Is the Sudan-Saudi Arabia Alliance Paying Off?

 
Image courtesy: Khalid Albaih

Note: Image courtesy of Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih. In this cartoon, the character depicting Saudi Arabia says "He is our guy!" to convince the United States to lift the metal ball labelled "sanctions" from Sudanese President al-Bashir. Read more about Khalid Albaih here.

With only one week left in his administration, President Obama issued an Executive Order that conditionally lifted long-standing sanctions on Sudan. The United States first enacted sanctions on the Government of Sudan in 1997 for its support of international terrorism, destabilizing regional actions, and serious human rights violations. It applied additional sanctions in 2006 for widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Darfur.

It remains to be seen if the new U.S. administration will make this conditional lifting permanent. President Trump, after consultation with the Secretary of State and others, will make this decision at the end of a six-month review period that concludes on July 12. For President Trump to make these measures permanent, he must conclude that the Sudanese government is making improved progress on the five tracks identified by the Obama Administration in its Executive Order. These five tracks: scaling back hostilities in conflict areas, allowing increased humanitarian access, desisting from destabilizing the peace process in South Sudan, and cooperating in containing the Lord’s Resistance Army and in counterterrorism efforts, include three regional and international indicators of good behavior and only two indicators linked to the dire domestic situation in Sudan.

While Sudan continues to prevent desperately needed relief supplies from reaching areas held by the armed opposition, blaming its longstanding humanitarian blockade policy on rebel intransigence, the regime appears to be continuing to abide by the other indicators. However, using the loopholes of the conditionality it agreed to, the regime has over the "test period" escalated its crackdown on the fundamental human rights of its citizens. The regime has also ignored the search for permanent peace and stability in the country through comprehensive solutions that address the root causes of Sudan's chronic political and security crisis.

President Trump's recent Executive Order banning Sudanese nationals from entering the United States might indicate that the new administration is not keen on engaging with the Sudanese government. However, President Omar al-Bashir’s rapprochement with long-time U.S. ally Saudi Arabia might offer clues to his insidious plans to get the sanctions lifted permanently.

Saudi Arabia is currently bogged down in its unwinnable war of choice in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi opposition. The war is draining the country’s national budget already squeezed by the fall in international oil prices starting in the second half of 2014. The horrendous humanitarian consequences for the Yemenis has tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image both within the Arab world and internationally. Since late 2015, Sudan has been a crucial supporter to the Saudis by supplying ground troops to fight the Houthis. President al-Bashir’s decision to break from its old ally Iran seems to have paid off. Sudanese officials have said that the Saudis played an important role in getting the United States to lift sanctions on Sudan. Obama administration officials, however, have privately denied this allegation. The Saudis have also rewarded the Sudanese regime with large investments and billion-dollar loans, as well as discreet military aid. This financial assistance is a welcome reprieve for Sudan, which is trying to recover from a deep economic crisis that is largely its own doing.

Although the al-Bashir regime is quick to scapegoat its gross mismanagement of the economy on U.S. sanctions, the regime’s expenditures and budget allocations reveal the true reasons for the country’s economic woes. Most glaringly, the regime continues to allocate around 75 percent of its budget toward the military, security, and intelligence sectors, while agricultural, industrial, public education, and public health sectors all receive a scant six percent of the budget. Despite these inconvenient truths, the regime persists to emphatically claim that sanctions stifle the Sudanese economy, as demonstrated in its aggressive diplomatic and propaganda campaigns.

Interestingly, Sudan now also finds itself in alliance with the United States in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This month, the United States escalated its participation in the conflict with a ground attack on al-Qaeda in the country’s Bayda Province. For many, it is not surprising that the United States has showed itself to be eager to join hands with Saudi Arabia to fight this war. President Trump and members of his national security team including Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have all in the past made clear their disdain for Iran. Media reports alleged that General Mattis had considered ordering the U.S. Navy to search an Iranian warship for arms intended for the Houthis, but the plan was reportedly shelved after the leak. In response to a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship, the Trump Administration put Iran “on notice” and in a tightening of the previous administration’s approach, slapped more sanctions on Iran.

Given their mutual disposition toward Iran, one can predict that Saudi Arabia will continue to make a strong case for the permanent lifting of sanctions on Sudan, its ally in Yemen. In a bid to get the sanctions lifted, the Sudanese regime has also made itself a useful counterterrorism partner to the United States by sharing intelligence. This intelligence likely includes some groups with which the regime has shared deep ideological affinities and, until recently, close operational bonds that some would argue are still continuing albeit discretely. Indicative of this duplicity is the bizarre scene of half a dozen influential religious leaders who advocate publicly for ISIS ideology in Khartoum without being disturbed by the government. Their efforts contributed to a steady trickle of dozens of Sudanese students joining ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Somalia and northeastern Nigeria.

The alliance in Yemen, coupled with the counterterrorism cooperation, must surely convince President al-Bashir that his plan to get the sanctions permanently lifted is foolproof. Regime officials have made their confidence in this outcome well known in recent media appearances. Should the Trump Administration fail to deliver permanent sanctions relief, Sudanese officials appear to suggest that there would be serious consequences, including an immediate end to counterterrorism cooperation, as could be inferred from public statements by the director of Sudan's much feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Speaking to local media in the wake of the temporary sanctions lifting, NISS Director Mohammed Atta al-Mawla said a key factor that paved the way for the sanctions relief was his agency’s suspension of intelligence sharing with U.S. counterparts in protest against the continued sanctions on Sudan. Sudan might also resort to other measures such as reengaging in further destabilizing the already desperate situation in South Sudan. The regime might also retaliate by resuming hostilities in conflict areas and tightening the humanitarian blockade on rebel held areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. Meanwhile, spokespersons for the Sudanese political and armed opposition to the regime have suggested a variation: extending the current conditional sanctions relief, but adding a sixth track requiring government commitment and implementation of tangible approaches for protecting the human rights of its citizens and resolving the root causes of conflicts through a comprehensive and inclusive negotiated solutions.

Nonetheless, with the turmoil engulfing the White House, the ongoing crisis in the Trump national security team, and the marginalization of the State Department, the Washington environment has become so unpredictable in such indiscernible ways that the lifting of Sudan’s sanctions may still go either way.