Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome.

And perhaps more than any material incentives, the prospect of reduced international isolation holds significant appeal, as Sudan holds elections this week that will only serve to confirm the domination of the National Congress Party (NCP) and inflame opposition to Bashir. Low turnout, accusations of voter intimidation, and arrests of activists urging a boycott of the elections have marred what was supposed to be a showcase of support for the NCP’s continued rule. The setbacks and paranoia Bashir increasingly feels are what drive his fulsome paeans to the GCC now. (Back in 2013, when anti-austerity protests shook the capital and other Arab states condemned the subsequent crackdown, the Sudanese leadership griped that Saudis and Emiratis wanted to humiliate Khartoum.)

Sudan’s aging leader has not abandoned his Iranian ally. In a transcript of a meeting held in Khartoum by Bashir’s inner circle, made public online by Dr. Eric Reeves, the president’s inner circle had made clear they do not trust the Gulf States over Iran. Yes, Sudan has been trying to distance itself from Iran for some time, despite its historic military ties to Iran and role in supplying weapons to pro-Iranian movements in the Middle East (including the Houthis in Yemen). But the “break” has never come. It appeared to, in 2014, when Sudan forced Iran – source of nearly a fifth of its total arms imports – to shut down all of its cultural centers in the country in order to please the Gulf States and placate domestic critics. Sudan’s Sunni Islamist movements are no keener on Shiism than any of the Gulf States, of course. Yet Iran understood the symbolism of this move, according to the internal deliberations published by Dr. Reeves. Sudan’s “strategic” posture and dislike of “Shia culture” are understood to be partitioned off from each another by Khartoum and Tehran, which for its part looks the other way when Sudanese Shia are persecuted.

Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, a former foreign minister, opined last September that the Gulf States “want some balance in the relation with Iran” and they must be humored. There is little love for the Gulf States in Sudan (and vice versa), but everyone keeps up appearances. UAE Prime Minister Mohammad al-Maktoum warmly received Bashir at Abu Dhabi's IDEX defense show in February, where Sudanese wares have had a booth reserved for them at IDEX since 2013, in spite of the genocide charges against the government and sanctions on its military-industrial complex.* The UAE does more than just let Khartoum hawk its goods in Abu Dhabi: it is a major development financier in Sudanese agriculture and public works.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia personally received Bashir in March, and granted him an extended audience just as Operation Decisive Storm was getting underway. This invite was a snub not just to Iran, but also to European prosecutors who would very much like to see the Sudanese leader extradited by members of the Arab League. The Kingdom is also a major investor in Sudan: “Our economy relies very much on the Saudi Kingdom in terms of investments and expatriates money transfers,” Dr. Ismail noted. The Saudis do not want to be seen as going too far to support President Bashir though, as they have denied providing US$4 billion in direct loans.

Egypt has been a bit more cautious. President Abdelfattah al-Sisi is willing to clasp hands with  Bashir in public though not too firmly, given the unappealing personality and outstanding disputes Bashir brings to international venues. Even so, Sisi has had to woo Bashir in the ongoing negotiations over the sharing of Nile waters and over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam – particularly after Sudan appeared to move towards the Ethiopian position in 2013.

“At home and abroad,” The Economist opined in 2014, President Bashir “is running out of friends.” This is still the case at home, yes, but not abroad. Sudan takes this all seriously of course, having risked a breach with Iran (however temporary) and stripped its air force of striking power to cozy up to the GCC and Egypt. Yet within the president’s inner circle, the cynicism and contempt felt towards the Saudis and Emiratis is quite apparent. Generals close to the president reveled at the thought of how they could “mislead the Gulf States by taking open, declared steps and procedures towards improving diplomatic relations with them” during their August 2014 meeting.

The countries buying Bashir’s fleeting support know this is simply a balancing act by a regime buying itself more time to intrigue over the president’s successor and sign more development contracts to skim off of. No one expects a sea change, or reforms, or the Sudanese Su-24s to tip the balance in Yemen. Khartoum’s participation is really little more than a business transaction for everyone involved, with the exception of the people being bombed.

* Considering the poor relations between the UAE and Iran, it is interesting that the Sudanese display always includes a number of weapons derived from Iranian designs.