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sudan foreign involvement

Written by Zain Aslam 6:27 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

Sudan Foreign Involvement: Proxy Wars and Economic Interests

Zain Aslam focuses on a complex political and economic situation in Sudan while focusing on the power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). He highlights how the RSF, led by Hemedti, gained immense wealth and influence through control of the gold industry and other businesses. The economic impact of South Sudan’s independence and the subsequent protests against President Omar al-Bashir also play a major role in the intricate political dynamics of the region.
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He graduated from college in 2023 and took a gap year to focus on various pursuits, primarily centered around their passion for global economic and political developments. He will be pursuing a major in Economics in his higher studies.

Numerous countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa have fallen prey to proxy wars and internal meddling by foreign groups. These groups have included next-door neighbors and cross-continental powers, each desiring to satisfy personal interests. Over the last year, another platform has emerged for these intruders—Sudan, a nation located south of Egypt, right next to the Suez Canal in the Horn of Africa. Sudan has been witnessing an influx of foreign involvement due to its strategic location near the Canal. Around 12% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal, making it a wish for many to have a presence nearby. But how?

Sudan Civil War

Sudan is currently witnessing a civil war between two predominant forces—the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The SAF are led by their Chief Commander, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is busy trying to win international support. His counterpart, leader of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (nicknamed Hemedti) is also offering his hand in companionship to other governments. At present, over 15,000 civilians in the country have lost their lives and around 8 million have been displaced, all whilst tensions between the two sides escalate and the war grows more vicious.

Relations were not always this sour between al-Burhan and Hemedti, as in 2019, they both joined forces to overthrow the dictatorial presidency of Omar al-Bashir, who played a key role in what Sudan is experiencing today. 

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Both al-Burhan and Hemedti dragged al-Bashir out of power—after protests demanding democracy rose to prominence—then formed a coalition government until elections would be held.

A Historical Build-up of Grievances

  • 1993

However, to understand the political circumstances of this civil war, one must head back in time. In late 1993, Omar al-Bashir, the then-leader of SAF, made himself president after a military coup, after which he banned political parties, introduced strict laws, and established an authoritarian regime. To ensure his rule remained safe, he regularly provided bribes from the government’s funds to other military elites who could threaten his sovereignty. In addition—to avoid insurgency from rebellion against his power—he organized the RSF from within various armed militias and appointed Hemedti as their leader. 

President Omar al-Bashir planned to develop the RSF as a private military (separate from the SAF) for his defense and security. For this, it required a substantial amount of soldiers, arms, and money which was impossible through state funds. Therefore, al-Bashir allowed the RSF to enter and monopolize one of Sudan’s largest industries—the gold industry. They captured nearly all of the country’s gold mines and became the sole entity trading gold with other nations. They were also permitted to control the borders of Western Sudan, to smuggle goods.

These activities resulted in prolific wealth for the RSF, which began to operate as a corporation, rather than just a military unit. In particular, this generated an abundant amount of wealth for Hemedti, who became Sudan’s most powerful warlord

  • 2011

In 2011, the southern part of Sudan obtained independence, becoming South Sudan. It took nearly 70% of Sudan’s oil reserves (another important industry in Sudan’s economy), resulting in a drastic shortage of oil supply and a massive rise in its price, affecting other economic sectors, and causing inflation to follow through. Moreover, Sudan’s economy thrived enormously on oil—with more than half of it lost, the country’s trade declined. This also meant that al-Bashir could no longer sustain his wealth and continue bribing other elites—a potential collapse of his dictatorship was swaying right in front of him.

  • 2019

Fast forward to 2019, when the situation in Sudan deteriorated due to an economic downfall; people seemed to have enough. Protests came out in impactful numbers and the new leader of the SAF, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan saw an opportunity to seize al-Bashir’s power. Seeing the alarming state of the economy and violent protests, Hemedti favored the same idea, which meant that for the first time since its inauguration, RSF was going to work against al-Bashir’s safety. In October, the SAF and RSF collectively arrested and sent al-Bashir to jail, with al-Burhan and Hemedti partnering as the new heads of the country.

  • 2021

This carried until December 2021, after which al-Burhan agreed to hold free and fair elections, but on one condition; RSF’s independent status would be eradicated by dissolving it within the SAF, with him being its only leader. 

For Hemedti, this meant giving up the group that drove him into riches and elitism, and consequently giving up his unparalleled wealth and power, potentially leading him to be tried and imprisoned for his illegal practices. For a warlord of this paramount, al-Burhan’s condition was unacceptable and after considerable delay, he decided that the only way out was to take over the entire country and rule it by himself. For this, countering the SAF was the most crucial task. 

  • 2023

In April 2023, Hemedti ordered RSF soldiers to attack al-Burhan’s residence (inside a military compound guarded by SAF soldiers) in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum. Gunfire was exchanged by both sides and al-Burhan narrowly escaped, after which he ordered a counter-attack on RSF. A prolonged series of attacks have followed ever since. 

  • 2024

As of May 2024, the conflict has spread in every part of the country as both al-Burhan and Hemedti attempt to gain control through their respective groups. Other nations have commenced choosing sides, whom they support through arms and funds, hoping to see their side succeed. Their involvement marks another sign of North African instability. 

Economic cooperation with Sudan is a wish for many because of its aforementioned geography, which puts it close to the trade-heavy arena of the Suez Canal. If any country can build a base here or use one of Sudan’s ports through an agreement with the Sudanese Government, it can feature itself in this area’s trading more regularly and intensify financial inflow. 

However, these geographic privileges are not the only ravishing trait about Sudan, as its gold industry is equally as attractive and one which other countries would love to partake in.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Buying gold from Sudan is something the United Arab Emirates (UAE) does generously. Since most of Sudan’s gold industry is controlled by Hemedti, the UAE government has traded with him on an exceptional scale, with one report suggesting that gold bars worth $30 million were sent to Dubai. This allowed positive relations between the two parties to persist. News has begun to surface that the UAE is supplying arms to Sudan through Sudan’s western borders with Chad (all controlled by the RSF). Both the UAE Government and Hemedti denied this, but such deals between them have occurred in the past when the latter delivered arms to the RSF to fight on their behalf in Yemen’s Civil War. This displays further evidence that a noteworthy relationship between the two has been orchestrated. 

Sighting from a broader perspective, it seems safe to argue that the UAE will support the RSF throughout, knowing well that Hemedti is going to effectuate their demands as reimbursement.

The Islamic Republic of Iran

Another nation that seems to have indulged in this conflict primarily to counter the UAE’s growing influence is Iran. For decades, Iran and the UAE’s political tensions have remained unsteady, which has coerced them to support opposite sides in civil wars. This is also proving to be the truth in Sudan’s case as Iran is reportedly shipping military equipment to al-Burhan’s forces. 

In February of this year, Iran also invited Ali Al-Sadiq Ali, Sudan’s Foreign Minister and a close ally of al-Burhan. News media in Iran reported that the Sudanese Foreign Minister was assured by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi of continued support to safeguard Sudan’s integrity and plans to expand trade with the country. With this meeting, there is no visible ambiguity regarding Iran’s support for SAF, as it guarantees a platform to confront the UAE while simultaneously offering economic opportunities. 

Apart from the UAE factor, the Iranian Government seems to have chosen al-Burhan’s side because they control more territory than the RSF and possess larger personnel. Also, in recent developments, the SAF has been more successful in skirmishes, so it is possible Iran views al-Burhan as a more reliable option.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Most of us are well aware that just like the UAE contradicts Iran in geopolitics, Saudi Arabia does as well. The Saudi-Iran rivalry is the most discussed phenomenon in Middle Eastern history—these two economic giants always have something to pit against one another. 

Mesmerizingly, the civil war in Sudan has shattered this norm as Saudi Arabia seems to be supporting the same side as that of Iran, which is al-Burhan’s SAF. We are witnessing a Saudi Arabia-UAE conflict in Sudan. 

Though Saudi Arabia is not specifically delivering arms to the SAF, it has been exercising diplomatic support. Experts are arguing that Saudi Arabia has no discrete reason to support al-Burhan, and, just like Iran, it is only doing so to hinder the UAE’s growing regional influence. Rather, the Kingdom has been playing a vital role in maintaining peace between the two forces and is choosing to conduct talks with al-Burhan because he has more legitimacy on the global stage. Some view this as indirectly supporting the SAF, whilst others recognize it as genuine mediation. Even if Saudi Arabia has economically motivated objectives, it is clear that the country is seeking a marginally neutral approach rather than strongly backing either side.

But is international legitimacy the only cause of leaning towards al-Burhan? In recent years, the Kingdom’s monarchy has been keen on paving the way for a collaborative atmosphere between the Arab states under their regional leadership. It is possible that assistance to Hemedti led them into dispensing leverage for al-Burhan, as plentiful support to one side would signify that Saudi Arabia’s leadership in maintaining peace has failed. It is concerned not only about the UAE aiding Hemedti but also about Russia following in its footsteps.

The Russian Federation

Russia, nearly 8000 km from Sudan, is also stepping onto the gold-abundant land, desiring a share of its economic potential. It aims to secure a presence through the paramilitary group Wagner, soldiers of which are being sent to Sudan to fight on Hemedti’s side. Once again, the gold industry seems to have done the job for Hemedti, who had been selling gold to Putin’s Government since before the civil war

Russia would like to bring its shades of influence into Africa and sees Sudan as an adequate opportunity. What is interesting to note here is that historically, Russia has backed Iran on whichever side it supports in proxy warfare, though the case here is contrasting.   

The Global Powers: US and China

Other global powers such as China and the United States do not seem to have much say in the conflict, though Washington D.C has called for peace talks. Shortly, however, it is a possibility that if the conflict becomes more primal, both nations will take a deep dive into it, either for personal interests or to support an ally. 

The Neighbours: Eritrea and Ethiopia

So far, we have had an overview of countries away from Sudan, but what about its neighbors? Eritrea invited Hemedti on a diplomatic visit a few months before the civil war, and reports suggest that this was to strengthen ties in the scorching build-up to the conflict. Though details are unclear, the Eritrean Government has mentioned Hemedti in a positive light when speaking of the war. 

Alternatively, Ethiopia did the same for al-Burhan, with the Ethiopian Prime Minister even visiting Sudan to meet with the SAF when fighting started lurking around the corner.

It must be noted that both Eritrea and Ethiopia have adhered to internal disputes themselves, and their support does not include the supply of arms. However, it is still important to consider these developments in the context of African diplomacy as a whole, as apart from foreigners, the stances of African nations will also be crucial in determining stability in the continent. 

Egypt

According to this narrative, Egypt’s position is cardinal. Not only is the Suez Canal located inside of this transcontinental country, but it also stretches a border with the whole of Northern Sudan. If a government can attain Egypt’s backing, it can easily deliver arms and soldiers through this border and also stay right within the perimeters of the Horn of Africa. Egypt seems to want to side with al-Burhan, but it is not open about it due to the UAE. 

Egypt’s economy is experiencing tribulation and relies heavily on the UAE for financial assistance. This may be halted if there is friction between the views of both countries. Therefore, on the communal stage, Egypt has only mildly shifted towards al-Burhan but confidentially, is indeed supporting him zealously, something its government denies. If the Egyptian economy continues to stumble, it might have to seek help from other Middle Eastern players or perhaps switch sides to please the UAE. 

Sudan’s crisis has established a new outlook on geopolitics in this region, where countries have involved themselves purely for personal intrigue. This can be observed by the fact that states that unite with each other in proxy warfare are not following the same agenda. We are witnessing a complex mix of political stances, economic goals, and inordinate differences.

As the war unfolds, the stage for these foreign actors will continue to expand, all whilst innocent civilians lose their homes, food, and even lives. Over a million Sudanese have been taken as refugees, and this number will only inflate if the conflict finds no conclusion. 

It is becoming a new chapter in Africa’s instability, exploitation, and helplessness novel. Neither the African Union nor the United Nations has done much to resolve the matter, and all attempts for a ceasefire have collapsed. Only time will inform the globe of whether this is a temporary altercation or the beginning of a new era of the North African political structure. 


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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