Arab States Foment Sudan Chaos While U.S. Stands By

American officials are unhappy over the role of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE but say their hands are tied.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Sudanese protester walks past burning tires as military forces tried to disperse a sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 3.
A Sudanese protester walks past burning tires as military forces tried to disperse a sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 3. Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

Sudan’s descent into bloody anarchy in recent days has been partly brokered by Middle Eastern countries that are filling the power vacuum since the downfall of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir, leaving some U.S. officials frustrated with Washington’s response to a massacre of civilians by Sudanese security forces.

More than 100 people were killed on Monday, according to civilian groups, when Sudanese military forces destroyed the country’s protest site and rampaged through Khartoum. Videos showed civilians walking through the streets and then being attacked by soldiers. Forty bodies were pulled from the Nile River, according to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, a professional association affiliated with the protest, after reports that soldiers from Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces paramilitary unit threw them in. One video showed bodies with rocks tied to their feet to make them sink in the river. There was no regular internet access in Khartoum on Wednesday, the third day of a web blackout.

After weeks of unbridled optimism following Bashir’s April ouster, Sudan is now on the brink of a total breakdown. The influence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates is unmistakable. Military vehicles made by the UAE were identified by a New York Times reporter on the streets of Khartoum. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged $3 billion in assistance to Sudan, although an official at Sudan’s Central Bank said the Emirates initial deposit of $250 million had still not arrived as of last week. Rapid Support Forces commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti,” and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military council, recently visited the Gulf states.

“UAE involvement increased a lot after the Bashir removal,” Salah Gosh, Sudan’s influential former spy chief, told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. Gosh was installed as head of Sudan’s intelligence service with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, according to current and former U.S. officials, and remained in Sudan’s government until resigning in the days after a coup against Bashir. Asked how the coup happened, Gosh said that Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not involved. The “UAE pushed [the coup] but [they] are not the main player.” Gosh did not provide more details when asked over WhatsApp, other than to say “many steps and insidents [sic] took place.” Phone calls to Gosh repeatedly dropped. Gosh’s account that only the UAE was involved in the coup is disputed by a Sudanese diplomat who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity and reporting from the Associated Press. Both said that all three Arab nations participated.

Gosh said he plays no role in Sudan’s military or political situation, but he made an ominous prediction: “I do not think it will be like what happened in Darfur, but [there] will be losses.” Gosh is accused of orchestrating many of those losses himself as a top official during Sudan’s brutal crackdown on Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 people died in what the U.S. government labeled a genocide.

Sudan’s uprising began in December 2018, when spontaneous protests over the anemic economy and low standards of living morphed into a nationwide strike that was organized by the country’s labor unions. More than a hundred civilians died during months-long protests that aimed to uproot not only Bashir, but also his entire system. Bashir was ousted in a military coup, but many elements of his regime remained in place.

The Sudanese military initially said that it wanted to hand over power to the civilians organizing the protests, but then military leaders dragged their feet. Protests turned the area around the military headquarters into a sit-in to keep pressure on the junta to transfer power. The sit-in was repeatedly attacked by Hemeti’s forces for weeks and was finally dismantled on Monday. Much of the city remains in lockdown, with Hemeti’s soldiers roaming the streets.

The hive of activity from Gulf countries stands in stark contrast with the United States, critics say. Several U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that the Trump administration seemed to have no solid strategy on Sudan beyond sharply worded statements condemning violence and wasn’t convening enough regular meetings to coordinate between agencies such as the State Department, National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Intelligence about the political situation in Sudan is slim. Some said the United States had no diplomatic plan for what happens at the end of June, the deadline the African Union set for the military to give up power. With a U.S. absence, the Gulf states are filling the void, said one U.S. official: “They are totally running the show.”

“The leaders and governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt do not share our fundamental democratic values, and their views on what should happen in Sudan diverge significantly from the policies the United States should be pursuing,” former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told Foreign Policy.

“The United States has been clear on its interests in seeing a transition to a civilian-led interim government in Sudan that can stabilize the situation, oversee a period of reforms, and prepare for free and fair elections,” a State Department spokesman wrote in an email response. “We have spoken out publicly and in private diplomatic conversations to ensure that international actors, including the [African Union] and the UN, are coordinating policies to achieve a civilian-led interim government in Sudan. ”

Egypt, Western officials and experts say, wants to hedge the rise of political Islam and democracy in Sudan because it threatens Cairo.

However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are interested in keeping its military and financial partnership with Sudan. The Rapid Support Forces, under Hemeti, have supplied the two Gulf states with troops to fight in Yemen. Families of fighters in Yemen told Foreign Policy that they receive thousands of dollars each month to fight there. An estimated 8,000 to 14,000 Sudanese militia members have fought in Yemen, according to the New York Times. Saudi Arabia’s interests in Sudan are so intimate that Sudan’s former presidential minister, Taha Osman al-Hussein, is now the kingdom’s advisor on African affairs. Hussein reportedly fled Sudan in a standoff at the airport amid concerns that he was especially close with the Saudi government. During the holy month of Ramadan, Foreign Policy spoke with an emissary of the Emirati royal family, who said they were distributing sweets and money to people.

Despite the wealthy Gulf states vying for influence and the bloody crackdown, some experts still see hope for democracy in Sudan.

Suliman Baldo, a senior advisor with the advocacy group Enough Project, said violence won’t deter protesters. “The resolve of the Sudanese people to end three decades of repression and corruption will not be weakened–on the contrary, it is already fueling a rapidly spreading nationwide civil disobedience campaign,” he said.

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer