After troops launched a deadly night-time raid on Sudan’s pro-democracy protesters, blame immediately focused on the Rapid Support Forces. The notorious paramilitary unit, made up of remnants of a militia that wreaked havoc in war-torn Darfur in the 2000s, had led the June 3 assault, victims said. Demonstrators were beaten, shot and raped. The bodies of dozens of the 100 people killed — according to local estimates — were tossed into the Nile.
The crackdown suggested the country’s military leaders, who have ruled since the protests triggered a coup against Omar al-Bashir in April, were sending a deadly message that they would not bow to popular pressure and accept a transition to civilian rule. But it was not just the RSF and the generals who faced scrutiny: as the body count mounted, attention intensified on their regional backers — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Many Sudanese activists even asked whether the powerful Gulf states gave the green light for the raid.
Two days after the attack, the US state department issued an unusually curt readout of a call between a senior US official and Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Saudi deputy defence minister and brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader. David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, described the crackdown as “brutal” and told Prince Khaled of the “importance of a transition from the Transitional Military Council to a civilian-led government”.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE strongly deny prior knowledge of the raid, diplomats say. And both insist they are promoting stability in the region and have a long history of economic and political ties to Sudan, a country that bridges the African and Arab worlds and has a long coastline along the Red Sea.
Nevertheless, the crackdown raised scrutiny over the countries’ role in Sudan, while fuelling wider debate about the interventionist polices being pursued by assertive Gulf states at a time when they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying concessions to manage ports and other infrastructure in the Horn of Africa.
“All our problems are about Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt,” says Salman Osama, a 27-year-old surgeon who has been on the frontline of the Sudan protests and treated wounded people during the RSF raid. “They were supporting the [Bashir] regime that was oppressing us and they are supporting this regime too.”
Just 10 days before the attack, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who heads the RSF and is considered Sudan’s most powerful military leader, was hosted by Prince Mohammed in Jeddah. The same week, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military council, visited Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto leader.
The kingdom and the UAE — its closest regional ally — have pledged $3bn to Sudan’s Transitional Military Council since Mr Bashir was ousted, the two joining Egypt as the generals’ most important backers. For many protesters the Khartoum crackdown reinforced their fears that the foreign powers were bent on keeping their regime allies in power at the expense of democracy.
In its wake, Saudi Arabia and the UAE both called for “constructive dialogue” among Sudanese parties. But it is the generals they appear to be banking on to protect their interests, including Sudan’s deployment of troops in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
“The Saudis and Emiratis know Burhan and Hemeti [Lt Gen Hamdan] well due to their command of Sudanese forces in the Yemen war,” the International Crisis Group said in a report. “They trust the generals to shepherd the country through a managed transition from one military-led regime to another, avoiding the interlude that occurred in Egypt [in 2011] — elections with uncertain outcomes followed by brief Muslim Brotherhood rule — by sidelining those favouring more wholesale reform among civilian protesters.”
Lt Gen Salah Abdel Khalig, one of the seven military officers running Sudan, denies there is anything nefarious in the Gulf states’ support. “They stand with us politically because they want to get rid of this Islamic system that was ruling Sudan,” he says, referring to the Islamists that consolidated power with Mr Bashir in the 1990s.
Those demanding democracy have largely been young and secular. But Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, hinted last month at Riyadh’s concerns about the potential influence of Islamists. “The Muslim Brotherhood has been opportunistic, they hijacked the changes in Egypt in 2011,” he said. “I believe they may be trying to do the same in Sudan.”
Since the 2011 Arab spring, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have pursued assertive foreign policies in a bid to mould the region in their image. The uprisings sent shockwaves through the Middle East as autocrats, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi, were ousted and conflicts erupted in Syria and Yemen.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi took them as a signal that they should become more interventionist to counter the rise of political Islam, which they regard as an existential threat, and Iran’s influence. In Egypt, the UAE allegedly funded media hostile to Mohammed Morsi, the brotherhood leader who became the country’s post-revolution president. After the military ousted him in a 2013 coup, the UAE and Saudi Arabia poured money into Egypt to support the new regime. Morsi died in prison in June.
The decision by the Obama administration to sign a nuclear accord with Iran in 2015 reinforced the sense in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that they needed to be more active in pushing back against their regional rival, a view now shared in Khartoum. “We don’t want Iran to take over in Yemen,” Sudan’s Lt Gen Khalig says, referring to Tehran’s links to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. “This is our duty to fight against Shia groups.”
The 2017 move by the Gulf states to impose an embargo on Qatar — which they accuse of supporting political Islamist groups and being too close to Iran — further intensified the regional power struggle. Saudi and Emirati concerns about the ambitions of Turkey, which is close to Qatar and increasingly active in Africa, have added another layer to the dynamics.
Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said after the attack on the Khartoum protesters that the Gulf state wanted to “strike a balance” in its approach. “The great challenge in these countries, as we can see from the experience of the Arab spring, is how can popular change be achieved while maintaining institutional stability.”
Large parts of the greater Horn of Africa and the Gulf have for centuries had economic and religious ties — Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti are predominantly Muslim countries, while Ethiopia and Eritrea both have large Muslim populations. Camels, sheep, frankincense and other goods are shipped across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, while pilgrims head east to Mecca.
As the relationship has evolved, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used their oil wealth to provide funding to poorer African countries. In part, the Gulf states are keen to tap into the large consumer markets to their west, but there are also strategic national interests at play, from wanting to take advantage of the region’s agricultural resources to securing the use of ports and other economic interests.
“The surge of political, economic and strategic ties is unprecedented,” says Zach Vertin, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha. “This is about two regions fast becoming one.”
One of the starkest examples of the new relationship has been a dash for maritime real estate. In 2014, Turkey’s Albayrak Group secured the right to operate the main port in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The UAE’s DP World followed up by signing port deals in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland and the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Later Turkey, in 2017, and Qatar, in 2018, both agreed rights to develop ports in Sudan.
The Red Sea corridor that separates the African continent from the Arabian Peninsula has long been contested. Britain established the Protectorate of Somaliland in 1888 to help it control the shipping routes from east Asia through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.
Saad Ali Shire, Somaliland’s former foreign minister, says the new investments from the Gulf are about projecting power and controlling trade, just as they were in the 19th century. “The interest has always been there but Turkey and the UAE are now wealthy states. They want to show they are powers to be reckoned with in the region,” he says.
Today, 8 per cent of global maritime trade travels through the Bab al-Mandab strait, either heading to or coming from the Suez Canal.
The UAE has been the most assertive actor with the clearest maritime strategy. In addition to DP World’s agreements for ports in the Somali towns of Berbera and Bosaso, the UAE has established a naval base at Assab in Eritrea and controls, via its military intervention in Yemen, at least six ports on the other side of the Red Sea.
The UAE last year pledged $3bn in financial aid and investment to Addis Ababa, and the Gulf state and Saudi Arabia helped broker a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, mediating talks to end the 20-year conflict.
Mr Gargash says the expansion of economic links with the Horn is consistent with the transformation of the UAE into the Middle East’s main financial and trade hub. “Anything to do with airline rights, free zones, storage, ports, for us is part of the narrative of why we are successful,” he says. “So, clearly we have to find a way to reach 100m Ethiopians who need more than one port.”
Trade is, however, only part of the story. Since 2015, the military intervention in Yemen has introduced a new need for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ensure they have supporters on both sides of the Red Sea, and the ability to train and deploy troops.
In December, Saudi Arabia gathered representatives from Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan in Riyadh as part of an initiative to create a “Red Sea alliance” to protect the interests of it and its “neighbours”.
“You are having trouble with the Iranians in the Gulf, you cannot afford to have more trouble in the Red Sea, you have to bring the Sudanese, the Egyptians and the rest of the Horn of Africa to some sort of understanding,” says a Saudi analyst. “You have to have economic agreements, political agreements, cultural, military, you have to do more than just give financial aid. I think it’s going to expand.”
The coming together of trade, security and geopolitical faultlines in the Horn of Africa means the militarisation of the region is only likely to continue, says Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at Chatham House. It also means African powers risk getting sucked into regional rivalries, he adds.
When Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, African allies were asked to pick sides. In Somalia, the federal government sought to remain neutral but was seen to side with Qatar and Turkey, causing the UAE and Saudi to cut budgetary support to the government, analysts say.
“Some countries, especially those in need of help and support from Saudi and the UAE, have been blackmailed to follow the same policy against Qatar. So it creates a lot of instability in the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan area,” says Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister.
Before Mr Bashir was ousted, Sudan had fallen foul of the shifting dynamics in the Gulf, with Saudi and Emirati relations cooling after the former president invited Qatar and Turkey to invest on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Now Mr Bashir is gone, they have been quick to reinforce their ties. In contrast, Sheikh Mohammed says Doha’s contact with Khartoum has been “very limited”.
“Saudi and the UAE see a new chess piece on the board. They’re moving quickly to secure important relationships and potentially try to shape the Sudanese transition,” says Mr Vertin.
Sudan’s opposition movement is less diplomatic about the relationship.
“All of them want to exploit Sudan — its resources, its manpower, its strategic position,” says Mohamed Yousif Ahmed al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the protests. “A democratic system in Sudan would make it very difficult for them to implement their plans.”