The UAE Bet on the Wrong Side in Sudan’s Civil War | WPR ( The UAE’s Meddling in Sudan’s Civil War Is Backfiring.

Elfadil Ibrahim, February 13, 2024.
In the past several weeks, Iranian cargo planes have been spotted landing in Port Sudan, the seat of Sudan’s military-led government since Khartoum fell to its rival in the country’s civil war, the Rapid Support Forces. Last month, also, the RSF shot down an Iranian drone being operated by the Sudanese armed forces. Both developments corroborate allegations that the Sudanese government’s recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iran has been accompanied by military support in the conflict that broke out last April.
Sudan broke off ties with Iran in 2016 at the behest of Saudi Arabia, after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Its decision to reestablish them marks a dramatic shift in the Sudanese government’s reshuffling of alliances, while sending geopolitical shockwaves throughout the Horn of Africa, where the United Arab Emirates has been the primary Gulf player for the past several years. The rapprochement underscores the many ways in which Abu Dhabi’s stance on Sudan’s civil war has backfired, putting its goals in Sudan in serious jeopardy.
Relations between Sudan and the UAE have deteriorated dramatically in recent months as a result of Abu Dhabi’s alleged support for the RSF paramilitary group, led by Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti. In January, Gen. Yasser Atta, the Sudanese armed forces’ second in command, accused the UAE of being “a mafia state” on account of those claims, while Sudan’s United Nations ambassador blasted the UAE for its involvement in front of the Security Council, accusing Abu Dhabi of providing the RSF with heavy weapons and drones. The Sudanese government’s claims were confirmed by a U.N. Panel of Experts report released last month, which deemed the allegations that the UAE is arming the RSF to be “credible.”
Although the UAE has refuted the accusations, its involvement in the conflict is acknowledged even in Washington. A group of U.S. members of Congress penned a letter to UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in December requesting that the UAE “end its support to the RSF,” which they accused of having “systematically destroyed certain communities.”
The tensions underscore how much has changed since 2019, when the UAE played a major role in paving the way for the ouster of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Abu Dhabi then shepherded the post-Bashir transition on terms favorable to its preferences and interests.
After Bashir’s fall, Sudan’s civilian-led transitional government, with which Abu Dhabi was quick to develop ties, began to reshape the country’s foreign relations in a manner consistent with UAE interests. Abu Dhabi also helped Sudan rehabilitate its standing with Washington, which had continued to designate Khartoum as a supporter of terrorism, by brokering contact between Sudan’s post-revolution government and U.S. officials in the UAE in late 2020.
In January 2021, Sudan’s then-Minister of Justice Nasredeen Abdulbari signed a declaration of support for the Abraham Accords on behalf of the transitional government in the presence of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. However, the civil war between the Sudanese armed forces and the RSF erupted before Sudan’s formal signature of the Abraham Accords could take place.
Corralling Arab and Muslim nations to normalize ties with Israel was a critical component of the UAE’s efforts to contain Iran. And as part of that effort, Abu Dhabi worked hard to freeze Iran out of the Red Sea and Horn of Africa regions, where the UAE had been expanding its reach through port management contracts for its state-owned companies as well as through hard military power.
Its state-owned DP World developed and now manages the Berbera port in Somaliland. And on the other side of the Red Sea in Yemen, after putting troops on the ground to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis, the UAE has occupied the Mayun and Socotra islands, giving it control of strategic maritime choke points in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden.
In light of this, the UAE’s backing of the RSF has proven to be counterproductive. In driving the Sudanese armed forces into Tehran’s arms, it has given Iran a foothold in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of war has been a setback for the fight against political Islam in Sudan, as well. Bashir came to power in 1989 through a military coup supported by Sudan’s Islamist movement, which remained a pillar of his regime until he was removed. Though Bashir sent Sudanese soldiers to bolster the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s war effort in Yemen, he refused to rid his government and military of Islamists, a key part of the UAE’s foreign policy agenda after the Arab Uprisings in 2011. He also refused to cut ties with Qatar, which the UAE and its Gulf allies blockaded and accused of supporting “terrorism.”
The UAE’s backing of the RSF in Sudan’s civil war has proven to be counterproductive. In driving the Sudanese armed forces into Tehran’s arms, it has given Iran a foothold in the Red Sea.
As a result, the UAE halted much-needed fuel supplies to Sudan, at a time when protests against the Bashir regime were raging due to corruption, soaring bread prices and shortages of fuel and hard currency. Notably, in congratulating Khartoum on Bashir’s fall in 2019, then-UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that Sudan was turning the page not only on his rule, but also that of “the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The civilian-led transitional government that subsequently took over made headway doing what Bashir couldn’t do, weeding out Islamists from the military and the government until October 2021, when Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan—the head of the Sudanese armed forces—and Hemedti staged a coup together. Those gains were then reversed, as the coup government reinstated many of the Islamists who had been dismissed from their posts and raided the offices of the asset recovery committee that had been recuperating misappropriated wealth.
After the outbreak of fighting between the erstwhile partners in April, Hemedti would come to regret his participation in the coup, calling it in a recent interview a “trap” laid by Burhan to resurrect the Islamists. While his framing of the civil war as a fight against “radical Islamists” is self-servingly exaggerated, the conflict has indeed fueled the trend of empowering Islamists and strengthening them within the Sudanese armed forces and government.
In June, for instance, Burhan appointed Mohamed Ahmed Haj Majid to lead popular mobilization efforts to bolster the armed forces’ capabilities, opening recruitment to all who wanted to fight the RSF. Majid was an enthusiastic participant in the “jihad” against Southern Sudanese rebels during Sudan’s decades-long civil war. He also led the Martyr’s Organization, a government-sponsored charity that dispensed funds to the families and close kin of fallen combatants from the war in the South.
In addition, other long-existing but dormant paramilitary groups with Islamist leanings have re-emerged to fight alongside the Sudanese armed forces, including the Al-Bara bin Malik Brigade, which is composed of Islamist youth linked to the Sudanese Islamist Movement, as well as the Special Operations Unit, an armed wing of the National Intelligence and Security Services that was dominated by Islamists and loyal to Bashir’s spy chief, Salah Gosh. For these reasons, the Special Operations Unit had been dissolved with Hemedti’s support after Bashir’s fall. But it has now been reconstituted for the war against the RSF.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s bet on the RSF has also proved to be a serious miscalculation. Though the RSF has been dominant militarily since the fighting broke out 10 months ago, its inability to consolidate a state in areas under its control is a key stumbling block for its viability as a long-term Emirati surrogate.
Transit fees from oil produced in South Sudan that flow to export terminals on the Red Sea are deposited into accounts controlled by the military government. In addition, the Central Bank, the government’s ministries and foreign diplomatic missions all moved to Port Sudan after the fall of Khartoum to the RSF, which has not yet created any parallel institutions in territories under its control.
Financing aside, the RSF lacks governance know-how and suffers from questionable command and control. RSF soldiers have engaged in wanton looting of homes, banks, factories and all productive infrastructure in areas under its control. In the early days of the war, RSF soldiers fired on diplomatic convoys evacuating the country and attacked the European Union’s ambassador to Sudan, Aidan O’Hara, in his home. Wherever its forces have taken control, they have driven away civilians with their conduct, as evidenced by the massive population displacement that occurs anytime it captures new territory.
Furthermore, Hemedti does not enjoy any of the competitive advantages possessed by UAE-backed surrogates in other conflict zones. The UAE’s proxy in Libya, Khalifa Haftar, controls large swathes of the country’s oil-producing territories, which has allowed him to build a state within a state. Similarly, Aidarous Alzoubaidi, the head of the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, was able to redirect taxes and customs duties raised from the ports and the Aden refinery away from government-controlled accounts and into bank accounts controlled by his UAE-sponsored separatist government.
By contrast, the RSF dominates a landlocked region of Sudan where relentless combat has decimated virtually every institution that could uphold statehood. And although Hemedti does enjoy soft support from Taqqadum, Sudan’s most visible coalition of civilian political leaders, the group’s leaders have not set foot in the country since leaving after the war began. Additionally, the coalition’s members are now regarded as enemies of the state for their contact with Hemedti.
Without a power-sharing deal with the Sudanese armed forces or a sweeping military victory, the RSF will not be able to transform itself into the self-sustaining client state that covert and overt Emirati support has enabled in Yemen and Libya. It can only wage a long-term insurgency that will increase the suffering of the civilian population as well as perpetuate the reputational damage the UAE is already sustaining for its role in the war.
Elfadil Ibrahim is a writer and analyst on Sudanese politics. His work has previously been featured in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Open Democracy and other outlets.


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