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INTERVIEW: Sudan’s alliance shift from Iran a ‘diplomatic victory’ for Saudi Arabia

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May 31, 2015 (WASHINGTON) – The rapid and surprising shift in Sudan’s regional alliance from the Iranian axis to the Gulf one led by Saudi Arabia came at a surprise to observers, given Khartoum’s insistence over the years that its relationship with Tehran is a normal one that is not directed against any country.

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FILE - Sudanese president Omer Hassan al-Bashir shaking hands with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (Riyadh newspaper)

Sudan has been unable to persuade the Gulf states with this argument, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has seen its relations with Khartoum severely strained during the reign of late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz who avoided meeting president Omer Hassan al-Bashir since 2012 until his death earlier this year, despite Bashir’s repeated visits to the Kingdom.

In August 2013, Saudi Arabia made the unprecedented move of closing its airspace to the plane carrying Bashir on his way to Iran where he was scheduled to attend the inauguration ceremony of then president-elect Hassan Rouhani thus forcing him and his delegation to return home.

Riyadh at the time blamed Khartoum for failing to obtain the necessary permits to pass through Saudi airspace, a claim which was refuted by Sudanese officials.

Sudan has been regularly allowing Iranian warships to dock in Port Sudan, adjacent to Saudi Arabia, sparking concern by the United States and its allies in the Gulf region.

The mostly Sunni Muslim Arab Gulf states are wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East, fearing the Shiite-led country is seeking regional dominance that will stir sectarian tensions in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Observers believe that economic pressures faced by Sudan caused by multiple military conflicts, US sanctions and most importantly the loss of oil due South Sudan’s secession in 2011 prompted the government to reconsider its regional alliances.

Late last year, Sudanese authorities ordered the closure of the Iranian Cultural Centre in the capital Khartoum and other states and asked the Iranian cultural attaché to leave the country in a move seen as a gesture of goodwill towards the Arab Gulf states.

This shift was culminated by Sudan’s announcement following Bashir’s visit to Riyadh in March that it has joined the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in the framework of a coalition comprised of ten Arab and Islamic states.

There have also been some unconfirmed reports recently that Sudan could provide troops for the next phase of the military operation in Yemen.

The Iranian government has formally opposed the military operation in Yemen, but did not comment on the Sudanese role or their strategic shift away from Tehran.

But the pro-hardliner Mashregh newspaper in Iran fiercely attacked Bashir and described him as an ingrate.

Bashir “found a better meal and traded Iran’s generous help for a seat at Al Saud’s table,” an article on the newspaper said according to Al-Monitor website.

The article stated that given Sudan’s closing of Iran’s offices, maybe Sudan’s support for Saudi’s bombing of Yemen was not unexpected, but “at the same time, everyone who is aware of our country’s support and help of [Bashir] during the most difficult times of his rule, did not expect this level of political immorality and obscenity.”

Saudi Arabian journalist and researcher in Middle Eastern Affairs Abdul Aziz al-Khamis argued that Saudi diplomacy achieved a major diplomatic victory by succeeding in pulling Sudan out of "Iran’s bosom".

In an telephone interview with Sudan Tribune from London, al-Khamis said that despite the strategic importance attached by Saudi Arabia to Sudan, relations between them have all but been severed over the years.

He blamed Islamic forces allied with Bashir for "dissociating Sudan from its Arab perimeter".

"Cooperation with Iran cost [Sudan] its Arab attachment and they are now trying to return back to it. There has recently been a breakthrough in easing relations [with Saudi Arabia] especially that Sudan is going through tough economic times because of the secession of the south and the serious ramifications of the Darfur conflict including the indictment of Bashir by the International Criminal Court" al-Khamis said.

Al-Khamis, who was until recently the editor in chief of the London-based al-Arab newspaper, disclosed that Sudanese businessmen dealing with Arab Gulf states pressured their government to mend relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia in particular in order to relieve Sudan’s economic woes and restore the flow of investments.

"Sudanese businessmen [working] in the Gulf have a special characteristic which is the strong relationships they build in the surroundings in which they work in so they are keen that their ties with Bashir would not to be at the expense of their relationship with UAE or Saudi Arabia".

He said that Khartoum "tried the alliance with Qatar in the past period, which did not lead to an economic recovery and allowed more Iranian penetration in Sudan".

"The return of Sudan to its Arab surrounding is now occurring after they paid a hefty price from its territory and reputation and after the [Sudanese] government transformed Sudan from a country of tolerance and coexistence to a country notorious for its policies" al-Khamis added.

He assrted that the improvement in relations between the two countries will make Sudan a supporting force to Saudi Arabia and vice versa in the framework of mutual interests.

Asked about the possibility that Saudi Arabia could mediate between Sudan and the United States, al-Khamis said that this is possible and that Riyadh may stand with Khartoum in some issues "if it is convinced that Sudan is on the right side of these issues."

"But Saudi Arabia cannot stand with Sudan in the repression of its people in Darfur for example. Saudi Arabia in the past tried to help on Darfur but failed due to the intervention of several axis" in reference to Qatar which until recently had strained relations with Riyadh.

"From a strategic standpoint, Saudi Arabia can help Sudan especially in light of the harmony that exists now between Saudi Arabia and Qatar which goes in favor of Sudan".

Al-Khamis downplayed the divergence in views between Sudan and Saudi Arabia on Syria after Bashir’s recent announcement that President Bashar al-Assad must be part of any political settlement.

"Bashir wants concessions from the West, which could prompt him to take positions different from that of Saudi Arabia .... but in reality he has no leverage with Syria."

Al-Khamis also expressed doubts on Sudan’s announcement that King Salman would attend Bashir’s swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday given the recent developments in Saudi Arabia "unless there is a very important reason for the King to visit".

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry declined on Saturday to confirm the presence of the Saudi monarch contrary to what the inauguration committee said on Thursday.

(ST)

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Kind regards,

The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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