05/02/2023, 19.20
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From Riyadh to Abu Dhabi, the Gulf's web of interests playing out in the Sudan conflict

by Dario Salvi

Fighting in the African country has not stopped despite calls for a truce. The UN warns of 800,000 new, potential refugees. The Saudis evacuate scores of trapped Iranians, from Port Sudan to Tehran via Jeddah. The United Arab Emirates and its web of ties and interests cast a shadow over the region’s wars.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Several Mideast powers are pursuing their own the economic, strategic and diplomatic interests in Sudan, a country torn by a civil war that could cause waves of refugees, up to 800,000 according to the latest United Nations estimates.

The crisis in the north-eastern African country has provided Saudi Arabia and Iran further opportunity for rapprochement after the two historic rivals patched up relations thanks to Chinese mediation.

Fleeing war

Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has helped scores or Iranians flee Sudan. The Saudi Navy rescued 65 Iranians stranded in Port Sudan bringing them to Jeddah, before they flew home.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani called the transfer "a positive event" made possible by cooperation between mostly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia.

On Saudi television, Ahmed al-Dabais, a senior Saudi military officer handling the evacuation operation, told Iranian evacuees that the two countries were good friends and brothers.

Given its place on the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has been closely involved in evacuating people from Sudan after violence broke out on 15 April with hundreds of dead, including civilians.

Although a 72-hour ceasefire broke down after more than two weeks of fighting, UN sources say that the two warring factions have agreed to send representatives for talks, probably in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is getting worse, with tens of thousands of Sudanese trying to leave the country, hoping to join the 70,000 who are already in Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia or South Sudan. Others are trying to cross the Red Sea to reach Saudi Arabia.

For Saudi leaders, this is an additional incentive to stop the fighting and stem an exodus that risks having heavy consequences throughout the region.

The UAE’s long shadow over Sudan

In many ways, the war in Sudan reflects the increasingly multipolar world of the 21st century in which players pursue their own interests behind the scenes, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has developed its own sphere of influence, and involves in the first place the two "generals" at war with each other in Sudan.

Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti (or Hemedti), or Little Mohamed, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are viewed as pawns in a broader power struggle that embraces the whole Horn of Africa.

Writing in the Middle East Eye (MME), Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London, notes that “No country has been playing this game more assertively than the United Arab Emirates, which has curated and orchestrated a diverse grid of networks across the region.”

The UAE, which has no real interest in seeing things escalate in Sudan nor in the country’s  destabilisation, appears to have lost control over the web of interdependencies and competition it created.

For Krieg, the history of the UAE’S involvement in Sudan shows how a relatively small monarchy can exert an influence far beyond its geostrategic weight, with the Bani Fatima branch of the Abu Dhabi royal family delegating state activities to surrogates like private individuals, companies, banks, traders, militias and mercenaries.

Although its official presence in Sudan is managed through official channels – foreign and security ministries – shadowy networks that converge in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the real power brokers.

These networks link partners and competitors, state and non-state actors, turning the Gulf state into an indispensable hub.

The relationship with Sudan's warlord Hemeti is especially revealing as it is based on a web of seemingly random connections and activities that are linked, directly or indirectly, to Abu Dhabi with interests ranging from capital and weapons to gold and mercenaries stationed in the UAE itself.

This goes back to the aftermath of the Arab Spring of 2011, with repercussions also in Yemen where Hemeti provided mercenaries to fight in the conflict. Working with the UAE, Little Mohamed received weapons and money.

The discovery of UAE-purchased thermobaric bombs in the hands of the RSF suggests Abu Dhabi has played a more direct role. What needs to be seen is whether these weapons were delivered to Hemeti directly, or more likely through a network of proxies in Libya.

Through actors in the region, the UAE’s networks are now operating more or less organically, with Abu Dhabi only facilitating capital flows and providing infrastructure support.

That is why anyone who wants to end the fighting in Sudan, even the United States, “must dial 971, because any road to Hemeti leads inevitably through the Emirates.”


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