How Saudi Arabia outmanoeuvred Turkey in Sudan

Turkey’s long silence after the coup against Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir speaks volumes. Ankara welcomed Bashir’s close associates who managed to escape to Turkey, and at the same time, cherished the Sudanese people’s street protests for a democratic transition.

Although supporting the regime against protestors before the coup and supporting the protestors after the coup may seem contradictory, Turkey’s understanding that the Sudanese generals had shifted toward the Saudi axis is accurate, which makes Ankara’s support for a civilian government against the Sudanese military strategically apt.

Ideologically, Turkey’s backing of Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamist parties has been support for the popular will on the ballot boxes, and thus, its current approach makes sense. On the other hand, Bashir’s tyranny had been tolerated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government due to the regime’s Islamist leanings, dating back to Bashir’s 1989 coup that was blessed by Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Hassan Al-Turabi.

The bigger problem perhaps was the fact that Turkey has been betting on a lame duck for a decade: Bashir’s regime has brought about dire economic conditions, while greedy warlords and world-class kleptocrats rose to the highest echelons of power. They proved ready to sell out the Islamist ideology, and anything else, in their own self-interest. Saudis understood this well and exploited the cracks in Bashir’s Sudan.

When Erdoğan met Bashir in December 2017, Sudan had been supporting the Saudi-led intervention for more than a year, with a commitment of some 1,000 troops. Erdoğan hoped to take advantage of the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Sudan in October 2017. Proposed Turkish investments in Sudan included a new airport in Khartoum, a free-trade zone in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and private sector investments in power stations, cotton production, grain silos and meat processing. More importantly, Erdoğan promised to raise the volume of Turkish-Sudanese trade by about $10 billion, and purchased the right to rebuild Suakin Island, a major Ottoman port from the 15th to the 19th century. With plans to establish a naval dock for operating civilian and military vessels, Turkey hoped to benefit from Suakin’s geopolitical location as well as the island’s tourism potential, which would enable Muslim pilgrims to travel to Jeddah by boat on their journey to Mecca.

But, behind the lifting of U.S. sanctions was a complex dynamic. Saudi Arabia bought off a top Sudanese intelligence officer, Taha Al-Hussein, for its war in Yemen. Hussein rose through the ranks and became Bashir's right-hand man after uncovering an alleged coup attempt. As director of the presidential office, Hussein would shuttle back and forth between Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the UAE, and attempt to persuade Bashir to send more Sudanese soldiers to Yemen in exchange for Saudi-Emirati support in lifting U.S. sanctions and getting Sudan removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist sponsors. 

By March 2016, Bashir agreed to send 6,000 elite troops, comprised Janjaweed fighters who became notorious during the Darfur conflict, to support the Saudi side in Yemen. His reward, thanks in part to Saudi-Emirati lobbying in Washington, was that in October 2017 the United States lifted a raft of two-decades-old sanctions, saying that Sudan had begun to address concerns about terrorism and human rights abuses in Darfur.

Turkey bet on deep mistrust developing between Bashir and Riyadh. For example, in June 2017, following the placement of a blockade on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, Bashir ordered the arrest of Hussein at Khartoum airport as he was about to fly to Riyadh, allegedly carrying documents the Saudis would use to accuse Qatar of links to terrorism. Yet Bashir felt pressured to let Hussein flee to Riyadh after learning that his right-hand intelligence officer had already been given Saudi citizenship a few years before.

Such embarrassments were the epitome of what Sudan’s Islamist regime had become. Ankara was overestimating what Bashir could actually deliver in an increasingly corrupt and inept regime. Since then, Hussein diligently worked to depose Bashir, and other ambitious military and intelligence officers did the same. After the April ouster of Bashir, the Saudi-UAE pact promised some $3 billion in economic aid to the Sudanese military council overseeing the transition to democracy. Hussein is now back in Sudan, busy convincing the generals to benefit from contracts with the Gulf.

Turkey’s “wait-and-see” approach in Sudan comes out of necessity. The current head of the Sudanese Military Council General Abdel-Fattah Burhan has declared that Suakin is an “inseparable part” of Sudan.

His tweets made it clear that he planned to scrap Bashir’s Suakin deal with Turkey. "Its value cannot be measured with a material price, its history cannot be sold. We emphasise that we care about the sovereignty of our territories. We will not accept the presence of a foreign military existence in Sudan." 

As the tensions increase between Sudan’s transitional military council and opposition groups leading the civil disobedience campaign, Ankara is likely to increase its vocal support for a civilian transition. Yet, as a similar crisis unfolds in Libya and with the further pressure building in Syria’s Idlib province, Turkey has enough troubles to deal with in its regional foreign policy.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.