War in Sudan: Saudi Arabia under pressure

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16 mai, 2023
Leslie Varenne

The war in Sudan started on April 15. It has been a month that the two generals fighting each other, Al-Burhan and Hemedti, have plunged the country into chaos. The two former accomplices, now enemies, have no intention of ending the fight, each side hoping to win militarily. The conflict is therefore internal, but their respective external sponsors are internationalizing the crisis, fuelling it and keeping it going. Since the fall of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, there have been countless negotiations, agreements, and dialogues that have ultimately succeeded in only one thing: creating the conditions for the explosion. The talks held in Jeddah between May 5 and 11, under the aegis of the United States and Saudi Arabia, between emissaries of the two camps were in the same vein: a bad joke. Everything indicates that this war is going to last, and this renewed failure prooves it. According to the New York Times, for Joe Biden, Sudan was an important test for his main foreign policy objective of strengthening democracies around the world. And the newspaper wonders whether the United States had really measured the difficulties...

In the meantime, the disaster is here. 46 million Sudanese are living in hell, there are more than 600 people who have died, and thousands of injured. The wealthiest have already fled and the poor remain in the middle of the cataclysm. All the neighboring countries are preparing for the worst. Egypt is expecting to receive more than one million refugees, Chad is worried, tense and Saudi Arabia is under pressure. 

Lies and bad faith

When they arrived in Jeddah, the emissaries of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the army (SAF), and those of Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemedti, head of a paramilitary force (FRS), had no intention of brokering a truce or ceasefire. Their teams went there to polish their image, to present themselves as men of dialogue and peace in order to garner international support. It is less expensive than communications firms that are in full swing at the moment, especially on the FRS’s side. Reading the pledge they signed is enough to see the extent of the hoax. All this document contains are in fact articles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Human Rights Convention that both parties must respect anyway!  If they decide not to, their signature at the bottom of a sheet of paper will not change their behaviour. In fact, on the morning of May 12, in the town of Al-Geneina in Darfur, civilians were caught in the middle of the fighting.

However, after the agreement was signed, Volker Perthes, the United Nations representative for Sudan, welcomed "this first important step”. For the record, this is the same man who, in order to congratulate himself on the diplomatic positive steps, had declared a month before the explosion: "The return to peace is close!” Then, a few days after the conflict began, he justified himself by saying "We have not seen any warning", although both sides had been recruiting men and stocking weapons since six months. Anthony Blinken was "pleased to announce (...) a declaration of commitment to protect Sudanese civilians.”

According to a well informed source, Mohamed Ben Salmane (MBS), tired of this merry-go-round and these useless discussions asked, in his unadorned style, for everyone to leave and has decided to pursue his efforts otherwise.

The United States in ambush

These days of negotiations were all the more delicate that the American Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Molly Phee, arrived in Jeddah with her delegation, at a time when tensions have never been so high between Riyadh and Washington. The United States is part of the Quad for Sudan, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. But this format was created before MBS decided to turn to the BRICS and become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It was also before the Kingdom signed a peace deal with Iran in Beijing, a deal that Washington has not got over yet.

In mid-April 2023, a few days after the announcement was made in China, William Burns, the director of the CIA, went to Jeddah. After waiting two days before MBS received him, Langley's head tried to put pressure on the monarchy. During this "secret" visit, which opportunely leaked to the Washington Post, all the hot issues of the moment were put on the table: the strenghtening of ties with China, Syria, oil, Yemen. Yet, despite the injunctions, MBS has not deviated. The Saudi embassy will reopen in Damascus and the country of Bashar al-Assad has been reinstated in the Arab League. He will be present at the League's Summit in Ryad on May 19. The same goes for China, oil and Yemen.

The White House is not giving up, however. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, was invited to Jeddah during the talks to discuss these issues once again. Anthony Blinken is expected to visit Riyadh in June. They never give up...

Bad blood between brothers

In addition to these American pressures, there are tensions with Mohamed Ben Zayed (MBZ). Relations between MBS and his Emirate counterpart are notoriously bad. The war in Sudan is not helping. Saudi Arabia, which wants to focus on its Vision 2030 project, has decided to make peace with its neighbors. But even if Abu Dhabi doesn't say so publicly, it is adding fuel to the fire by supporting Hemedti. Their agreement on the gold mines in Darfur, which are owned by the chief of the FRS and whose production is sold entirely to the Emirates, is used to pay the FRS’s men. All of Abu Dhabi's networks of influence, consulting firms and think tanks, sometimes in collaboration with those of Israel, which is never far away when it comes to Sudan, are working for General Burhan's rival. According to a Chadian security source, shortly before the war, the Emirates had 3,000 Land Rovers delivered to Hemedti's clan via Libya... and nobody saw it coming.

On May 11, MBZ dined at the Elysée Palace, and although nothing has leaked out of his conversations with Emmanuel Macron, it is likely that the former pleaded his protégé's case. But for the moment, France, victim of the Fachoda syndrome, is leaving the initiative to the Anglo-Saxons in this former British colony.

Who will bring peace?

The war in Sudan is a hard blow for Saudi Arabia, which has a lot to lose. Khartoum provides food security for the Kingdom, which has acquired hundreds of thousands of hectares of arable land which almost encompass almost all of its agricultural resources. Riyad is also the country's first buyer of livestock. It would also mean the end of MBS’s pharaonic Vision 2030 plan, which motivates his "zero problems" policy with his neighbors in order to focus on economic issues. War in Sudan will also create disorder in the very strategic Red Sea where the two protagonists are fighting over the ports. Like Egypt and Chad, Saudi Arabia is among the countries the most at risk. Hence its attempt to find a way out of this conflict. It has tried with the negotiations, which have been torpedoed, the war will last. Worse, it is likely to intensify with the numerous armed groups that have existed in Sudan for decades and that will reinforce one side or the other.

Where is the solution to end the ongoing disaster? For Michel Raimbaud, former ambassador to Khartoum and author of the book “Sudan in all its states”, the key is in the hands of the Arab countries, and the recomposition of the world offers them this opportunity.

Leslie Varenne