Bashir’s Gulf Dilemma

Sudanese president tries to avoid choosing between his Qatari allies and his newfound Saudi friends

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is going through one of the most awkward phases of his 27-year rule. The Gulf crisis has placed him in a dilemma: Should he side with Saudi Arabia, which used its influence and strong ties with the US to get international sanctions on Sudan eased? Or should he stand in the trench of his ally Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood movement of which the ruling National Salvation Front in Khartoum is a major branch?

By adopting a position of neutrality, the Sudanese president angered his newfound Saudi friends, whose favour he won by joining their Arab military coalition in Yemen and sending 6,000 troops there — ostensibly to champion ‘legitimacy’ and defend the region’s security against terrorist threats and Iranian designs.

Like several other leaders who balked at Saudi demands to sever relations with Qatar, Bashir volunteered to play the role of mediator and ‘activate diplomatic efforts to find a solution to he crisis.’ He made his way to Mecca to seek an audience with Saudi King Salman, who spends the last ten days of Ramadan in the holy city as is the royal custom

 

The level of the reception that Bashir was accorded when he landed in Jeddah airport reflected the ongoing chill in Saudi-Sudanese relations. The Sudanese head of state was greeted by a junior Saudi prince who serves as deputy governor of Mecca province, Abdallah bin-Bandar. Ties cooled considerably when Bashir was compelled to stay away from the 21 May Arab/Islamic summit in Riyadh attended by US President Donald Trump. He sent the director of his office, Gen. Taha Othman al-Hussein, who is also a minister of state, to the Saudi capital to represent him. Earlier this week, the general was summarily dismissed in unexplained circumstances, amid rumours that he was sacked for leaking documents about Sudan’s security relationship with Qatar – which he denied – and because of his fulsome support for the Saudi position in the Gulf crisis.

The Sudanese public is perplexed, both by the Gulf crisis and by the president’s confused approach to it. A great many Sudanese strongly oppose the deployment of their country’s troops to fight in Yemen, an impoverished and besieged fellow Arab county, in order to please Saudi Arabia and its allies. With the two-year war inflicting a horrific human toll, and with Sudanese forces sustaining a growing number of casualties, they want the troops withdrawn.

Questions are being asked on the Sudanese street, wondering how Bashir can square his active contribution to the suffocating blockade on Yemen and its starving people, with his neutrality regarding the blockade imposed on Qatar, the world’s richest country, whose people will not suffer the least harm as a consequence.

The Egyptian factor plays a part in the Sudanese president’s confusion and his neutrality in the Gulf crisis. Sudan’s relations with Egypt, a cornerstone of the Saudi-led anti-Qatar alliance, are tense these days due to the former siding with Ethiopia in the row over its construction of the Nahda Dam on the Blue Nile, source of over two thirds of Egypt’s water supplies. Bashir visited Addis Ababa in April and signed defence and economic agreements there which infuriated Egypt.

It is not known how Bashir proposes to extricate his country from the mess he has landed it in. Nor is it known whether the Saudis will accept his neutrality, let alone his mediation, in the Gulf crisis, and also take an indulgent view of his sacking of their ally Gen. Taha Othma al-Hussein as director of the presidential office and minister of state.

What can be anticipated, however, is for Bashir to return to Khartoum empty-handed. Saudi Arabia is in muscle-flexing mood these days, and applying the George W Bush doctrine of ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’. This can only be avoided if he announces in Mecca his fealty to the Saudi camp, decides to sever ties with Qatar, and accuses the country of sponsoring terrorism and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs and with whose plight he sympathizes.

It is hard to see even Bashir doing that. Therefore, a breach with Saudi Arabia appears likely. It would not be surprising if Riyadh were to demand the withdrawal of Sudan’s forces from Yemen as it did Qatar’s, and cease its efforts to get sanctions against Sudan lifted.