In times of war, Sudan keeps up regional balancing act
KHARTOUM - The war in Yemen has given Omar Hassan 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.
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 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 Bashir, who this week won another five-year term, 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, Bashir will have to overcome a deep distrust of his government, which analysts and diplomats say has a checkered history of switching partners at its convenience.
"There is no trust in the Gulf for Omar al-Bashir...The leaders in the Gulf think that Bashir can betray them at any time, so they won't give him aid until he shows he is serious about joining them and leaving Iran," a Gulf diplomat said.
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 Saudi 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 kilometers 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 Palestine, 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 Armaments 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, 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.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Sudan also said his government would encourage investors to pump money into Sudan's agriculture sector, which makes up most of Sudan's exports.
"There will be new investments in the agriculture sector, and they will be huge investments. We hope Sudan will be ready for this," Ambassador Faisal bin Hamed al-Mualla told journalists this month, weeks after the Yemen campaign began.
Sudan has balked at the suggestion that it traded its support for the Yemen campaign for the promise of economic aid.
The foreign ministry said Sudan joined the campaign to ensure the safety of Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia, though it remains unclear if Sudanese forces have actually participated in the fighting.
"We do not sell our positions," Hamid Mumtaz, the ruling party's political secretary, told Reuters during the elections, when campaign posters showed Bashir pictured with Saudi's King Salman and foreign policy seemed to play an outsized role.
Many voters said they supported Bashir because of the expected rapprochement with the Gulf.
"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 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 Bashir's government, analysts say, and there is growing anxiety in Sudan's ruling party that Bashir will sideline Islamists.
"The National Congress Party has always been split, and 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 jeopardizing the coalition of security commanders and Islamists that have guaranteed his rule so far, the source said.
Despite the economic pull of Saudi Arabia, influential elements in government will resist cutting Iran ties completely.
The military and other security services have benefited from the Iran relationship and will likely keep their own lines of communication to Tehran open, analysts said, allowing Sudan to reshuffle its ties to the regional powers in the future.
"This game in which you try to deal with multiple suitors is a function of the weakness of the regime. The reason they have to do this, almost cap in hand, is because of failed economic policies and the need to access patronage," said Harry Vanderhoeven at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
"It's very pragmatic. And given Sudan's past it's very reversible if the regional constellation makes it necessary."