In October 1993, Omar al-Bashir declared himself president of Sudan, imposing an authoritarian system that was dominated by Islamists until he was toppled in an April 2019 coup.
The protest movement that pushed the Sudanese military to remove Bashir achieved the seemingly impossible. After years of global isolation, Sudan was removed from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, having been on it for almost three decades. This unlocked economic aid, although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had given Bashir’s regime billions of dollars in aid for having supported the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war.
Bashir’s downfall signaled the beginning of a more promising era for Sudan. The country soon acquired new international and regional allies, including the United States, Israel, and Russia. They joined the UAE, which, with Saudi Arabia, supported Sudan’s Sovereignty Council that ruled Sudan as of August 2019, providing it with $3 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, Sudan’s old friends Qatar and Turkey, which at the time were rivals of most of the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Sudan’s northern neighbor Egypt, found themselves on the sidelines.
Sudan’s partners have always grasped the country’s value, with its resources such as natural gas, gold, silver, chromite, zinc, and iron. The UAE, for instance, has imported gold worth billions of dollars in the past decade—with Sudan being among the top three exporters of gold to the country after Libya and Ghana, respectively. This trend persisted as the UAE forged ties with General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the vice president of the Transitional Military Council that led Sudan immediately after Bashir’s removal. This has resulted in annual gold exports to the UAE worth $16 billion since 2019.
Earlier, Turkey had sought to take advantage of its ties with Bashir and gain a foothold in Suakin Island in northeastern Sudan by signing a deal worth $650 million in 2017 to develop the port and establish a naval dock for military and civilian purposes. This led to concern in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt over Ankara’s plans to project influence in the Red Sea. A year later, Sudan also signed a $4 billion deal with Qatar to develop Suakin port. This reflected Qatar’s ambition to enter the Red Sea as well and was seen as an attempt to counter the UAE’s extensive naval presence in the Horn of Africa.
After the downfall of Bashir’s regime, several countries began developing their own plans for Sudan. Starting in May 2020 the UAE repeatedly hosted prominent Sudanese officials and connected them with Israelis. In 2020, Sudan and Israel agreed to normalize relations, and intend to formalize this later this year. It was in Abu Dhabi also that Sudanese officials began discussing the removal of their country from the U.S. terrorism list. Even though Washington’s representatives were present during these high-profile gatherings, American involvement in Sudan has not extended beyond diplomacy.
As the United States has disengaged from the Middle East and has been engulfed by its own domestic divisions, Russia has increased its involvement in the region, including Sudan. In November 2020, President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian Ministry of Defense to enter into a 25-year agreement with the Sudanese authorities for the establishment of a new Russian naval base at Port Sudan that would host around 300 Russian troops.
This came after Moscow and Khartoum had signed a military cooperation agreement in 2019. The cooperation agreement will last for seven years and allows for visits by Russian warships and aircraft, as well as exchanges of military-political information and expertise. The agreement also stipulates the opening of a Russian Defense Ministry representative office to interact with its Sudanese counterpart. Once a marginal player in the Horn of Africa, Russia more recently has forged relations with countries of the region, and is now signaling a desire to also anchor its presence on the Red Sea.
Moscow has been a leading arms supplier to Sub-Saharan Africa, so a new naval base would open up a variety of military, geopolitical, and economic possibilities. This is especially true considering Sudan’s strategic location, its resources, and its importance for the stability of its neighbors. Russia has long recognized the need to secure a foothold in Sudan, where mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor, have been present since 2017. Wagner, founded by Dmitri Utkin, who is close to Putin, has also helped advance Russia’s political agenda in Syria and Libya.
Sudan is located, most notably, between Egypt to the north and Ethiopia, Eritrea, and South Sudan to the south, with the country’s northeast on the Red Sea and its northwest bordering Libya. For Russia, having a foothold in Sudan means easy access to Libya and the Horn of Africa, most of the countries of which it has armed. For the UAE, in turn, close ties to Khartoum mean an expansion of the Emiratis’ geopolitical and commercial reach in the Red Sea, where the UAE has military and commercial bases in Eritrea, Somaliland, Somalia, and Yemen’s southern coast, including Socotra.
When Sudan was ruled by Omar al-Bashir, Hamas used the country as a conduit to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Weapons sent from Iran were reportedly offloaded in Sudan, before being smuggled through Egypt into the Palestinian territory. Now that Sudan has normalized relations with Israel, the likelihood that this route will be revived appears negligible.
Despite the economic opportunities that Sudan’s new ties are expected to bring, there are challenges ahead. Sudan is heavily indebted and poor, and its GDP declined by 8.4 percent in 2020 when compared to the previous year. It also has the highest inflation rate in Africa in 2021, at 129.7 percent, followed by South Sudan at 33.1 percent, according to data released by the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, the unemployment rate was estimated at more than 16 percent of the total labor force in 2020. That means that the country has not been able to fully capitalize on the fact that over 50 percent of its population is of working age.
The Sudanese government should prioritize and implement a clear and extensive development agenda, while resolving the shortcomings of the previous regime, such as rampant corruption. Unless this happens, Sudan’s new political and economic ties will not translate into a better quality of life for ordinary citizens, leaving the country’s potential unrealized.