The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged sudan
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.

Sudan revolts (again)
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"Should we pack?", asks President Omar al-Bashir wife's as protests in Sudan continue. The answer is no - his rule in Sudan is stable enough he doesn't need to keep a toothbrush on his person at all times and Saudia on speed dial. But Sudan's President, who claims he will not seek "re-election" in 2015, cannot exactly trust the men he pays to bug the country's phone lines these days, either. 

He cannot, apparently, even trust his own uncle: Al-Tayeb Mustafa, the paper's owner and a critic of the ruling party, has been ordered to stop publishing the leading Sudanese daily, al-Intibahafor the duration of the protests. The paper's editorial criticism of slashed subsidies and reporting on the country's insurgencies has proven too much for the President, who has ordered other papers to shut down as well.

Closing the daily down is just one of the steps the government is taking to diffuse coverage of the protests. Sky News and Al Arabiya were forced to close their offices, and access to the Internet was also temporarily cut off. It was restored, though: presumably because the security services need it to infiltrate protest circles online to false flag and blackmail people.  Sudan has gone down this route before - preventive detention, torture of detainees, closing down newspapers, and forcing foreign correspondents out  - when demonstrators held protests last June on the anniversary of the coup that bought al-Bashir to prominence in 1989. This time around, at least 70 people have been killed, and some 700 arrested (the numbers of dead and detained may be even higher). Once again, al-Bashir has dismissed the protestors (last year, he infamously described them as "elbow lickers"), but unlike past demonstrations where most of the participants were students, "those involved were … middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country," with significant female participation through silent solidarity and other actions.

As succession begins to be discussed, the ongoing protests will weigh heavily on the minds of the security services vying for advantage and favor - al-Bashir is likely to retain his office in spite of his pledge. In April, as term limits and constitutional changes were discussed, Sudanese daily "The Citizen" reported that the NCP (al-Bashir's ruling party) has effectively split: an old guard camp "consider[s] President Umar al-Bashir an asset, a guarantor of their influence unlikely to accept a political arrangement that would threaten the grip of the NCP over the state institutions, let alone expose the security establishment to closer security or drop the blanket immunities that protect its members," while a group of Young Turks from the clergy and paramilitary forces "have come to see [the President] as a liability and his continuation in office a threat to the power of the NCP in the short term and the political chances of the Islamic Movement in any future dispensation." It is the latter group which has been emboldened by the protests that began two years ago, yet it is hardly clear that they will move against the President and those closest to him so long as he lives, no matter how many lawyers, students, writers, and even well-to-do housewives come out against his rule.

But the camp followers of the NCP are presiding over a shrinking revenue pot. Peter Dörrie notes at Think Africa Press that the President's uncivil society is, like the rest of the economy, running on fumes: "Sudan spends almost a quarter of its GDP on its military and waging several internal wars. With its well of oil money running dry, a military caste unwilling to accept any cuts to its budgets, and few foreign allies willing to pick up the tab, the regime had to look for something to cut." That something - once again - is the welfare net, specifically gas subsidies people depend on for cooking and driving. That, and the much harsher response to this fall's protests than before, brought a much larger slice of society out into the streets.

Dörrie wonders if Khartoum's recent arms sale binge is at all aimed at a buildup against South Sudan - where 3/4 of Sudan's former oil fields now lie as a result of the region gaining independence. A referendum on the disputed region of Abeyi is to be held this month, and a recent visit to the region by Jérôme Tubiana shows that renewed fighting - or more nationalistic protests against Khartoum - would not require much of an impetus:

Both sides know that the area will never be demilitarized. Repeated commitments by Juba to stop harboring northern rebels are unlikely to satisfy Khartoum or end rebellions in Sudan. With South Sudanese authorities not fully willing or able to prevent SPLM-N and allied Darfur factions from going back and forth across the new border, Sudanese rebels are at home in the borderlands.
Another reason both Khartoum and Juba hesitate to make too many concessions on the border is that both are rightly worried about turning disgruntled people from the borderlands into rebels. As much as the Dinka from the border areas were the vanguard of the SPLM/A during the civil war, Arab tribes such as the Rizeigat formed the bulk of the paramilitary forces used by Khartoum to fight the rebels in South Sudan and later in Darfur. Increasingly feeling they were both manipulated and not adequately rewarded, Arab fighters joined the SPLM/A (several hundred are reportedly still in South Sudanese ranks). Some have now turned up among the northern rebel groups as well.

al-Bashir's only long-term hope if the referendum fails to go in his favor would be for the world to look the other way while he escalates the border conflict so that Sudan can bargain for transit fee terms from Juba. But South Sudan would certainly not accept such terms: a short conflict could even spectacularly backfire on Sudan if it were the aggressor. The military is in poor shape from fighting against ongoing insurgencies, and apparently must now be kept in reserve to deploy against protestors. It also cannot fully be trusted: last November, an internal power struggle resulted in the arrest of several alleged putschists linked to both the parliamentary opposition and the armed forces. Loyalty from these men - confidants of the President for decades - is not guaranteed, especially with his health problems (rumors persist that the 69-year old has throat cancer) and international arrest warrants.

While talk of the "Arab Spring" coming to Sudan is somewhat misplaced - the government has been beset by mass demonstrations since 2011 - the latest happenings appear to have had a much larger impact on the public consciousness there. The government retains control of the security services and sufficient dependents among the elite, yet each outburst of dissatisfaction further dents the edifice of the state structure the President and his fellow generals and clerics have spent the last 25 years setting up. What could replace it is anyone's guess.


PostsPaul Muttersudan, protests