by Giorgio Cafiero
Recent clashes between security forces and protestors are destabilizing Sudan two months after ex-president Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s removal from power. Sudan’s transition, which a host of outside actors are working to influence, is not going smoothly. The killing of demonstrators raises major questions about the country’s uncertain future and the nature of the administration that will govern Sudan.
On May 30, Sudanese security officers notified Al Jazeera’s office in Khartoum that Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) had decided to withdraw the Qatari state-owned network’s work permits without providing an official reason. The following day Al Jazeera predictably condemned the move as “an attack on media freedom, professional journalism, and the basic tenets of the right for people to know and understand the reality of what is happening in Sudan.”
The TMC’s decision takes place within the context of certain regional and domestic dynamics influencing Sudan’s fragile transition two months after Bashir’s ouster. Put simply, the “counter-revolutionary” states of the Sunni Arab world are showing their influence in Sudan, and the country’s “counter-revolution” appears to have commenced. The Saudi-, Emirati-, and Egyptian-backed Sudanese army is maintaining its grip on power despite ongoing strikes in Khartoum led by citizens demanding civilianization and democratization in the post-Bashir period.
The closure of Al Jazeera’s bureau in Khartoum occurred the same day that Abdelfattah al-Burhan, who heads Sudan’s TMC, traveled to Mecca to participate in the Arab League summit. In the period since Bashir’s presidency ended, Burhan has also paid visits to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Al Jazeera closure also coincided with the TMC’s decision to shut down a protest camp in the capital, the central point of the protest movements.
Much like the revolutions that jolted the Arab world in 2011, Al Jazeera was a factor in the events that began in December 2018 and eventually led to Bashir’s arrest at the hands of a military junta. Although Doha was a close ally of Bashir’s government, the Qatari satellite channel closely covered the protests against his authoritarian rule and aired opinions of Sudanese citizens demanding democratic and revolutionary change. With different actors preparing for a long-term conflict between Sudanese citizens striking for civilian rule and the country’s military leadership, which refuses to cede power, the TMC may have concluded that denying Al Jazeera the means to report from an office in Khartoum would best serve its interests.
The TMC faces significant external pressures. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have pledged support to the tune of $3 billion to Sudan’s de facto government. Consequently, both Gulf capitals have secured greater leverage over the authorities in Khartoum. Emirati and Saudi financial support for Sudan has included cash injections, medicines, food, and cheap fuel. The UAE has also hosted talks among different Sudanese factions regarding their country’s political future. Meanwhile, Egypt has used its diplomatic weight at the African Union to support Sudan’s junta.
Officials in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh have grave concerns about Sudan’s “revolution” moving in directions that could bode poorly for their interests. The leaders of these Arab states fear the potential for bottom-up driven revolutionary movements in Sudan to influence events in the greater Middle East and North Africa. Last month, in an article published by Abu Dhabi-based The National, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash articulated the Emirati leadership’s negative view of Arab revolutions:
If we have learned anything at all about the modern Middle East, it is that the region rarely gets it right when it comes to political transitions and revolutions. More often than not, violent free for alls win out over peaceful changes in power. Fragile states collapse into failed ones and the most ruthless actors like ISIS and Al Qaeda gain advantage just like Iran, which plays a disruptive role in the region. In this gloomy landscape we, in the United Arab Emirates, have charted another course.
Targeting Qatar in Sudan
The counter-revolutionary Arab states’ multi-front battle against Qatari clout is in play. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are working to drive Qatar into a box, and Sudan fits into this grander picture. The two-year blockade against Doha has failed to result in any major changes in Qatari domestic/foreign policies, and as a result there is much anger in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh regarding Doha’s resilience and ability to maintain its independence from its immediate Arabian neighbors.
These blockading states are attempting to capitalize on new dynamics in the Arab world that can potentially be used to weaken Qatar. Given that Sudan refused to join the anti-Qatar bandwagon when Bashir was at the helm, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh see the post-Bashir period as an opportunity to buy greater influence in Khartoum. Such leverage vis-à-vis the government of Sudan might be used to bring Khartoum into greater alignment with the anti-Qatar agenda.
From the perspective of the anti-Qatar coalition, Al Jazeera is merely a mouthpiece for the Qatari government that has destabilized the region by supporting Islamist factions. Put simply, officials in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh believe that Al Jazeera is a propaganda outlet that aims to empower the Muslim Brotherhood and other “terrorist” organizations. Certainly, the Doha-headquartered network has served as a soft-power tool for Qatar. When Al Jazeera hit the airwaves in the 1990s, most people around the world could have been forgiven for not even knowing about Qatar, yet the network contributed to the emirate’s ascendance and helped put the country on the map.
If Sudan’s TMC came under pressure from Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh to shut down Al Jazeera’s office in Khartoum, the development would undeniably underscore the blockading states’ determination to strike a blow against Qatar’s foreign policy by weakening the emirate’s influence in Sudan.
In contrast to the blockading states’ leaders, Qatar’s officials responded to Bashir’s ouster with a call for realizing “the aspirations of the brotherly Sudanese people and their just demands for freedom and justice, to avoid bloodshed of their songs and to adopt peaceful means and constructive dialogue as a way of managing the political process.” Such rhetoric draws the ire of Qatar’s fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which would fully oppose a transfer to civilian rule in Sudan.
Having stepped in quickly and decisively to provide Sudan’s junta with economic support, Qatar’s Arab adversaries have recently taken bold initiatives to position themselves as the key allies of Sudan’s army. Against the backdrop of many Western and Arab governments calling on Sudan’s military forces to cede power to a civilian transitional government, the Egyptian, Emirati, and Saudi governments have helped build up the confidence of Sudan’s de facto leadership to stand strong and avoid making concessions to those in their society who want the armed forces to exit the political arena.
Regional Geopolitical Angles
The $3 billion that Sudan’s army received from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh likely explain why General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti) came to Jeddah last month to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Hemeti assured MbS that “Sudan is standing with the kingdom against all threats and attacks from Iran and Houthi militias.” For instance, the current government in Khartoum will continue participating in the Saudi- and Emirati-led campaign in Yemen, where hundreds of Sudanese fighters have died in battles against Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
The Saudis and Emiratis may well use their financial leverage over Khartoum to pressure Sudan into cutting off economic and diplomatic relations with Qatar, not unlike what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi did in early 2016, when pressure from those Gulf capitals led to Khartoum severing ties with Iran.
Although denied by the Qatari Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Lulwa Al-Khater, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry claimed that, shortly after news broke about Al Jazeera’s office in Khartoum closing, Khartoum recalled its ambassador to Doha. The Gulf and Egyptian backers of the Sudanese junta would indeed welcome a row breaking out between Sudan and Qatar. However, Sudan may follow the lead of fellow Horn of Africa states such as Somalia, which has refused to cut its ties with Qatar despite Saudi enticement.
Any peaceful transition in Sudan that can lead to a stable order will require the country’s complicated mix of actors to make compromises. Yet if Qatar and Turkey amplify their stances against the TMC, with Qatari and Turkish media outlets continuing to portray the body as a Saudi/Emirati puppet, while Abu Dhabi and Riyadh keeping pushing a narrative about Sudan’s 2019 “revolution” being an outcome of public opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s close relationship with Bashir’s regime, the Gulf dispute could make necessary accommodations between Sudan’s junta and opposition leaders increasingly difficult. Under such circumstances, Sudan would become yet another country in the Islamic world that has been negatively impacted by the destabilizing and polarizing effects of the GCC’s zero-sum dispute.