Qatar-GCC crisis unsettles Sudan

The government in Khartoum is caught in the middle of the bitter dispute between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

al-monitor Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir watches a joint Sudanese and Saudi Arabian air force drill at the Marwa air base, Meroe, Sudan, April 9, 2017.  Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

omar al-bashir, islamists, terrorism, qatari foreign policy, diplomacy, sunni-shiite conflict, gcc

Jun 20, 2017

Illustrative of the extent to which Sudan and Qatar have deepened bilateral relations, Khartoum is not joining Riyadh and its allies in punishing Doha for allegedly promoting terrorism. Yet, for Sudan, which relies heavily on economic support from Qatar as well as the three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members confronting Doha, the council’s diplomatic row and its timing are dreadful.

On June 6, the Khartoum government offered to pursue “reconciliation” efforts between Qatar and the Sunni Arab states that have severed ties with Doha. Expressing “deep concern” about the standoff, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry demanded that regional states “work together to overcome this dispute.” Unsettling for Khartoum is that the row threatens to directly undermine Sudan’s national interests in several ways given its foreign policy history and the country’s current domestic political environment.

After 1989, when President Omar al-Bashir ascended to power, Sudan’s links with al-Qaeda and other extremists heightened tensions between Khartoum and various Western and Arab governments. The economic pain of US sanctions, first imposed in 1997, prompted Sudan to make moves, which the US State Department recognized, to distance itself from militant Islamist organizations and cooperate with the West’s counterterrorism initiatives within a larger effort aimed at bringing Khartoum out of isolation.

Geopolitically, Sudan has shifted toward Washington’s orbit by aligning more closely with the United States' Sunni Arab allies over the past few years. Nine months after contributing to the US-backed, Riyadh-led military campaign launched against Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels in Yemen in March 2015, Khartoum joined other Sunni Arab capitals in severing diplomatic ties with Iran, despite years spent nurturing a strategic partnership with Tehran.

Unquestionably, Sudan’s economic crisis following South Sudan’s independence in 2011 (which reduced Sudan’s ownership of oil reserves by 75%) and Khartoum’s struggle to resolve conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile (which have left Sudan spending 70% of its budget on the military and security apparatus) led it to pivot away from Iran with the aim of securing financial support from the Arab Gulf monarchies. In recent years, Sudan has received billions of dollars in assistance from Qatar and from the GCC states sanctioning Doha, so Khartoum does not want to pick sides in the current rift.

Moreover, Sudan’s geopolitical realignment with the GCC was based partly on the hope that the Arab Gulf states could serve as a link between Khartoum and Washington, but there is likely less room for optimism on this front since the GCC members will be more diplomatically consumed by their internal rift than by any efforts to bring about a US-Sudan rapprochement.

Arab Gulf governments targeting Qatar on the basis of Doha’s alleged sponsorship of terrorist organizations is troubling to officials in Khartoum, because they fear that Sudan, which has hosted many Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing other countries, including Egypt since 2013, could become a future target of their wrath. Although Sudan, under pressure from fellow Arab states as well as Western ones, has toned down its support for Islamists, the country has an Islamist constituency that is outspokenly opposed to Riyadh and other Sunni Arab and African capitals punishing Qatar. Since Saudi Arabia and its allies severed relations with Qatar, numerous Islamist lawmakers in Sudan’s National Assembly have demanded that Khartoum support Doha. These politicians have emphasized Qatar's assistance to Khartoum over the years, such as when Doha mediated between opposing sides in the Darfur conflict.

On June 10, Ali al-Haj Mohamed, secretary-general of Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, denounced the addition of 71 Qatari-linked individuals and organizations to a terrorist list issued by Riyadh and its allies. He rejected the designation of Hamas as a terrorist group and dismissed accusations that Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has lived in Qatar for many years, is a terrorist. Haj asserted, “We reject this classification, we don’t beat the drums of war, despite the presence of its signals, and we confirm that we are in permanent contact with all embassies and our single message to them is that what is happening is not in the interest of all of us."

Sudan’s neutrality in the Qatar crisis is a cautious response to a sensitive diplomatic row that leaves Khartoum with much to lose. To be sure, if the Saudis pressure Khartoum into joining the “Riyadh consensus” on Qatar, Bashir will have to balance Sudan’s close ties with the kingdom with an Islamist constituency at home that will likely continue advocating a pro-Qatar position amid the standoff. Under such circumstances, Sudan would find itself facing a major geopolitical predicament with serious domestic ramifications.

The June 13 arrest on corruption charges of Gen. Taha Osman al-Hussein, Bashir’s office director and minister of state to the presidency, will further complicate Khartoum’s position, because Hussein, who holds Saudi citizenship and served as an envoy to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, was the architect of Sudan’s renewed relations with those two GCC states. His arrest is possibly indicative of how Islamists in Khartoum retain the strings of power despite reversals in Khartoum’s foreign policy.

Varying reports suggest that Hussein's rise to power and resulting achievements have put him at loggerheads over policy with Bakri Hassan Saleh, the newly appointed prime minister and former vice president, along with intelligence chiefs in the National Intelligence Security Services. Saleh, however, has received credit for rooting out corruption within the government in a campaign directed from his office, which currently has Hussein himself in the crosshairs. The government has to find a suitable replacement for Hussein to continue asserting and expanding relations with the GCC. The next stages in the Qatari-Gulf divide will be crucial for Sudan, as a possible mediating role for Khartoum becomes less likely without Hussein in the picture.

From Sudan’s standpoint, the ideal outcome would involve Kuwaiti and Omani diplomats achieving a breakthrough in talks that produce a restoration of relations between Qatar and the states taking action against it. Yet without such a swift resolution, Sudan risks becoming vulnerable to a new regional environment in which Khartoum’s Arab allies undertake more aggressive action against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who have a history of patronization in Sudan under Bashir’s regime and maintain influence in the country’s political arena. 

Awad Mustafa contributed to this report.

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