By Yousif Yahya
The Gulf States have been embroiled in an unprecedented diplomatic crisis. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed all land, sea, and air links with Qatar, closing all their airports and harbors to Qatari flights and shipping. The four countries have cited concerns about security and stability, claiming that Qatar works to support “terrorism” and meddles in the domestic affairs of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, from using Al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece to “destabilize” the region to exercising its soft power in Egyptian politics.
Outside of GCC member states, Egypt and Sudan are among the countries most directly implicated in the ongoing crisis. Qatar continues to support the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and provides a refuge and outlet for its prosecuted leadership, and Doha has provided steady guidance to Sudan even when the country’s global image was at its lowest. While Egypt joined the nations seeking to isolate Qatar, Sudan wisely chose to play a mediating role between Qatar and the rest of the GCC, rather than take a side. With a number of cooperative efforts at stake, Sudan has much to lose if it incurs the wrath of its Gulf allies. To avoid this outcome, Khartoum must not become entangled in regional disputes, even if the crisis continues to deepen. Sudan should play the diplomat and try and actively mediate before further complications arise.
Sudan and the Gulf
So far, Sudan has been trying to encourage regional actors to ease tensions. According to a ministry statement, Sudanese foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour “urged the leaders of these countries to stay calm and resolve the crisis.” He added, “Sudan is fully ready to undertake all efforts in order to achieve calm and reconciliation that would help serve the interests of the people of the region.”
Sudan has a longstanding relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council. But Sudan needs its Gulf allies now more than ever, especially as those allies serve as mediators in discussions with the United States to fully lift the sanctions on Sudan. Saudi Arabia has been leading the effort to lobby on behalf of the Khartoum government ever since Sudan cut its diplomatic ties with Iran in 2013. Sudanese-Saudi relations have solidified further now that Sudan is playing a major role, second to the Kingdom, in fighting the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen. It is the only country outside the Gulf region directly participating in the ground campaign, and its army has prior experience fighting unconventional wars. In return, Sudan has received large investments from Gulf countries.
Investments from the United Arab Emirates in Sudan have reached $3.5 billion, making it the second-largest foreign investor in the country behind Saudi Arabia, according to a senior Sudanese official. Sudan is looking to raise the UAE’s investment portfolio to a whopping $15 billion by the end of 2017.
These investments from Gulf countries are much needed in Sudan. Even though the Obama administration eased sanctions, foreign investors from the rest of the world are hesitant to move into Sudan. The Sudanese economy has been troubled ever since South Sudan declared independence and inherited the oil fields that the country heavily depended on. The Sudanese army is currently fighting insurgencies and rebel movements in Darfur and the provinces of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. These continuous violent conflicts have drained resources and undermined investor confidence in the Sudanese economy.
Sudan’s relationship with Qatar, meanwhile, goes beyond economic interest. Qatar has pledged funding to Sudan, such as an unprecedented $135 million project to unearth Sudan’s rich archaeological heritage in 2014, but the country has also been an important political backer for Khartoum. At the height of the Darfur conflict, when the Sudanese government was isolated and shunned, Qatar was the only Arab country that made serious efforts toward de-escalation. The Doha Document for Peace in Darfur was signed following intensive, multi-stakeholder consultations in Qatar’s capital, providing a comprehensive framework for peace and development in Darfur. Many other Arab nations, however, chose to stay out of the conflict altogether.
Sudan and Egypt
The majority of Gulf investments have been in Sudan’s agricultural sector, the development of which threatens Egypt’s water supply. As Sudanese farms use more water, less flows north into Egypt. The total amount of arable land in Sudan is estimated at almost 208 million acres—equivalent to 45 percent of the Arab world’s arable land—and currently only 30 million acres are being used. While Sudan’s relations with Gulf countries have been improving, relations with Egypt have taken a turn for the worse. Sudan recently accused Egypt of attempting to reignite the Darfur conflict by arming some of the remaining military factions in the region. The timing raised questions—the step was seen in Khartoum as an attempt to drag the Sudanese army into a fight with the rebels just as the U.S. was to review the remaining sanctions this July. Egypt’s hawkish move came after Sudan took Ethiopia’s side in the controversy over the construction of a dam on the Blue Nile. Sudan supported the project, but a reduction in water flow would hurt Egypt, where 95 percent of the population lives along the Nile. Sudan and Egypt are also on opposing sides in Libya, where each supports a rival faction.
As the current crisis in the Gulf goes on, it becomes more complicated, and some members of the Sudanese government think that the country should choose a side. But this is a naïve call. If the problem behind the conflict is Qatar’s ties to Iran, Sudan took a stance a long time ago when it severed diplomatic and military relations. Additionally, as the only the non-GCC member involved in fighting the Houthis in Yemen, Sudan has demonstrated its commitment to the Saudi-led coalition. Both positions indicate that Sudan has chosen its Arab allies over Tehran and that there is no need to further prove its loyalties. When tensions eventually die down, the Gulf States will normalize relations, and countries on the outside that took sides are going to be the biggest losers. Sudan needs all the direct investments it can get from its Gulf allies, along with their political backing in the international arena. Taking any position now, other than trying to mediate, will result in Sudan losing that support.
Yousif Yahya is a former research assistant at the World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of The White House]