Why Sudan's Conflict Makes The Gulf Monarchies So Nervous
Located on the shore of the Red Sea, rich in natural resources, Sudan is strategically important to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Worried about a conflict that is getting bogged down, Arab capitals are mobilizing behind the scenes, with initial "pre-negotiation" talks beginning Saturday in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.
DUBAI – The war of the Sudanese generals has both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi worried — and there is no sign that the crisis in Sudan will end soon.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia was hosting the first face-to-face "pre-negotiation talks" between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the port city of Jeddah, across the Red Sea from the Sudan coast.
The African nation is of strategic importance to the Gulf powers, which are ensuring a diplomatic but also economic presence there. That has increased notably since 2017, after the lifting of the decade-long, U.S.-led embargo on the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir accused of supporting international terrorism. Since then, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been investing massively in the country, particularly in infrastructure and agriculture.
With its fertile lands, and a rainy season that benefits at least half of the country, Sudan offers agricultural potential for the countries of the neighboring desert peninsula, which have planned to make it "the breadbasket of the Gulf."
In 2018, Qatar signed an agreement to inject $500 million over three years into the agribusiness sector, alongside another $4 billion for the development of the northeast port of Suakin, destined to become a special economic zone.
Nile Valley development
In 2020, Sudanese magnate Osama Daoud Abdellatif called on the Emirates to develop activities in the Nile Valley in the north of the country: some 13,000 hectares of circular irrigated fields, meant to double in size by the end of this year, and reach 52,000 hectares by 2025. The investment represents $225 million, financed through a joint venture with the Royal Group fund, owned by Sheikh Tahnoun Ben Zayed Al Nahyan, a high-ranking Abu Dhabi official and national security advisor. At full operational capacity, the profitability of the operation will be based on exports, expected to reach 70% of production.
Here too, the project is based on the deployment of a mega-port, this time by AD Ports Group, the powerful Abu Dhabi operator, in partnership with Invictus Investments, another company owned by Osama Daoud Abdellatif, which operates in agricultural commodities trading from Dubai. A preliminary $6 billion agreement signed in December calls for the development of a container terminal in the north of the country, opposite the Saudi commercial port of Jeddah.
Because of its position on the shores of the Red Sea, at the entrance to the Horn of Africa, Sudan is a hub on the maritime route linking the Suez Canal to the Strait of Oman.
The Arab capitals feel that they have a card to play.
A senior Arab diplomat who requested to remain anonymous said the consequences of the war in Ukraine are also weighing on the situation. "The Arab capitals feel that they have a card to play in the recomposition of the flows of international trade in raw materials," says the envoy.
As for Saudi Arabia, it has injected $3 billion into the Sudan Investment Fund, for projects in the agriculture, energy, water, sanitation, transport and telecommunications sectors.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Sudan leader, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan in December
Saudi Press Agency/APA Images via ZUMA
Behind-the-scenes truce talks
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the many investments announced since 2019 are regularly delayed by political instability and chronic insecurity in Sudan. Since the beginning of the conflict, Riyadh has been cautious in its declarations, investing instead in the field of humanitarian diplomacy with a vast operation of evacuation by sea. Saudi Arabia is also the most active behind the scenes, alongside South Sudan, to promote peace talks between the warring factions.
Ahead of Saturday's talks, both sides said only a humanitarian truce — not a negotiation to end the war — was on the table.
Cairo is aligned with its Arab partners to try to contain the conflict.
Still, the UAE, no less discreet than the Saudis, is said to be supporting the negotiations, while Egypt, a well-known supporter of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s regular army, has so far not delivered any arms or logistical reinforcements. In great economic difficulty, facing critical food insecurity, Cairo is aligned with its Arab partners to try to contain the conflict.
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