The Great Game of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Sudan

Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, European Council on Foreign Relations

After failing for years to decisively woo Omar al-Bashir to their axis, the UAE and Saudi Arabia took advantage of the revolutionary uprising of 2018-2019 to bring Sudan under their influence. They have done so by supporting military and paramilitary figures under the guise of “stability” and coopting elements of the revolutionary coalition. Emirati and Saudi support to the Transitional Military Council that replaced al-Bashir emboldened the generals in the critical weeks that followed his downfall, enabling the TMC’s repression of demonstrators on 3 June 2019, stymying revolutionary demands for civilian rule, and enabling the emergence of a power-sharing agreement in which the generals play a dominant role.[1]

The revolutionary period marks an inflection point in Sudan’s relationship with with these Gulf countries. Despite long-standing economic ties, the regime of Omar al-Bashir — an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood —maintained, from its early years, a close alliance with Iran.[2] Al-Bashir’s government also enjoyed privileged relations with the two regional backers of the Muslim Brotherhood: Qatar, which mediated the Darfur peace talks, and Turkey. In the 2010s, Khartoum, strapped for cash after the loss of most of its oil reserves in South Sudan’s secession, began a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Within a few months of the start of the 2015 Saudi-led offensive on Yemen, Sudan committed an estimated 10,000 troops to support the coalition[3] – the bulk of the infantry deployed – in exchange for the payment of soldiers’ salaries, direct deposits to the Sudanese state’s coffer, and subsidies on basic commodities. By 2018, UAE officials estimated that they had injected about $7 billion in Sudan’s economy.[4]

This newfound patronage came with strings attached: Saudi Arabia and the UAE expected Khartoum to come on their side in their rivalries with Qatar and Iran. In 2016, Bashir eventually cut ties with Tehran. He reportedly promised the Emirates to sideline Islamists from his government.

But it’s unclear whether Bashir was ever strong enough to follow through on his promise. At a time when erstwhile allies were plotting to remove him, Bashir’s shift away from Sudan’s traditional allies exacerbated divisions within his fractious ruling circle and further weakened his standing within the ruling National Congress Party, a key pillar of his regime, alongside the military, the security services, and the paramilitary militia known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).[5]

This domestic pressure likely accounted for Bashir’s decision in June 2017 to stay neutral in the Qatar crisis, angering the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[6] Riyadh, in retaliation, stopped paying the salaries of Sudanese soldiers.[7] Egypt, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, kept up the hopes of bringing Bashir into the alliance, encouraging him to remove Islamist officers.[8] But he continued to play one side against the other. In March 2018, he received UAE subsidies and a $2 billion loan from Qatar.[9] This balancing game convinced Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Bashir was unreliable and should be replaced.[10]

In December 2018, the UAE reportedly halted fuel shipments to Sudan. Faced with an acute shortage of foreign exchange, a deep deficit and crushing debt, Bashir cut subsidies on bread, triggering the first demonstrations of what would become the Sudanese revolution.

The opportunity of the 2018-2019 uprising

As the uprising unfolded, al-Bashir lost his few remaining allies. None of his foreign sponsors came to the rescue. On December 24, when Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemedti, the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, came out supporting demonstrators’ demands, it became clear that the loyalty of the military and security apparatus was shaky. In mid-February, as demonstrations continued unabated, the head of the security service Salah Gosh and the UAE reportedly offered al-Bashir an exit plan, which he refused.  The Emiratis began to reach out to opposition groups; so did Gosh, who visited prominent leaders in prison.[11]

On 7 April 2019, a day after revolutionary demonstrators began a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters, Gen. Jalal al-Dine el-Sheikh, the deputy head of the security service, headed a delegation of military and intelligence officials to Cairo, where he sought the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for a coup against al-Bashir. The three countries then reportedly reached out to Abdelfattah al-Burhan, a military general who had coordinated the Sudanese military’s operations in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and Hemedti, who had also deployed there as head of the RSF. Egypt offered Bashir exile in Saudi Arabia. Again, he refused. A few days later, on 11 April, leaders of the military and security apparatus, including al-Burhan and Hemedti, overthrew him, installing a Transitional Military Council (TMC) to rule the country.[12]

This coup gave an opportunity for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to finally bring Sudan into their axis. They threw their weight behind the TMC, and in particular Hemedti, who had already acquired considerable financial resources in the last year of al-Bashir’s rule thanks to the deployment of the RSF in Yemen and his exports of Sudan’s gold to Dubai.[13]Within ten days, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had promised $3 billion of direct aid to the new regime. While revolutionaries continued their sit-in, demanding radical political change, Egypt lobbied the African Union to discourage a suspension of Sudan’s membership.[14]

Throughout April and May, negotiations between the TMC and the Forces of Freedom and Change (the revolutionary umbrella organization of opposition parties, civil society groups, and rebel groups) failed to reach an agreement on power sharing. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, alongside other regional actors such as Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea all encouraged the TMC to hold onto power. The UAE secretly delivered weapons to Hemedti in late April. [15]The Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted “Totally legitimate for Arab states to support an orderly & stable transition in Sudan. One that carefully calibrates popular aspirations with institutional stability.”[16] In the words of a former NCP minister, “some centers [were] working to build up a new Sisi”.[17] Buoyed by diplomatic cover, military aid, as well as fresh cash, fuel and wheat injections, the TMC remained intransigent and played for time in negotiations, refusing the FFC’s central demand that a new sovereignty council meant to collectively serve as the head of state be dominated by a majority of civilian appointees.

By late April – early May, revolutionaries at the Khartoum sit-in were becoming more defiant in response to the TMC’s stalling tactics.[18]Madaniya” – civilian rule – emerged as their central slogan. Some who had welcomed the role of the military and Hemedti in ousting al-Bashir and who had been open to the idea of a mixed sovereignty council were now demanding an exclusively civilian council.[19] Visible UAE and Saudi support to the TMC attracted the ire of demonstrators.[20]

Yet even as revolutionaries showed signs of radicalizing, the Emirates worked discretely to co-opt the opposition. In late April, senior members of Sudan Call, a central component of the FFC, met with Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi.[21] Upon their return, Sudan Call officials began to speak positively about the role of the military, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the transition.[22] By early May the softening of Sudan Call’s position prompted revolutionary activists and other armed groups to speculate about the UAE’s “suitcase diplomacy”.[23] In private, Sudan Call officials now acknowledge that “handsome compensations were being thrown around”.[24]

On 3 June, after a visit by Hemedti to Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi (Crisis Group 2019:12), RSF and police forces cracked down on the Khartoum sit-in, killing more than 130 people and sparking indignation in Sudan and abroad. The event prompted the US and the UK, after weeks of passivity, to pressure the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[25] Emirati and Saudi officials, reportedly concerned that Hemedti had gone too far and was precipitating instability, used their influence on the TMC to push for a deal with the opposition.[26] They began to publicly call for “dialogue”, and to work behind the scenes alongside the UK and the US to broker a deal.[27]

The massacre failed to discourage grassroots revolutionaries, however.[28] On 30 June, the resistance committees — a network of neighborhood groups — and the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, a coalition of unions, gathered hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in a “march of the million”. The show of force took the TMC by surprise.[29] It showed that the junta’s strategy of repression and stalling had failed, and that mobilization could continue for many more weeks. But rather than using this renewed popular support to extract more concessions, the leadership of the FFC compromised.

Sabotaging civilian rule

In the power-sharing agreement that emerged five days later, the generals retained considerable influence: Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the head of the TMC, would act as the head of the new sovereignty council – and as de facto head of state – for the first 21 months of the transition.[30] The “constitutional declaration” signed in August between the FFC and the generals planned for a cabinet led by a FFC appointee, but military leaders kept the control over the crucial ministries of defense and the interior. Hemedti became deputy head of the sovereignty council.

After the signing of the constitutional declaration, which laid out a roadmap to a constitutional conference and elections, the UAE and Saudi Arabia provided support to the new government, funneling $200 million monthly in cash and commodity subsidies to the government for the second half of 2019.[31] In line with this new alignment, the Sudanese government, though desperate for cash, turned down an offer to send a delegation to Qatar in exchange for $1 billion in financing.[32]

Domestically, the new alliance between the FFC and the former TMC members dramatically reconfigured the Sudanese state at the expense of the NCP, in line with Gulf backers’ hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Top NCP representatives faced jail and their assets were seized. Al-Burhan, who had served as the military’ coordinator with the ruling party,[33] pivoted to please his patrons and purged many who were too clearly identified as Islamists from the military and the security service.[34] UAE influence came to pervade the Sudanese political scene. Hemedti, whom a diplomat described as “the agent and the proxy of the Emirates”,[35] consolidated his position as a central player thanks to his ability to buy off potential dissenters and competitors.[36] Sudan Call’s leaders, such as Yasir Arman and Sadig al-Mahdi, the leader of the Umma Party, continued to express public support to the participation of the military in the transition and worked to marginalize leftist groups not affiliated to the UAE.[37]

Since late 2019, the Saudis appeared to have taken a step back, leaving the management of the Sudan file to the Emiratis. In spite of their official policy of support to the transition, the UAE have maneuvered to undermine the civilian wing of the government by propping up the generals. Three developments illustrate these efforts.

First, the Emiratis have sponsored a peace process that puts the generals front and center. The constitutional declaration was unclear about who, in the new power configuration, should be in charge of negotiations with armed groups from Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile – a priority for the transition.[38] The generals seized on this ambiguity. Hemedti and Gen. Shamseddine al-Kabbashi, another former member of the TMC, wrested the process from the cabinet, heading government delegations in Juba, where the negotiations have been taking place with financial backing from the UAE. Abu Dhabi has used its influence with armed groups to push for a deal that would put the generals in the positions of peacemakers, though internal divisions between the RSF and SAF and the FFC’s belated effort to join the talks have been stumbling blocks (by the spring of 2020, Hemedti was happy to leave the file to al-Kabbashi).[39]

Second, the UAE in February 2020 brokered a meeting between the head of the sovereignty council Gen. al-Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which they discussed normalization of bilateral ties. The move earned al-Burhan an invitation to Washington by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, baffling American observers, since it appeared to contradict the official US policy to support civilian rule.[40] A senior Sudanese military source told the media that Sudan hoped the meeting with Netanyahu would convince the US to lift the designation of State Sponsor of Terrorism, which Hamdok has sought – and failed – to secure for months, and which stymies investment and debt relief. The source also revealed that the Saudi and Egyptian officials knew of the upcoming meeting, which had been in the works for months, but that the civilian Minister of Foreign Affairs was not notified.[41]

Third, the UAE have lobbied to put Hemedti in the driving seat of Sudan’s economic policy. In March 2020, Hemedti was briefly appointed the head of a new emergency economic committee – a powerful ad-hoc body. But in the face of opposition from the FFC, he was forced to step down and become a simple member, leaving the seat to Hamdok. In April 2020, amid intense rumors of a potential coup from the military, the FFC operated a rapprochement with Hemedti, whom they came to see as a protector. Following intense lobbying from the UAE, the FFC relented to Hemedti becoming the head of the committee, consecrating his role as the key decision-maker on economic policy.[42] The UAE and Saudi Arabia officially ended their direct support to the Sudanese government in December 2019 without an explanation, having disbursed only half of the $3 bn they had promised; Hemedti, however, has been making a show of depositing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Central Bank to stabilize the economy.[43]


Sudan’s international realignment has been swift. Within less than a year, the clients of Qatar and Turkey in Khartoum lost any role in policy. Financial support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave the generals crucial leeway to resist popular demands for civilian rule, shaping a lopsided balance of power that allowed the generals to navigate a period of mass mobilization. The Emirates’ covert financial flows subsequently earned them unparalleled leverage across large segments the political spectrum, which helped the generals, and in particular Hemedti, consolidate their power.

As the influence of Qatar and Turkey has faded, emerging political fault lines within Sudan are a source of disagreements within the Arab Troika. The Egyptian government, traditionally close to the Sudanese army, sees Hemedti with suspicion and has cultivated a relationship with al-Burhan. A rivalry between the two generals has become more apparent since April 2020; it suggests that the current power arrangement is unstable and could affect the relations between Egypt and its Gulf partners. Now that the fate of Sudan has become tied to the games of influence of the Arab Troika, its domestic politics may come to impact the Troika itself.





[1] This paper relies on interviews with actors and observers of the Sudanese political scene, and on an analysis of public or semi-public documents, including news articles, press releases and statements from political actors.

[2] Extensive defense cooperation extended to the manufacture of weapons. In the early 2010s, Iran still fielded a battalion of Revolutionary Guards in Sudan.

Interview with a Sudanese observer, May 2020. Africa Confidential. 2012. ‘Target Khartoum.’ Vol. 53, No. 22. Africa Confidential. 2 November.

Leff, J., & LeBrun, E. (2014). Following the Thread: Arms and Ammunition Tracing in Sudan and South Sudan.

[3] Of which 7,000 were RSF. Crisis Group (2019), Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, Report n°206, Middle East and North Africa, 19 September 2019;  De Waal, A. (2019b), Cash and contradictions: On the limits of Middle Eastern influence in Sudan, African Arguments, 1 August 2019.

[4] These included $1.4 billion in the Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves and 871 million dollars in fuel subsidies.

Abbas, Waheed. UAE pumps in Dh28b for Sudan’s development, fiscal stability. Khaleej Times, 14 March 2018.

[5] Interview with a minister under Bashir, Khartoum, April 2019.

[6] He further alienated his new patrons by sacking his head of cabinet Taha Osman al-Hussein — who had emerged as the central figure of Sudan’s foreign policy — after it emerged that al-Hussein had taken Saudi citizenship. Al-Hussein left the country went on to become an adviser to Riyadh.

[7] Interview with an observer of Sudanese politics, Berlin, June 2018.

See also Crisis Group 2019.

[9] Abbas, Waheed. UAE pumps in Dh28b for Sudan’s development, fiscal stability. Khaleej Times, 14 March 2018.

[10] Interview with a Western diplomat in Khartoum, April 2019.

[11] Interview with a representative of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, April 2020; with a Sudanese activist, May 2020.

[12] On the run-up to the coup against Bashir, see Magdy S., As Sudan uprising grew, Arab states worked to shape its fate, The Associated Press, 8 May 2019.

Abdelaziz K., Georgy M. Dahan M., Abandoned by the UAE, Sudan’s Bashir was destined to fall, Reuters, 3 July 2019.

[13] Kent, R. Exposing the RSF’s Secret Financial Network, Global Witness, 9 December 2019.

Walsh, D., Amid U.S. Silence, Gulf Nations Back the Military in Sudan’s Revolution, The New York Times, 26 April 2019.

[14] These efforts paid off at first, but Egypt failed to prevent the AU’s Peace and Security Council from suspending Sudan after the 3 June massacre. De Waal 2019.

[15] Interview with a diplomat working for a Western mission in Khartoum, April 2019. On Chad, see also De Waal 2019.


[17] Interview with a Minister under Bashir, Khartoum, April 2019.

[18] Interviews with organizers and activists at the Khartoum sit-in, 1-3 May 2019.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bearak M., Fahim K. (2019), From Sudan’s protesters, a warning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE: Don’t meddle, The Washington Post, 29 April 2019.

[21] These included Mariam al-Mahdi, of the Umma Party, leaders of the Sudan Congress Party, but also rebels of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, including Yasir Arman, of the Agar branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, the Justice and Equality Movement, and Minni Minnawi, the head of a branch of the Sudan Liberation Movement, a Darfur rebel group. Hosting Darfur rebel groups allowed the UAE to weaken Qatar, which had previously sponsored peace negotiations on Darfur.

Interview with an official from the SPLM-N / al-Hilu branch, Khartoum, April 2019.

Interview with a leader of JEM, Khartoum, May 2019. Interview with a SAF officer, Khartoum, April 2019. See also Sudan Tribune, Sudan’s opposition, UAE officials discussed peace and issues of mutual concern: Arman, 18 June 2019.

[22] Yasir Arman of the SPLM-N / Agar branch on 18 June defended on Facebook the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Sudanese transition. Khaled Omer of the Sudan Congress Party attacked Qatar and Al Jazeera. Umma Party leader and former Prime Ministeer Sadig al-Mahdi praised the role of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Rapid Support Forces in the transition.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, الصادق المهدي لـ”القدس العربي”: “الحرية والتغيير” والمجلس العسكري بلا تفويض شعبي ونقبل انتخابات مبكرة بعد استيفاء شروطها… ونفضل التريث بالانضمام إلى المحاور , 29 May 2019.

[23] Phone interview with a Sudanese activist, May 2019.

[24] Interview with a senior adviser of a Sudan call group, March 2020.

[25] Under Secretary of State David Hale took the unusual step to not only call the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid Bin Salman and UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, but also to make his messages to them public. “Under Secretary Hale’s Call With Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Kha-lid bin Salman”, Readout from U.S. State Department Office of the Spokesperson, 4 June 2019; “Under Secretary Hale’s Call With Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash of the United Arab Emirates”, Readout from U.S. State Department Office of the Spokesperson, 6 June 2019.

[26] Walsh, D. (2019). In Sudan, a Power-Sharing Deal Propelled by a Secret Meeting and Public Rage, The New York Times, 5 July 2019. Crisis Group 2019:11, De Waal 2019b

[27] Sudan Tribune, Saudi Arabia and UAE call for dialogue in Sudan, 6 June 2019.

[28] Phone interview with a Sudanese activist, June 2019.

[29] Walsh, D. (2019). Sudan Power-Sharing Deal Reached by Military and Civilian Leaders, The New York Times.

[30] Walsh, D. (2019). Sudan Power-Sharing Deal Reached by Military and Civilian Leaders, The New York Times.

[31] De Waal, A. (2019a), Sudan: A Political Marketplace Framework Analysis. World Peace Foundation Conflict Research Programme Occasional Paper n°19, August 2019.

[32] Interview with a Sudanese cabinet adviser, May 2020.

[33] Interview with a former SAF officer, May 2020.

[34] PAX Sudan Alert, Actor Map, 5 June 2019.

Sudan Tribune, Sudan reforms military command structure, 30 October 2019.

Sudan Tribune, Sudan relieves over 60 security service officials, 25 November 2019.

Sudan Tribune, The armed forces and militia protect transition in Sudan: al-Burhan, 23 December 2019.

[35] Interview with a Western diplomat, April 2020.

[36] De Waal reports that Hemedti handed out money to striking policemen, tribal chiefs, teachers, electricity workers, and officers of the Sudanese Armed Forces’ High Command (2019a:21).

[37] Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (Agar branch), موقفنا من لقاء عنتبي , 6 February 2020.

[38] The document states that the sovereignty council had “sponsorship” or “custody” over the peace process (“رعاية العملية السلام مع الحركات المسلحة”), but lists as the cabinet’s second competency a “work to stop wars and conflicts and build peace” (“العمل على إيقاف الحروب و النراعات و بناء السلام”). For the text of the constitutional declaration, see

[39] Among the armed groups negotiating with the government, some, such as the Justice and Equality Movement or the Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi, have been under Emirati patronage since their involvement as mercenaries alongside Khalifa Haftar, an Emirati client, in Libya. The Agar branch of the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement – North, as mentioned, operated a rapprochement with the UAE in April 2019, alongside other groups of Sudan Call. The UAE is working to bring the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdelwahed al-Nur and the Abdelaziz al-Hilu branch of the the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement – North, the two groups that actually control territory within Sudan, into a deal. Al-Hilu travelled to the UAE in December 2019.

Phone interview with a Sudanese activist, December 2019.

Radio Tamazuj, Sudanese rebel al-Hilu concludes visit to the UAE, 31 December 2019.

United Nations, Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Sudan, S/2020/36, 14 January 2020.

[40] US diplomats have been eschewing meetings with the military branches of government.

[41] Prime Minister Hamdok also denied having been informed of the meeting, although Shafi’a Khiddir, one of his informal advisers, said that the Prime Minister had received a 48h notice. Interview with a DC-based analyst of US foreign policy, February 2020.

The Associated Press, Netanyahu Meeting With Sudan’s Leader Was Set Up by UAE, Sudanese Official Say, 4 February 2020.

[42] On that occasion, the UAE also sought to impose a new leader for the security service: Gen. Abdelghaffar al-Sharif, one of the most influential spy chiefs under al-Bashir, who has since lived in exile in the UAE. Al-Burhan, Hemedti and the FFC refused. Interview with a Sudanese observer, April 2020.

[43] Hemedti interview to Sudan 24, 24 May 2020 :