By Luciano Arvin
Pragmatism seems to be the name of the game in Khartoum, as Sudan drastically shifts its allegiance from one regional superpower, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the other, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
For the balance of his 26-year presidency, Omar al-Bashir has enjoyed warm relations with Tehran, on a number of issues. For the former, it provided access to weaponry and financial aid and infrastructure development, while the latter gained a geopolitical ally, who was willing to grant docking rights and serve as an important gateway for Iran to enter Africa. Following major sanctions placed on Iran, beginning in 2010, it proved unable to sustain the level of aid it was providing to Khartoum, and the relationship slowly began to erode. At this time, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC) nations offered ample financial resources to Sudan, with the intent of weakening Iran’s position in Northern Africa. Between 2010 and 2014, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in Sudan—by one estimate, $11 billion worth, creating 395 different projects, joint ventures, and companies. In 2015, another $2.2 billion was transferred from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, amidst Khartoum’s rapidly deteriorating financial woes
However, as the old saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Since accepting the GCC’s aid, Sudan has taken a number of steps to improve its relationship with select Western nations, in part because it hopes they will help its struggling economy but also because these nations aid the GCC in taking a hard stance against Iran. Similarly, the al-Bashir government has closed Iranian and Shia cultural centres in Khartoum, a move that has been scorned by Shia groups loyal to Iran. Neither will the recent deployment of Sudanese troops to Yemen, to aid in the Saudi-led intervention against the Houthi be taken kindly to by Iran. Now speculation has emerged that Sudan will become embroiled in multifaceted Syrian civil war, although it is speculative which one of the numerous factions Sudanese forces would aid. Sudan was among a number of nations to break off ties with Iran in the aftermath of the burning of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran following the execution of Shia Sheik Nimr al-Nimr in January of 2016.
As pressure from Saudi Arabia increasingly compromises the sovereignty of Sudanese foreign policy, one must ask why it is that a government which receives vast swathes of aid from a host of nations, is unable to create projects that would bring it economic stability, thereby leveraging it away from such sticky diplomatic situations. Moreover, if Khartoum wishes to induce political stability anytime in the future it will need realistic parameters on the impacts of foreign aid on Sudan’s foreign policy.
Luciano Arvin is an independent scholar based out of Peterborough, Canada. He primarily covers the foreign relations of Iran, Iraq and the GCC. His work has seen publication in the African Defence Review, the Diplomat, and the International Policy Digest.