GATEWAY TO THE EAST From Riyadh to Abu Dhabi, the network of Gulf interests in the conflict in Sudan

Despite the ceasefire, violence in the African country does not stop: for the United Nations there is a risk that it will generate 800,000 new refugees. The Saudis evacuated dozens of trapped Iranians with their own resources, taking them from Port Sudan to Tehran via Jeddah. The shadow of the United Arab Emirates and the network of relationships and interests that fuel regional wars.

Milan () – In Sudan, tormented by an internal conflict that threatens to cause another 800,000 new refugees according to the latest United Nations estimates, an economic, strategic and diplomatic game is being played involving several Middle Eastern nations. In fact, the crisis in the Arab-African state has served as the occasion for a new rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two historical rivals in the region that recently re-established relations thanks to Chinese mediation. In recent days, Riyadh facilitated with its own resources the evacuation of the citizens of the Islamic Republic who were fleeing the war.

fleeing from war

Specifically, the Saudi navy transported 65 Iranians from Port Sudan to Jeddah, and then arranged their transshipment to Tehran, the last leg of the trip. The spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Kanaani, spoke of a “positive event”, which could have happened thanks to the close cooperation between the two powers of the Islamic world, the Iranian Shiite and the Saudi Sunni. In a video broadcast on state television, Ahmed al-Dabais, a senior Saudi military officer who managed the operation, addressed the displaced Iranians, stressing that Riyadh and Tehran are “two good friends and brothers.” Saudi Arabia is one of the nations most committed to executing an evacuation plan through the Red Sea from the African country, mired in internal violence that broke out on April 15 and gradually intensified causing hundreds of victims, including civilians.

After more than two weeks of war and a 72-hour ceasefire that failed to prevent further clashes, UN sources report that the two warring factions have agreed to send representatives to start negotiations that will, in all probability, take place in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation worsens, with tens of thousands of Sudanese willing to leave the country, joining the 70,000 others who have already fled to Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia or South Sudan. Others, following the migratory routes, try to cross the Red Sea and reach the Wahhabi kingdom to flee from war and despair. Hence the greater determination of the Riyadh leaders to try to stop the fighting and stop an exodus that risks causing serious consequences throughout the region.

The shadow of the Emirates in Sudan

The war in Sudan is, in many respects, a 21st century conflict in an increasingly multi-polar world, fought – often from behind the scenes – to strengthen and broaden the web of interests. From this perspective, the presence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the African country can be read, which over the years has woven a sphere of influence that today mainly involves the two “generals” of the conflict. On the one hand, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, at the head of the Sudanese army, and on the other, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, at the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (FSR), which are considered pawns in a broader panorama than covers the interior of the Horn of Africa. And as Andreas Krieg, a professor in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, points out in an extensive analysis published in MiddleEastEye (MME), “no nation has played this role more vigorously” than the Emirates, creating a dense and diverse network of regional links.

Abu Dhabi has no real interest in fueling the conflict – and the consequent destabilization – in Sudan, but today it seems clear that it is incapable of containing the web of interdependencies and cross-relationships that have formed over time. For the expert, the history of the Emirates in Sudan is that of a relatively small monarchy that ends up exerting an influence beyond its geostrategic weight, with the Bani Fatima branch of the royal family of Abu Dhabi being able to extend its interests: individuals, companies, banks, merchants, militias and mercenaries. Although the official presence in Sudan is managed through official channels (ministries and diplomats responsible for foreign policy and security), power and decisions pass through dark networks that operate behind the scenes from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. A network that links partners and competitors, state and non-state actors, making the Gulf monarchy an indispensable hub.

The relationship with the Sudanese warlord Hemeti, in particular, reveals a web of seemingly casual connections and activities that link, directly or indirectly, Abu Dhabi with diverse interests ranging from capital to weapons, from gold to mercenaries in the field. A plot that has its origins in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, with repercussions also in Yemen, where Hemeti provided militiamen to fuel the conflict. Operating alongside the UAE, “little Mohamed” received weapons and money. The discovery of thermobaric bombs purchased by the UAE in the hands of the RSF suggests an even more active role, although it remains to be seen whether they were delivered directly or through proxies in Libya. The networks that the UAE has dealt with through players in the region are now operating more or less organically, with Abu Dhabi only having to facilitate capital flows and infrastructure support. Therefore, anyone – including the United States – who wants to mediate to end the fighting in Sudan, Krieg concludes, should “dial the number of the Emirates, because any direct route to Hemeti goes through them.”



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