(Written by Declan Walsh)
For a quarter-century, the United States shaped Sudan’s relationship with the outside world. Washington branded Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, fired cruise missiles at a factory in the capital, Khartoum, and imposed sanctions over war crimes in Darfur.
But now that Sudan’s longtime dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, is gone, ousted by his own generals after months of tumultuous street protests, the United States has largely been absent from international engagement with Sudan at the very moment when the country’s future is up for grabs.
Powerful Gulf countries have stepped in, brandishing billions of dollars in aid and top-level diplomatic clout, in an effort to tip the scales in favour of Sudan’s generals, who are resisting protesters’ demands for immediate civilian rule. As protest leaders and generals argue over who should run the country, US officials have offered little but bromides about their support for a democratic Sudan.
That lack of engagement is indicative of a broader trend in American diplomacy, where President Donald Trump has failed to fill senior State Department positions and expressed disdain for American involvement abroad.
In another era, the United States would have convened a high-level meeting of like-minded allies in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s ouster to chart a road map to democracy for Sudan, said Payton Knopf, a US diplomat in Sudan during the administration of President George W. Bush.
But this time, the US response has lagged far behind that of the European Union and the African Union.
“These are the most significant geopolitical shifts in the Horn of Africa since the immediate post-Cold War period,” Knopf said. “Back then, the US shaped what that environment looked like, for better or worse. Now there’s no evidence that the US is engaging with changes of such historical magnitude with remotely the same level of focus.”
The initiative in Sudan has been seized by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which last weekend pledged a $3 billion aid package, including a $500 million cash injection and transfers of cheap food, fuel and medicine. Five Sudanese opposition groups, including several armed factions, travelled to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, for talks about joining a military-led government.
On Tuesday, Egypt, a close ally of the Saudis and Emiratis, provided diplomatic support by engineering a resolution at the African Union extending a deadline for Sudan’s generals to surrender power from 15 days to three months.
The concerted moves are typical of Saudi-led policy in the region, which favours military-backed strongmen over popular uprisings and democracy movements. In Sudan, such manoeuvres have generated deep suspicion among protesters who fear their revolution will be thwarted.
Chants of “We don’t want your aid” erupted Monday among the throng of protesters camped outside Sudan’s military headquarters, a day after the $3 billion package was announced.
Experts worry that the Saudi-led intervention is a recipe for chaos, with the potential to fracture Sudan’s fragile politics or to foster a proxy battle between regional rivals. While the Saudis are backing Sudan’s military generals, Qatar and Turkey are aligned with the country’s Islamists.
And they fear that the Trump administration, either through indifference or its loyalty to authoritarian allies — the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians — will do little to stop it.
“It would not only be disappointing to see the Sudanese people’s organic revolution get hijacked by foreign agendas, it would be deeply destabilizing,” said Zach Vertin, a former Obama administration official who worked on Sudan, and the author of a recent book on South Sudan. “Sudan cannot become yet another battlefield in a larger proxy war between Middle Eastern rivals.”
Yasir Arman, a deputy leader of a rebel group fighting Sudan’s army in the Nuba Mountains, recently travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet with Emirati officials.
“We are not satisfied with the American role,” he said. “They need to do more to engage with the people who made the revolution.”
The United States holds a powerful card in Sudan in the form of the terrorism designation. Although Washington lifted sanctions on Sudan in 2017, the terrorist designation, in place since 1993, stymies investment from the West and bars the country from receiving urgently needed financial relief like debt forgiveness or an International Monetary Fund bailout.
A senior State Department envoy, Makila James, did not publicly highlight that designation during a visit to Khartoum this week when she met the country’s interim leader, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. She did stress, however, that the United States “would like to see civilian government as soon as possible.”
But many Sudanese worry that Trump could turn that policy on a dime, much as he did recently on Libya, when he announced his support for the aspiring strongman Khalifa Hifter’s bloody assault on the capital, Tripoli.
That announcement threatened to upend years of US support for Libya’s besieged government, which has also been backed by the United Nations. But Trump’s pivot aligns closely with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are backing Hifter.
Though the State Department has expressed support for a transition to civilian rule in Sudan, the White House has yet to do so, suggesting “the analogy to what happened in Libya seems pertinent,” said Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group.
Even critics admit, however, that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have considerable, legitimate interests in the future of Sudan. Sudan exports many of the goats that are slaughtered in Saudi Arabia to observe the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and millions of Sudanese are migrant workers in that country. In recent years many Gulf countries have snapped up vast swaths of Sudanese agricultural land that they hope might one day grow crops for their desert nations.
Sudan is also a crucial cog in the Saudi-led war machine in Yemen, where thousands of Sudanese troops are fighting against the Houthis in a deployment that has brought several billion dollars into Sudan’s treasury but proved deeply unpopular among the Sudanese public.
Sudan’s two most powerful men, the interim leader, al-Burhan, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, a paramilitary commander known as Hemeti, have been key leaders in Sudan’s Yemen campaign.
But Sudanese suspicions of Saudi motivations were heightened in the past week with the return to Khartoum of a controversial, Svengali-like figure.
Taha Osman al-Hussein, a former aide to al-Bashir, fled Sudan to Saudi Arabia in 2017 amid accusations he was a Saudi intelligence asset. A month later, he was appointed to the Saudi royal court as an adviser on African affairs.
Last week, according to several Western officials, al-Hussein returned to Khartoum, stoking suspicions among protesters who denounced him in posters that he had come to do covert work on behalf of the kingdom.
Talks between Sudan’s protesters, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, and the military, resumed Wednesday after stalling briefly. Bankers and senior judges have joined the sit-in, strengthening the hand of the protesters. In recent days, both military and protest leaders have spoken positively about the possibility of a power-sharing council to run Sudan before elections set to take place up to two years from now.
But the key question, of whether a military general or civilian leader would hold ultimate power during that period, is unresolved. Protest leaders still hope they can get the Saudis and Emiratis on their side.
“I advise them to link with the real representatives of the people of Sudan, and not to make a deal with any party that is not connected to the people,” said Mohamed Yousif, a university professor and protest leader. “If the people see an attempt to impose something that runs counter to their interests, they might rise up again.”