March 27, 2015 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia Tries to Flip Sudan

Sudanese President and internationally wanted man Omar al-Bashir landed in Riyadh on Wednesday to kick off his first official visit with Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman. To underscore the significance of his visit, Salman personally greeted Bashir at the airport. Hours later, a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states began carrying out airstrikes in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels. Sudan contributed three fighter jets to the operation.

Sudan’s participation in Operation Storm of Resolve is surprising given Khartoum’s strategic relationship with Iran, which goes back to Bashir’s early days in power. Tehran has long provided Sudan with military support and training, in addition to development projects. Sudan is also suspected of supporting the very rebels that the Sunni coalition is now targeting. According to what are believed to be leaked minutes of a meeting between Sudan’s highest military officials on August 31, the chief of Sudan’s Joint General Staff said his country had aproblem” with Saudi Arabia because Riyadh had learned of weapons his government had transported to Yemeni rebels through the Red Sea.

Bashir’s visit comes amidst major foreign policy changes in Saudi Arabia following former king Abdullah’s death in January. Salman has reportedly deprioritized Abdullah’s regional effort against the Muslim Brotherhood in order to assemble a broader Sunni coalition against Iran along the lines of what is now being put to use in Yemen. Beyond Sudan, Riyadh also reached out to other champions of the Brotherhood – Turkey and Qatar – to boost its leverage against Iran’s proxies in regional battlefields like Syria.

The new Saudi king almost certainly used financial incentives to lure Khartoum further from Tehran’s orbit. Just last year, financially-isolated Sudan anticipated roughly $13 billion in Saudi investments, primarily in the agricultural sector. Salman’s heir, Crown Prince Muqrin, received an investment mission from the Sudanese government last month, and the Sudanese are wary of doing anything to alienate Saudi financial support.

Bashir may have other reasons to fear crossing the Saudi monarchy. The leaked minutes from last year also revealed that Sudan suspected Saudi Arabia’s hand in supporting violent protests in Khartoum that had threatened to destabilize the regime.

Sudan’s information minister now indicates that his country plans to participate in Operation Storm of Resolve until its completion. The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel further reports that Sudan has closed the offices of all Iranian “missions and groups” in the country.

Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led operation against the Iranian-supported Yemeni rebels may indicate that Bashir wants to solidify a new patron for his regime. However, given Sudan’s intimate history with Iran, it remains to be seen whether this is simply a calculated move to temporarily assuage – and test – a new king.

David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Laura Grossman is deputy director for research and an analyst on Africa.