Sudan has been dodging Saudi and Iranian ambitions in Africa for some time now. A discussion is merited on the precedent and reasons for the recent change in Khartoum’s policy towards the Persian Gulf powers.
The foreign relations of Sudan vis-a-vis the nations of the Persian Gulf countries has been characteristically marked by two phases, one of co-operation with Iran, and the other of co-option with Saudi Arabia. Despite the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, it has struggled to regain a foothold in Sudan, perhaps for good reason. As it presently stands Saudi Arabia has solidified its stance in Sudan, gratis largely to its shrewd political maneuvering.
Contemporary relations between Sudan and Iran were solidified under the rule of the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), during whose reign marked the signing of an economic assistance agreement with Nimeiry’s Sudan.1 There were a number of goals behind the Shah’s political incursion into Sudan, namely, to undercut Arab influence in Black Africa, the establishment of markets for Iranian oil, and access to raw commodities that would be needed to fund the Shah’s industrial ambitions.
While relations were warm between the two, nothing suggests that any “special relationship” was formed during this time, as Iran had previously concluded a number of economic agreements with other African nations including Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Zaire, among others. The ouster of the Shah in the 1979 revolution, significantly debilitated relations between the two nations, despite the now more similar political structures the two nations shared. As relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran became strained following the revolution, Khartoum broke relations with Tehran, resulting in a distinct pro-Saudi posture for the 1980s.2
Concurrently, starting in the 1960’s, Saudi Arabia enjoyed an excellent liaison with Sudan, in a relationship of a similar nature to that enjoyed between Iran and Sudan. Saudi Arabia granted a number of generous loans to Sudan, eventually becoming its largest creditor for the majority of the 1970s and 1980s.3 For the former, the latter held not only a large Arab population but also a geostrategically important position along the Red Sea, an important trade route for Saudi oil to travel. Sudan played a vital role in the Iran-Iraq war, providing fighters to aid Iraq, and aiding to secure the Red Sea for the oil traffic when Saudi Arabia’s oil tankers became compromised as a result of the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf.
1989 to 2005
The 1989 coup in Sudan came as a welcome change for the regime in Tehran, who soon took steps to improve its relationship with Khartoum. By early 1991, Iran had transferred over $300 million in armaments to the new government in Sudan, with the former’s president visiting Khartoum in late 1991.4
In response, the fundamentalist al-Bashir government in Khartoum began to increasingly toe the line set by Tehran, alienating them from Saudi Arabia. During this time, Sudan also drifted concurrently into the Iraqi sphere of influence, even going as far as to support Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war.5 One Saudi diplomat was reported to have said, “Betrayal is just not a strong enough word…they took our money, then stabbed us in the back.”6
For Sudan, closer ties to Iran in the 1990’s also gave way to rising fundamentalism, forging for Iran a bulwark counterweight that would serve to keep the Saudi-Egypt axis in check. Unfortunately, the adverse effects of alienating such allies—who had long been generous in provisions of foreign aid, resulted in poor economic relief efforts during the humanitarian crisis of the 1990’s.
2005 to Present
As the Second Sudanese civil war drew to a close, Iranian influence in Sudan began to wane, as the flow of foreign aid from other countries grew. Despite this, from at least 2008 onwards the former used its privileged position in the latter to dock flotillas, when off duty from patrolling the Gulf of Aden.7
Following the sanctions placed upon Iran spawning from its nuclear program, its regional influence became significantly diminished. With the loss of South Sudan in 2011, and consequently oil revenues drying up, Khartoum fell to the patronage of Saudi Arabia. The former provisioned copious amounts of aid provisioned to Sudan, reported being as high as $11 billion.
Perhaps not understanding the strings that were attached, Sudan still attempted to pursue normal relations with Iran, much to Saudi Arabia’s chagrin. The latter went as far as to deny permission to a plane carrying Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to cross its airspace for the swearing-in of President Rouhani.8 Additionally, Iranian military aid to Sudan has practically dried up during this period.
It became apparent, in a very overt manner that Sudan was not to pursue further relations with Iran. By 2015, when the former’s cash-poor government woefully accepted a $1 billion deposit from Saudi Arabia and climaxed in early 2016 when Sudan broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.9 Since then, Sudan has also taken a number of steps to improve its relationship with Israel and the West, perhaps hoping they will help develop Sudan’s struggling economy. In some ways, this has simplified perceptions of Sudanese foreign policies to appear completely partial to the nation who brings the most economic aid.
Actions such as the 2014 closing of Iranian and Shia cultural centers in Khartoum have not been taking kindly to by both Shia groups loyal to Iran. Moreover, the Islamic Republic does not take kindly to allies that abandon it and can wield a vast array of asymmetrical tactics to destabilize regimes. With Saudi-backed Sufiism decaying in Sudan, Tehran may well try to stir instability through sponsoring Shia protests against the central government. Alternatively, it may use an emerging regional power, such as Libya to recast its shadow in the area.
For the present, it appears that Sudan’s strategy towards the Persian Gulf is working, however, the African nation would do well to make the break with countries like Iran in a more diplomatic manner, to avoid drawing international attention to itself.
Furthermore, it is pertinent that the aid given by nations like Saudi Arabia is prioritized for economic development, as it is unclear how many strikes the regime in Khartoum has incurred in both Tehran’s and Riyadh’s respective playbooks.
About the author:
*Luciano Arvin is an independent scholar based out of Peterborough, Ontario.
1. Belmonte, Monica L., and Edward C. Keefer. Foreign relations of the United States, 1969-1976, V. XXVII, Iran, Iraq, 1973-1976. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2012. Print. P. 200
2. Rubin, Lawrence. Islam in the balance: ideational threats in Arab politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. Print. P. 63-70
4. Strategic Survey 1991-1992, London: Brassey’s for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1992. P. 106.
5. Makinda, Samuel M. “Iran, Sudan and Islam.” The World Today, vol. 49, no. 6, 1993, P. 108–111, www.jstor.org/stable/40396511.
6. Rubin. Islam in the balance: ideational threats in Arab politics. 2016, P. 67
7. Anderson, G. Norman. Sudan in crisis: the failure of democracy. Gainesville: U Press of Florida, 1999. Print. P. 240
8. AFP. “Sudan’s Bashir barred from Saudi airspace.” Al Jazeera English. 4 Aug. 2013. Web.
9. AFP. “Why has Sudan ditched Iran in favour of Saudi Arabia?” The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2016. Web
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