Sudan maintains balancing act with Saudi Arabia, Iran
Khartoum - The war in Yemen has given Omar al-Bashir, a skilled political operator who has ruled Sudan for a quarter century, an opportunity to show wealthy Sunni powers that he can be an asset against Iranian influence — if the price is right.
Al-Bashir has maintained power amid region-wide unrest in part by navigating a shifting patchwork of alliances that has seen Khartoum at different times draw close to Osama bin Laden, the United States and Iran.
Now it appears that al-Bashir and many of his countrymen hope that supporting a month-old Saudi-led bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen will encourage Gulf powers to pour aid and investment into Sudan’s struggling economy.
If al-Bashir, who recently won another five-year term as president, pulls off yet another juggling act by winning Arab cash without completely alienating Iran, it will strengthen his argument at home and abroad that only he can steer his fractious country through an increasingly complicated region.
Since the military operation in Yemen began, Saudi Arabia has pledged fresh investments in Sudan’s key agricultural sector and bankers say there is more willingness for Gulf banks to do business with their Sudanese counterparts.
But if Sudan is to see major economic support from Saudi Arabia and its allies, al-Bashir will have to overcome a deep distrust of his government, which analysts and diplomats say has a chequered history of switching partners at its convenience.
If Khartoum commits to standing up to what Saudi Arabia sees as expanding Iranian influence, Riyadh could claim victory in prying one of Tehran’s few Arab allies out of its arch-rival’s orbit, the diplomat said.
Analysts, however, expect Sudan to keep up its regional balancing act by voicing support to the Yemen campaign but keeping a line of communication to Tehran open.
That would give the intervention a veneer of Arab unity but would not satisfy Riyadh and its allies enough to guarantee the flood of aid that many Sudanese have begun to expect.
Sudan and Iran, both listed as state sponsors of terrorism and under sanctions by the United States, have benefited from cooperation in the face of Western attempts to isolate them.
Sudan, which is separated from Saudi Arabia by a few hundred kilometres across the Red Sea, has helped Iran project its influence into Africa by serving as the key entry point for Iranian weapons exports to the continent, arms monitors say.
It is also widely believed to allow covert weapons shipments destined for Iran-backed groups, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, to pass through its territory, at times prompting Israeli bombing of those convoys.
In exchange, Sudan has benefited from Iranian weapons technology that has helped Sudan become one of the major arms producers in Africa, arms monitors say.
Khartoum denies taking part in these activities.
Sudan’s growing role as an arms exporter has helped to bolster its economy since it lost much of its oil revenue when South Sudan seceded in 2011 and Khartoum also appears to supply some allies in the region for ideological purposes, said Jonah Leff of Conflict Armament Research.
But with double-digit inflation and high unemployment, Sudan needs Gulf investments more than it needs Iranian weapons.
After his surprise announcement that Sudan would join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, al-Bashir said that Gulf states would lift banking restrictions put in place last year.
A spokesman for Sudan’s central bank said more Saudi and Emirati banks were dealing with Sudanese financial institutions now than they had recently. A banking source confirmed that there was more activity from the Gulf in past weeks.
Many voters said they supported al-Bashir because of the expected rapprochement with the Gulf.
“Al-Bashir has put us on the right side of things. The Saudis have the money to rebuild Egypt, imagine what they can do here,” said Abdulrahman Hassan, a 52-year-old voter. While Gulf investment could increase, it is unlikely that Saudi or its allies will move to prop up al-Bashir as they did President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in neighbouring Egypt.
Saudi Arabia worries that Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh opposes, drive policy in al-Bashir’s government, analysts say, and there is growing anxiety in Sudan’s ruling party that al-Bashir will sideline Islamists.
“The National Congress Party has always been split and al-Bashir has done a good job of balancing that split. But he has less reason to keep the Islamists in government now,” a government source said.
But he can’t move against Brotherhood-linked politicians without jeopardising the coalition of security commanders and Islamists that have guaranteed his rule so far, the source said.