Saudi Arabia, Turkiye could play key role in ending Sudan conflict
While the region’s countries have put aside their militarized foreign policies thanks to the normalization climate that is sweeping the Middle East, the clashes in Sudan have reinforced the militarization of politics there, bringing large-scale instability on to the doorstep of key actors.
Sudan, once the largest country in Africa, is again in the spotlight, with the escalating power struggle threatening both the country itself and the region’s stability and security. Several countries are on alert and have started to evacuate their citizens due to the fighting seen this month between the Sudanese army under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is known as Hemedti.
Saudi Arabia is among the most important actors playing a role in the rescue operation, as several countries, including Turkiye, seek the cooperation of the Kingdom in the evacuation of their citizens from Sudan.
The situation in Sudan has pushed those actors with a stake in the country to engage in several efforts. While Saudi Arabia called on those involved to choose dialogue over conflict, Turkiye offered to host direct negotiations between Sudan’s military leaders in Ankara. According to Sudanese news outlets, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to both Al-Burhan and Dagalo and conveyed his country’s desire to mediate an end to the war. There is currently no indication of the two men’s position on the Turkish proposal.
The Sudanese crisis is multifaceted and it is difficult to say that what is happening in the country is independent of the economic, political and geopolitical interests of global and regional actors.
Sudan’s geostrategic position makes it important for both Turkish and Saudi engagement with Africa, especially the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa regions. Sudan’s position as a gateway between the Middle East and Africa has encouraged both Ankara and Riyadh to deepen their influence in the country over the past decade. Additionally, being a member of several regional organizations led Sudan to pay close attention to the Turkish and Saudi leaderships. In the past decade, to deepen their strategic ties with Sudan, Turkiye and Saudi Arabia have employed several soft power tools through a series of projects that they are now concerned will be harmed.
Following the 2019 overthrow of Omar Bashir, with whom Ankara had developed close relations, Turkiye adopted a wait-and-see approach toward the country, while trying to engage several actors in Sudanese politics. Turkiye’s recent rapprochement with the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, opened a door for it to gradually develop relations with Khartoum. Ankara considers that its diplomatic rapprochement with the Gulf states, with whom it was previously rivals in several areas, including Sudan, is not contrary to its desire to reinforce its presence in the Horn of Africa, which is a region in permanent crisis but that is full of strategic advantages. Turkish officials often refer to Sudan as “our gateway to Africa.”
Sudan’s geostrategic position makes it important for both Turkish and Saudi engagement with Africa
As it sought to expand its influence in Sudan, Ankara employed several foreign policy tools, such as public diplomacy through schools and construction projects. Ankara also pursued a cautious balancing policy in its relations with Al-Burhan and Dagalo in order to maintain its interests in the country.
Turkiye’s growing interest in Sudan was made clear when Erdogan became the first Turkish president to visit the country in 2017. In this regard, Ankara may look for an active role in the resolution of the crisis so that it can capitalize when the situation normalizes. However, with only days remaining until Turkiye’s critical elections on May 14, it is difficult to predict its potential role in the resolution of the ongoing crisis.
In the same vein, Saudi Arabia wants to maintain its influence in Sudan. Given their substantial economic support to the interim regime, the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are now pressuring both sides to adopt a diplomatic solution that could protect their long-term strategic interests in the country.
Importantly, Sudan itself has also proven able to shape policy in neighboring countries. A full-fledged civil war in Sudan would represent a significant threat to Egypt, as it would foment instability on its southern border. Cairo wants Sudan to be stable for both economic and security reasons. A weakened Sudanese security institution in terms of controlling its borders would also limit Egypt’s ability to count on Sudan’s support in the region.
Now that the policies and interests of both Ankara and Riyadh, as well as Egypt and the other Gulf countries, have been tied to the fate of Sudan, Sudanese domestic politics may come to impact these countries and even further undermine regional stability.
Turkiye and Saudi Arabia have a good record of bringing together the warring sides in conflicts throughout the region. For the ongoing Sudan crisis, external mediation — such as those proposed by regional leaders — could help to avoid any further escalations. In this regard, Sudan’s allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkiye, should exert their influence and use their networks to bring both sides to the negotiating table. This is required to ensure the crisis does not lead to a chronic conflict.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz