Egypt worried about Qatari moves in South Sudan

Qatar is trying to compensate for the decline of its influence in Khartoum by turning its attention to its rival Juba.
Wednesday 23/12/2020
Qatari Defence Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Attiyah (R) meets with Security Adviser to South Sudan’s President Tut Qalwak in Doha. (Twitter)
Qatari Defence Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Attiyah (R) meets with Security Adviser to South Sudan’s President Tut Qalwak in Doha. (Twitter)

CAIRO--Egypt has followed with great concern Tut Qalwak’s recent visit to Doha. Qalwak is the security adviser to the president of South Sudan, and his visit has raised suspicions about Qatar’s next moves in the region after the fall of its ally in Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. It seems that Doha is turning to Juba to build new influence there.

Political sources in Cairo said that Doha was keen during Qalwak’s visit to know the limits reached by relations between Juba and Cairo, and whether or not South Sudan had promised Egypt to let it build a military base on its territory.

Qatar is trying to compensate for the decline of its influence in Khartoum by turning its attention to its rival Juba, as it wants to keep a finger in the pie in a region that is becoming increasingly dynamic on many levels due to the escalation of the roles of the forces involved in the developments there, and to its role in the crises that plague it.

On Sunday, Qatari Defence Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Attiyah met with Qalwak during the latter’s open visit to Doha. The officials reviewed issues of common interest, and the development of friendship and cooperation relations in the political and security fields.

For quite a while, Doha has had no formal diplomatic relations with South Sudan, despite Juba’s independence nine years ago.

Although the reasons for delaying the diplomatic move are unknown to some and suspicious to others, Doha’s sudden interest in South Sudan can be explained in light of the failure of Doha’s bets in Sudan. Sudan’s sovereign council seems determined to steer away from the Qatari axis, as it continues its efforts to undermine the ideological and strategic bases of the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir and its remnants within the Islamist current in Sudan.

Qatar built strong relations with the Bashir regime, and was able to entrench itself in many joints of power through its proxies in Sudan, before the Sudanese revolution changed all of that.

Qalwak’s visit to Doha came in the heels of the positive impetus created by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first visit to South Sudan in November within the framework of his moves to improve relations with the countries of the Nile Basin.

Moreover, Egypt recently held military manoeuvres with Sudan, and one of their main messages was directed at some countries that use dirty methods to consolidate their influence in the region.

Security Adviser to South Sudan’s President Tut Qalwak speaks durig a news conference. (Twitter)
Security Adviser to South Sudan’s President Tut Qalwak speaks durig a news conference. (Twitter)

Observers say that Doha tried to infiltrate the peacemaking process between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his first deputy, Riek Machar, but its efforts failed because of the presence of strong mediation efforts carried out by neighbouring African countries. Besides, Doha’s move was too slow at the time because it still held high expectations of remaining close to Khartoum.

Political observers believe that the Qatari leadership has realised that things are moving quickly in an area open on Somalia, as a vital centre for it and its ally Turkey, as they are able to strengthen their influence in Mogadishu. Doha’s moves, therefore, can be understood by its efforts to protect its presence in the region from any risks coming from the changes taking shape in Sudan.

African affairs expert Amani al-Tawil explained that Qatar wants to acquire one more game card in the region that, even if it turns out not to be useful in the foreseeable future, may come in handy at a later time if Juba starts showing openness to certain parties’ wishes to consolidate their presence in East Africa for obvious strategic reasons and whom Doha consider to be opponents.

Tawil told The Arab Weekly that Qatar’s success in deepening its relations with South Sudan doubles the strength of its relations at this point in time. In return, Juba can benefit from the interest in its emerging role and may seek external aid, in a period when the region is witnessing regional and international interest.

In its new approach to South Sudan, Doha has chosen to enter through the security gate rather than the traditional gate of political and economic cooperation. Qalwak’s visit clearly reflects this choice and indicates that there are hidden moves that can be taken in this field, which is raising suspicion among several regional powers.

The Qatari move comes in the midst of escalating tensions in Ethiopia due to the Tigray crisis, and of other tensions that could flare up at any moment between Addis Ababa and Khartoum as the border crisis between them grows, all of which are turning the region into an unstable zone, as it is rife with prolonged and interconnected conflicts.

The Qatari approach to South Sudan is understandable in the context of a game by regional nations that use many local cards, and Doha appears to be involved in parts of it, which makes its presence in the region all the more suspicious. If Doha does not benefit directly from this game to serve its ambiguous interests, it can at least use it to harass its opponents.

But Doha seems to be overlooking the simple fact that South Sudan is surrounded by countries that have great and different strategic interests in the region, and that they will never accept a Qatari presence that will inconvenience them.

Regional observers expect that Juba would wait, and not rush to Doha, because it knows that this is a step that would ruffle the feathers of nearby countries, including Egypt, which will not accept a repeat of the scenario of Qatari influence in Sudan in South Sudan.

Egyptian sources previously denied that Cairo intended to establish a military base in South Sudan, after rumours and leaks suggested Cairo was developing its relations with South Sudan with the aim of working out the details of this base.