Gulf nations can play a key role in restoring stability in Sudan
The outbreak of hostilities and subsequent rapid developments in Sudan over the past two weeks appear to have blindsided external observers. Many, including impatient diplomats, had initially enthusiastically touted a declaration by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan of the military’s intent to withdraw from politics altogether, hopefully in favor of a civilian-only interim authority.
Among most Sudanese, however, the writing had been on the wall since late last year that the marriage of convenience between the Sudanese Armed Forces, under Al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, was on its last legs.
Having seized power in 2021, two years after former President Omar Bashir was overthrown in a military coup, the two military leaders busied themselves with manipulating the political transition process to safeguard their own interests, which had nothing whatsoever to do with staying out of politics.
Prior to tensions building early this year that this month spilled over and led to sporadic clashes in Khartoum, the two military factions had shared power in a loose coalition that was responsible for the “soft” coup in late 2021, during which civilians were ejected from the temporary transitional government.
Despite the subsequent public protests against the military junta, it was clear to most Sudanese that there would be no miracle — in a country on the brink, suffering from soaring inflation, crumbling infrastructure and now a crippled democratic transition — to resuscitate the hard-fought revolution that had ousted Bashir.
Now, Sudan is on the verge of a full-blown civil war and the focus for the global community appears to be getting as many of their citizens out of the country as quickly as possible, rather than taking effective steps to preempt a conflict in a very fragile part of the world.
Should Sudan descend into all-out war, the spillovers to other states would be catastrophic. This alone should motivate Gulf nations to take a more active interest in efforts to deescalate the conflict, facilitate dialogue, and galvanize support to shore up the vulnerabilities in Sudan that only make armed conflict inevitable.
But, why Gulf nations? Well, Sudan has long maintained strong, albeit complex, relationships with a number of Gulf states, particularly due to its strategic location and historical ties with the Arabian Peninsula. For decades, the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, has been involved in Sudan’s political and economic affairs, thus incentivizing the organization to take a more proactive role in preventing Sudan becoming more unstable.
Firstly, as the war in Yemen winds down, GCC countries are seeking to consolidate their regional influence and maintain stability in their near-neighborhood. But this is now threatened by the prospect of a war in Sudan that could spawn a massive humanitarian crisis, resulting in a flood of refugees that would put additional pressure on the resources and stability of neighboring countries, including Egypt.
GCC countries also hold significant investments in Sudan, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure and energy. A stable Sudan would help protect those investments and ensure the continuing flow of economic benefits, while also underwriting the influence of the GCC on the other side of the Red Sea.
Additionally, Sudan’s strategic location on the Red Sea coast and its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula mean it is a vital area of interest for Gulf states in terms of regional security, including efforts to counter militancy, extremism, and safeguarding the high volume of maritime traffic that traverses the waters between the Suez Canal and Bab El-Mandeb Strait.
Sudan’s strategic location on the Red Sea coast and its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula mean it is a vital area of interest for Gulf states in terms of regional security.
Regional insecurity is a primary concern, given the reported presence in Sudan of destabilizing elements such as the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, which has entrenched itself in Libya and parts of the Sahel.
Gulf states have previously expressed concerns about the growing influence of Russia in the region and might perceive Wagner Group’s support for the Rapid Support Forces as a progressive threat to the GCC’s interests that could metastasize farther into an already fragile Horn of Africa.
Of course, given the nature of contemporary geopolitics, most countries would rather avoid messy external interventions, especially when a potential hotspot attracts the attention of malign or mercenary actors.
However, the GCC can still rely on the convening power it possesses to at least initiate a deescalation process. Although this convening power is not on par with that of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (the US, Russia, the UK, France and China), the GCC has nonetheless demonstrated its ability to influence affairs in its near-neighborhood, and farther afield, through, for instance, diplomatic pressure, economic assistance, and outright military intervention.
The effective utilization of this convening power will largely depend on the unity and shared interests of GCC member states. They possess significant leverage individually, particularly in the cases of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, due to their economic and military resources.
Besides, if collective action fails and unilateral interventions are inadvisable, the GCC could also cooperate with the UN, the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (an eight-country African trade bloc), and the wider international community in an effort to prevent hostilities escalating in Sudan.
The GCC, and others, can more effectively push for and support a ceasefire agreement between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, to buy time for an intensive mediation process that includes security sector reforms in Sudan based on a more manageable timetable than previously proposed.
This will also create an opportunity for the international community to support Sudan’s recovery by targeting the country’s underlying fragilities. This might involve states and organizations leveraging their diplomatic and economic influence to put pressure on the rival factions to halt hostilities and engage in constructive dialogue.
The GCC could also help facilitate the involvement of regional and international powers in these talks, ensuring a more inclusive and comprehensive process. This collaborative approach could include joint efforts to promote dialogue between the warring factions, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and support for peacekeeping operations.
Such cooperation would not only enhance the credibility of the GCC and its efforts, but also ensure a more coordinated and effective response to the crisis.
In addition, if after concerted cross-regional and international efforts to establish a ceasefire an all-out war becomes inevitable, Gulf states could still intervene, indirectly, by lending generous support to Egypt. Given Egypt’s strong ties with Sudan and its interest in maintaining stability along its southern border, the GCC could provide Cairo with financial, diplomatic and military assistance, enabling it to play a more assertive role in resolving the crisis.
In conclusion, Gulf states have a vested interest in the efforts to prevent a civil war in Sudan and can play a crucial role in helping to achieve this objective. While direct intervention might be risky, the GCC has several options at its disposal, including indirect intervention through Egypt and cooperation with international organizations.
By promoting the merits of a ceasefire and dialogue between the rival Sudanese factions, the GCC can help create the conditions required for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and contribute to the long-term stability and development of Sudan.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.