head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC). In an effort to recast his disagreement with al-Burhan as a struggle for democracy rather than a contest for power, Hemedti has forged an alliance with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a key civilian coalition that led the revolt against former President al-Bashir. Hemedti has also adopted the FFC’s demands for the transfer of power to civilians and the Sudanese Army’s return to the barracks in order to marginalize al-Burhan. With the passage of time, the gulf of mistrust between the two became profound and unbridgeable.

The Regional Factor

Like other conflicts in the MENA region, external actors, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, have played a key role in exacerbating the ongoing crisis in Sudan. Although they shared a common goal of preventing Sudan from having a civilian and democratic government over the past few years, their individual interests and divergent agendas have significantly contributed to the current conflict, as they chose to support one side over the other in order to serve their own interests.

Egypt, for example, adopted a deeply flawed and shortsighted policy toward Sudan, which has greatly contributed to the ongoing dispute between al-Burhan and Hemedti. Following the removal of al-Bashir, the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been determined to prevent the emergence of a civilian, let alone a democratic, government in Sudan. For Sisi, this is seen as an existential threat to his regime’s survival. As a result, Cairo has supported the military faction within the TSC led by al-Burhan and Hemedti in order to weaken the civilian component. Moreover, it encouraged the coup against Hamdok’s government, which ended the transitional period and paved the way for the current clashes.

Sisi’s Sudan policy was guided by three primary objectives. First, he sought to bolster military rule in Sudan in order to be able to control and direct it in favor of Egypt’s interests. Second, he aimed to ensure that Sudan does not pursue an independent foreign policy that might affect Egypt’s interests, particularly concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, which is a major concern for Sisi’s regime. Third, Sisi aimed to prevent Sudan from becoming a failed state, which could lead to significant political, geostrategic, economic, and humanitarian challenges for Egypt, particularly as it currently faces a severe economic crisis.

The Egyptian regime has only fueled divisions and disagreements in Sudan.

However, Sisi’s strategy in Sudan achieved exactly the opposite of these interests. By supporting military rule in Sudan, Sisi’s regime has only fueled divisions and disagreements, not only among military and civilian forces but also between the military and the RSF. Egypt also sought to create a parallel process to the framework agreement in order to sow discord and divisions among political factions in Sudan. Furthermore, when a rift between al-Burhan and Hemedti became apparent, Sisi’s government took al-Burhan’s side instead of acting as a neutral mediator. Sisi believed that al-Burhan was a more reliable and trusted partner who would maintain Egypt’s interests. In contrast, Hemedti has strong connections with external allies, making him less desirable as an ally from Cairo’s perspective. Sisi’s support for al-Burhan was a key trigger that led to the current crisis. Numerous reports underscore that Cairo provided fighter jets and pilots to assist the Sudanese Army in its conflict against the RSF. At the beginning of the war, the RSF captured 27 Egyptian soldiers who were stationed at Merowe Air Base in Sudan, and scores of others stationed elsewhere.

Despite Egypt’s long-standing historical and geographical ties with Sudan, its influence in the country has diminished in recent years due to its shortsighted and misguided policy. This is reflected in its exclusion from the Quartet—comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—that is tasked with overseeing Sudan’s transition. The fact that Egypt sought assistance from its regional allies, such as the UAE, to help secure the release of its captured soldiers from the RSF, is a clear indication of this reality.

The Gulf’s Role

Over the past decade, Gulf Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have played a significant role in Sudan’s affairs. These countries cultivated strong relationships with the former regime of Omar al-Bashir, which faced international pressure for its military activities and crimes in Darfur and encountered severe economic and financial challenges following South Sudan’s secession in 2011. To meet these challenges, al-Bashir’s government relied on support from Gulf countries. In exchange for billions of dollars in the form of grants, loans, and investments, al-Bashir provided military assistance and sent troops to aid the two countries’ campaign against the Houthis in Yemen in 2015. Moreover, al-Bashir’s regime aligned itself with Saudi Arabia against Iran and severed Sudan’s relations with Tehran when Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with the country in 2016. These actions marked a significant shift in Sudan’s foreign policy, which had previously been characterized by a close relationship with Iran.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia forged strong connections with the leaders of the Sudanese Army and the RSF.

In the wake of the 2019 uprising that removed al-Bashir, the UAE and Saudi Arabia forged strong connections with the leaders of the Sudanese Army and the RSF. Fearful of the possible spread of democratic movements in the region, the two nations, with their vast financial resources, aided the Sudanese military in preventing the establishment of civilian and democratic rule in the country. Like Egypt, both countries endorsed the coup against the civilian government led by Hamdok in 2021, despite international condemnation and calls for his reinstatement. However, both countries have different and sometimes conflicting interests in Sudan. Therefore, they tend to support different sides in the current conflict. Saudi Arabia has strong and long-standing ties with al-Burhan, whereas the UAE has invested heavily in Hemedti over the past few years.

Saudi Arabia’s support to the Sudanese Army and al-Burhan is motivated by several objectives. First, the kingdom seeks to safeguard its strategic interests in the Red Sea region from potential regional and international competitors, such as Turkey, Iran, the UAE, and Russia. This includes securing sea lanes, accessing natural resources, and maintaining stability and security in the region. Second, Saudi Arabia’s focus on Red Sea security is integral to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy and position it as a global hub for trade, innovation, and tourism. Third, the kingdom seeks to protect its economic and financial investments across various sectors in Sudan, including in agriculture, energy, water, sanitation, transportation, and telecommunications. Given that Sudan has significant potential for growth and development in these sectors, Saudi Arabia views its investments in them as critical to both Sudan’s and its own economic interests. Finally, Saudi Arabia is interested in enhancing its emerging role as a regional power and asserting MBS’s position as a new regional leader. Therefore, over the last few days, Saudi Arabia has been facilitating face-to-face talks between the conflicting factions in Sudan, with American support. The objective of these talks is to secure a durable cease-fire, which could create a pathway for political negotiations and ultimately bring an end to the ongoing conflict. Regardless of the outcome of these talks, they reveal the extent of Saudi Arabia’s influence in Sudan.

The UAE, meanwhile, has cultivated strong ties with Hemedti in recent years, recognizing him as a key ally who could advance its diverse interests in Sudan and the broader region. These interests encompass several objectives. First, the UAE is seeking to eradicate the remnants of the previous Sudanese regime, specifically the Islamists whom it regards as its primary domestic, regional, and global adversary. Hemedti deftly positioned himself with Abu Dhabi as the bulwark against Islamists in Sudan and beyond. It comes as no surprise that Hemedti has framed his dispute with al-Burhan as a fight against “radical Islamists who hope to keep Sudan isolated and in the dark, and far removed from democracy.” Strikingly, this is the same language employed by Arab autocrats to describe their opponents. Second, the UAE is aiming to safeguard its strategic interests in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Hence, in December it signed a $6 billion investment deal with Sudan to construct a new port on the Red Sea coast. Third, it invested in Sudan’s agricultural sector to secure its food supply. Last June, the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding for a vast agricultural initiative linked to the new port on the Red Sea. The UAE deemed Hemedti an indispensable partner in achieving these objectives, extending financial, political, and military support to him over the past few years. According to some reports, the UAE has provided Hemedti, who has amassed substantial wealth through gold trading, with a platform to manage his finances and offered public relations backing for the RSF. Moreover, the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, a major ally of the UAE, is reportedly providing military support to the RSF. There are several reports indicating that Haftar has sent fuel, weapons, and other resources to aid Hemedti’s faction against al-Burhan’s. The alliance between the UAE, Haftar, and Hemedti has been a significant aspect of the security and geopolitical landscape in Sudan and North Africa for several years.

Israel, Jumping on the Bandwagon of Sudan’s Crisis

Since the start of the military confrontation between al-Burhan and Hemedti, Israel has been deeply concerned about its impact on the hopes of normalizing relations with Sudan. In 2020, both countries agreed to normalize relations, but have yet to sign a comprehensive treaty to finalize the normalization process. In fact, Israel places significant importance on its interests in Sudan for a few key reasons. First, Tel Aviv sees securing a peace treaty with Sudan as crucial to expanding the Abraham Accords and normalizing relations with other Arab nations. Second, normalization with Sudan would bolster Israel’s geostrategic interests in the Red Sea and the East Africa region, particularly in the Horn of Africa. Third, such normalization would strengthen Israel’s influence in sub-Saharan African nations, with whom it has already established strong relationships over the past few decades. Moreover, Israel would stand to benefit from Sudan’s abundant agricultural and natural resources.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Israel has been concerned about its impact on the hopes of normalizing relations with Sudan.

Therefore, after the ousting of al-Bashir, Israel has managed to establish strong relationships with al-Burhan and Hemedti. For instance, in February 2020, al-Burhan met secretly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda and agreed to normalize relations between their respective countries. Furthermore, after Sudan joined the Abraham Accords in October 2020, the relationship between the two countries was further strengthened, with Israeli officials visiting Khartoum and meeting with al-Burhan and Hemedti several times. It is worth noting that both generals have shown a keen interest in deepening their ties with Israel, each for his own interests. Additionally, Israel’s Mossad has established strong relations with Hemedti over the past few years. In 2020, it was reported that the UAE arranged a secret meeting between Hemedti and the then director of Mossad, Yosi Cohen. In June 2021, another meeting between the two took place in Khartoum, which aroused al-Burhan’s anger at that time. Evidently, Hemedti attempted to establish independent communication channels with Israel to further his agenda in Sudan.

Therefore, Israel offered to mediate between the two warring parties in order to end the ongoing fighting in Sudan. Nevertheless, Israeli officials appear to be split on which side to support. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has established close ties with al-Burhan and has been working with him to advance the normalization process. However, Mossad officials are inclined to support Hemedti due to his robust relationship with the UAE, with which Mossad has strong ties and which it views as a significant ally.

In conclusion, the deep involvement and entanglement of regional actors in Sudan with their competing agendas and conflicting interests has significantly hindered efforts to resolve the ongoing conflict. While these actors were supposed to play a constructive role in negotiating a solution to the crisis, their own involvement has fueled the conflict and exacerbated its complexity, a fact that underscores the challenges facing Sudan in its quest for lasting peace and stability.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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