by Giorgio Cafiero
Yemen’s Houthi rebellion poses no threat to Sudan’s security or national interests. There is no history of any group in Yemen attacking or threatening Sudan. Sudanese citizens were not concerned about the Houthis’ rise to power in Sana’a and other parts of Yemen nearly five years ago.
Yet since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched their ongoing military campaign in Yemen in March 2015, Sudan has played an important role in the conflict. For military muscle on the ground in Yemen, the Saudis and Emiratis have turned to battle-hardened forces from Sudan with combat experience in Darfur and other parts of their country. In fact, 8,000-14,000 Sudanese mercenaries—including child soldiers between the ages of 13 and 17—are currently fighting within the Arab coalition’s ranks against Houthi insurgents.
Sudan’s participation in the Arab coalition has been all about money. Sudanese paramilitary forces have been fighting in the Yemeni civil war because of their dire economic problems at home and their need to earn an income. The Arab Persian Gulf states in the coalition have been compensating Sudanese mercenaries and child soldiers up to $10,000 each to enter the fight, essentially as cannon fodder in a conflict that has produced the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. This practice has kept the number of Saudi and Emirati casualties relatively low but at the expense of hundreds of Sudanese who have lost their lives in this war.
Many of the Sudanese fighters in Yemen come from the Janjaweed (armed horsemen) militias made up of ethnic Arabs from western Sudan, eastern Chad, and the Central African Republic (CAR). Although established in the mid-1980s, the Janjaweed gained global attention after Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime sponsored the militias to fight armed groups in Darfur during the 2000s. The human rights violations carried out by the Janjaweed in Darfur led to International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against Bashir of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. As the Atlantic Council’s Nabeel Khoury explains, some of the “worst elements and the poorest elements” of Sudan went to Yemen to fight on the Saudi/Emirati payroll. Sudan has also opened its borders to mercenaries from other African countries to join the fight in Yemen.
Joining the Arab coalition served Bashir’s geopolitical interests, particularly after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis broke out in May/June 2017. After the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc cut off ties with Qatar, Bashir was in a difficult position to maintain his strong partnership with Doha while also remaining on good terms with the Saudis and Emiratis. Bashir was able to do so, nonetheless, by refusing to back the blockade of Qatar while also severing ties with Iran and supporting the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen.
Yet Bashir’s decision to keep Sudan in the Arab coalition was one factor that contributed to the end of his three-decade rule in April. Along with rage stemming from corruption, poverty, and unemployment, widespread opposition to Sudan’s role in Yemen’s conflict was a theme in the anti-Bashir protests of 2018/2019. The country’s continued participation in that fight will remain a source of contention during the fragile transition.
Former Janjaweed members who now belong to the Rapid Support Forces (RFS) carried out the deadly violence against protestors in Khartoum on June 3. The crackdown reportedly followed meetings between high-ranking Transitional Military Council (TMC) officials and their counterparts in Riyadh who gave Sudan’s military rulers the green light to wage such violence to end the sit-ins. The RFS has thus emerged as a kind of proxy force of Saudi Arabia and the UAE that acts in the Sudanese capital and in Yemen.
Sudanese citizens continue to demand civilian rule, democracy, accountability, transparency, and protection of human rights in the face of a junta that has shown its willingness to shell, torture, and rape unarmed protestors. These protestors see their country’s potential and have become frustrated with the decades of corruption, mismanagement, and endless armed conflicts that have retarded the country’s development. Sudan has many valuable natural resources. Its rich agriculture could feed much of the Arab world while meeting basic needs at home. Yet because of the dire economic conditions in Sudan, aggravated by U.S. sanctions, tens of thousands of Sudanese have concluded that their best option is to pick up a gun to fight in a gruesome conflict where Sudan has no major national interests at stake.
The Arab Persian Gulf states waging war in Yemen understand that a civilian-led government in Khartoum would likely withdraw from the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition. So, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have high stakes in Sudan’s “interim” government—led by the TMC—maintaining its grip on power. Any government in Khartoum that is Saudi- and Emirati-friendly will receive support from these two GCC states regardless of the human rights abuses that it carries out against its own citizens. Given that the leadership in Sudan’s de facto government has promised to continue fighting the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue in turn to strengthen the TMC’s legitimacy.
Similarly, in Egypt, the Saudi and Emirati leaders have supported Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime as their only viable option given the alternatives. Many Sudanese fear that their country will turn out like Egypt in this respect, especially as some GCC states worry about Islamists ascending to power in post-Bashir Sudan. If the Yemeni civil war continues, the Saudis and Emiratis will likely use their financial leverage over Sudan’s military rulers to ensure that more Sudanese mercenaries and child soldiers continue to fight against Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, the support that Gulf states give the TMC will embolden Sudan’s military authorities in their crackdown on activists, dissenters, and opposition groups.