On the night of April 10th, Sudan’s autocratic president, Omar al Bashir, was arrested after pro-democracy protests prompted a military coup. The military and the protesters then reached an impasse after the opposition rejected the Transitional Military Council (TMC). Although there is no sense of the contagion that characterised the Arab Spring, Sudan’s future remains in the balance.
The president’s fall also presents challenges for Sudan’s neighbouring governments. The diplomatic rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is upending the regional balance of power around the Red Sea, as countries scramble to take sides or play the wealthy nations against each other.
President Bashir relied on concessional finance, aid and trade from both sides of the blockade to blunt the loss of oil revenues. He increasingly leaned on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, by playing on their keenness to contain the spread of Islamist politics and the Muslim Brotherhood. The TMC tapped this by dissolving Bashir’s nominally Islamist National Congress Party, winning a USD 3bn package of Saudi and Emirati aid. The African Union, chaired by the Riyadh-aligned Egyptian president, also extended its own deadline for Sudan’s political transition. Meanwhile, the Sudanese foreign ministry denied Saudi media reports that it had snubbed Qatari diplomats, suggesting that the junta is keeping its options open for now.
Whoever comes out of the standoff in control will face difficult choices, exacerbated by Sudan’s acute economic crisis. Will the victors embrace their current backers in the Gulf to relieve the pressure, or attempt to follow Bashir’s balancing act? Can the new government re-engage with the West to secure further sanctions relief, or will it turn to alternative sources of diplomatic and financial capital? And can its new leaders give the sprawling security services a soft landing? Any path is likely to lead through the Gulf, on one or both sides of the Doha-Riyadh divide.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx