Saudi-Sudanese ties improve as Khartoum moves out of Iranian orbit
London - Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attend a summit in Riyadh alongside US President Donald Trump last month indicates how much relations have improved between Khartoum and Riyadh.
Al-Bashir declined to attend the summit after the United States signalled it was unhappy about his attendance — he remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Washington, under Saudi pressure, however, is slowly easing Khartoum’s re-entry into the international fold with the lifting of some economic sanctions.
The improvement in Saudi-Sudan ties follows a low point less than five years ago when Khartoum allowed three Iranian ships to dock and Riyadh prevented al-Bashir’s plane from using its airspace. Since then, Sudan has moved out of Iran’s orbit and committed to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Saudi investment in Sudan is expected to go beyond the current $3.5 billion.
The growing relationship has caused disquiet in the region, particularly in Egypt, which has long presented itself as the Arab world’s gateway to Africa. Egypt’s ties with Sudan and Saudi have been strained, leading analysts to speculate about Riyadh’s scope to manoeuvre between Cairo and Khartoum as Riyadh pursues its regional interests.
Cairo had been in Riyadh’s “bad books” because of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s refusal to send the Egyptian Army to Yemen among other issues, said Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at the Enough Project, a US-based human rights group.
“Riyadh can and will play off Cairo and Khartoum,” he said. “The Saudis will support Sisi because of his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood but the Saudis’ joint military exercises with Sudan and their help to the country are unprecedented.”
He also pointed to Egyptian-Sudanese tensions over a border dispute in the Halayeb Triangle, an area administered by Egypt and claimed by Sudan. The “Egyptian occupation” was a stab in the back, al-Bashir told the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq.
Saudi-Egyptian ties have improved, with Riyadh resuming crucial oil exports to Cairo in March, six months after abruptly halting the shipments following divisions over Syria and delays in an Egyptian handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia and Egypt are perennial rivals but there is also a strong sense that they need each other and there is no chance that Sudan could replace Egypt in importance,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Sudan can offer its strategic location on the Red Sea but has its own baggage with al-Bashir under indictment for war crimes. Sudan was an important and real achievement for Saudi diplomacy as it marshals a big Sunni tent against Iran but Sudan is not in a position to replace Egypt.”
Al-Bashir did visit Saudi Arabia immediately after then-US President Barack Obama lifted some financial sanctions on January 13 and Sudan has acknowledged the role played by Riyadh in persuading Khartoum to move away from Iran’s orbit and to commit to the Yemen conflict with boots on the ground.
“We have enjoyed Saudi support in this regard, and [Saudi] King Salman bin Abdulaziz [Al Saud] pledged to President al-Bashir to continue his efforts to lift all the sanctions imposed on Sudan and remove the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Sudanese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdul Basit Badawi al-Sanosi told Al-Monitor.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to report to Trump on the lifting of further sanctions by July 12. “It’s not clear what will be decided following a 6-month review of progress that’s supposed to be made on various tracks by Khartoum,” said Princeton Lyman, a former US ambassador who served as US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.
He said he saw Khartoum’s leadership as divided into two camps — one saw a need for change to improve relations with the international community and another wanted to keep its grip on the levers of power and wealth. “Progress between the US and Sudan requires a long and steady dialogue to enable step-by-step progress,” Lyman said.
The conflict in South Sudan, which became independent of Sudan in 2011 and is mired in civil war, was complicating the region and Egypt’s role within it, he said.
“Egypt tried to become part of the [UN] rapid deployment force [for South Sudan] as a foothold to use against Ethiopia because of their dispute over dams on the River Nile,” he said. “This made Ethiopia react by working with [South Sudanese President Salva] Kiir. The lack of unity means the region will pay a big price.”
Egypt reacted angrily after a high-level Saudi delegation visit to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam last December. Perceived Saudi sympathy for Ethiopia was making Egypt nervous, said Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen and now senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.