The Cold Logic of Sudanese Foreign Policy

6 MINS READJun 29, 2015 | 09:31 GMT
Sudan: The Geopolitics of Expedience
Supporters welcome Sudanese President Omar al Bashir as he arrives in Khartoum from Johannesburg on June 15 after a court ordered him not to leave South Africa as it decided whether to arrest him over alleged war crimes.


  • As alliances within the Middle East shift, Sudan will continue to explore options and align with those countries that can support its economic and security needs.
  • The International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir will continue to limit the West's ability to work with the Sudanese government.
  • Sudan's loss of oil sector revenue will increase its focus on establishing expedient foreign relations.

In recent months, Stratfor has noted a significant reorientation in Sudanese foreign policy. The country previously had a close relationship with Iran and played a critical part in providing arms to Iranian proxies and to Hamas, but several incidents have indicated a disruption in that relationship. The most notable of these was Khartoum's decision to shut down an Iranian cultural center in Sudan and to expel the associated Iranian diplomatic staff. Sudan cited religious reasons for the move, but the action stood out as an anomaly in the relationship between Khartoum and Tehran.

More recently, however, as the Saudi-led military operations against Houthi rebels and loyalists of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh took shape, Sudan's actions began fitting into a very clear pattern. Sudan was one of the countries that announced support for the Saudi operations, despite its former role in smuggling arms to the Houthi fighters on Iran's behalf. Khartoum reportedly even deployed several fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia to take part in the operations. There are no indications that Sudanese aircraft actually took part in any sorties over Yemen, meaning that Sudan's support for the operation likely has been limited to the political sphere.

Several high-level meetings between Sudanese and Saudi officials, particularly the one between al Bashir and Saudi King Salman in May, starkly contrasted with earlier events, such as when the Saudis refused to allow al Bashir's aircraft to pass through Saudi airspace. These incidents, as well as attempts by the Saudis to drum up an interest in foreign investment in Sudan, indicate a significant change in Sudan's relationships with Iran as well as with Saudi Arabia and its allies. Following his re-election in April, al Bashir even alluded to his intentions of mending ties with the West, which have been strained since 1993, when Sudan's human rights record and alleged support of terrorist activity led the United States to add Sudan to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Sudan's Foreign Policy Calculations

The timing of this shift in Sudan's geopolitical posture is no coincidence. For Khartoum, questions about the viability of the state and the government have been circulating since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. With the loss of sovereignty over many oil fields to South Sudan, oil production in Sudan plummeted from around 450,000 barrels per day to 100,000 barrels per day. Moreover, although Sudan controls the pipelines South Sudan needs to export its oil and Khartoum has earned significant revenue from transit rights, these exports have declined as a result of South Sudan's civil war, which has been raging since late 2013. With its oil sector revenue drastically diminished, Khartoum has encountered significant economic challenges that have even led to dollar reserve shortages at times. Thus, Khartoum's budget has become austere, and Sudan has become more reliant on foreign investment in oil and non-energy sectors and on foreign aid.

As Sudan's domestic environment has changed, so have relations within the wider Middle East region. Sudan initially developed close ties with Iran because of their shared status as pariah states. At the time, Sudan benefited greatly from Iran's support in setting up an indigenous arms industry, as al Bashir waged direct wars against rebels in Darfur and the area that became South Sudan and fought indirectly with the rebels' backers in neighboring countries.

However, the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks are expected to change Iran's position and to impact Sudan's calculations about its relationship with Tehran. Moreover, the United States has been trying to disengage from direct action in the Middle East and depend more on local partners. The Gulf Cooperation Council states are wary of an Iran free of sanctions and are concerned about a perceived reduction in U.S. support. As a result, the Gulf states are trying to establish a new alliance structure to counter the new U.S. position in the region. Sudan is attaching itself to this new structure.

The Logic of Sudan's New Relationships

Sudan's reorientation away from an alliance with Iran and toward one with Iran's opponents is not necessarily a dramatic shift in the way Sudan conducts foreign policy. Khartoum has always left itself many options and has chosen the one that is the most expedient during specific circumstances. During its close security relationship with Iran, Sudan already had significant financial ties to Saudi Arabia and received much financial support from Qatar. The recent shifts are perhaps better interpreted as an important evolution within Khartoum's typical multi-vectored policy.

From the Gulf Cooperation Council's perspective, creating or reinforcing ties with Sudan makes perfect sense in the context of the Gulf nations' attempt to establish a broader regional alliance structure. Sudan might not be an economic powerhouse or a military superpower, but Khartoum has ties with many different actors throughout the region and is somehow involved in most of the crises that the Gulf countries are now addressing. In Libya, Sudan stopped supporting militants fighting the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and began giving vocal support to the Tobruk government after Egypt and the United Arab Emirates began conducting limited airstrikes to support it. Egypt has also been able to use its ties with Sudan to generate more cooperation in the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam dispute. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has pushed for significant investment in the Sudanese livestock sector to secure adequate food supplies for the Saudi population.

The Saudis and Sudanese have immensely interconnected interests, particularly in the realm of finance, and the Saudis have used these connections to twist Sudan's arm into cooperating. By denying Sudan access to the use of Saudi financial institutions, on which Khartoum depends, Riyadh gave al Bashir and his regime no choice but to reconsider its foreign policy alignment.

Sudan has indicated that it wants to keep going on this trajectory and to explore the potential for a rapprochement with the West, most notably the United States. Some have claimed that part of the conditions for Khartoum's alignment with Riyadh is Saudi support in re-establishing those ties. Sudan and the United States had a close security relationship in the 1970s, but Sudan's sponsorship of terrorist activities and its relationship with Iran have made it an unlikely candidate for such a relationship now. Al Bashir's standing arrest warrant for charges of genocide would make it very difficult for fruitful cooperation between Sudan and the United States to emerge, as would Sudan's ongoing involvement in regional conflicts (especially in South Sudan, a country in which Washington has invested significant political capital). Some limited interaction and even cooperation in certain fields could begin at lower levels of government, but a substantial change in relations between Sudan and the West will remain unlikely until al Bashir steps down.

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