Analysis: Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic energy, soft power in Sudan

UN officials say the talks in Jeddah will continue and hopefully lead to a ceasefire in the near future.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (right) speaks with Sudan's Ambassador to Egypt Abdelaziz Hassan Saleh during an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, Egypt.
Saudi Arabia is trying to demonstrate its ability to play a leading diplomatic role in the Arab world [File: Khaled Desouki/AFP]

A month into Sudan’s ongoing conflict, there have been more than 600 deaths. The humanitarian disaster in the country is worsening as violence in Khartoum and other parts of the country continues.

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), controlled by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, are fighting for control of the country in a struggle they see as existential.

Few analysts are optimistic about peace returning to Sudan any time soon. On May 6, representatives of both sides began their first talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, since Sudan’s crisis erupted on April 15.

Five days later, the SAF and the RSF signed a “declaration of principles”, committing to ending their occupation of private homes, removing their forces from public and private properties, implementing measures that provide protection to civilians and medics, and facilitating humanitarian relief to people in need. The declaration also addressed refraining from torture, forced disappearances, sexual violence, and recruitment of child soldiers.

However, the talks – brokered by Saudi Arabia and the United States – failed to bring the violence to an end as air raids and artillery attacks continued in Khartoum one day after the declaration was signed.

United Nations officials say the talks in Jeddah will continue and hopefully lead to a ceasefire soon. Regardless of the results, holding these talks indicates that Saudi Arabia is trying to demonstrate its ability to play a leading diplomatic role in the Arab world after years of a sullied global image caused by the war in Yemen.

Earlier in the year, Saudi Arabia had surprised diplomatic observers by agreeing to restore ties with Iran, a longtime regional rival. The move was welcomed by many as a positive step in calming regional conflicts that the two countries had found themselves on opposing sides of.

The diplomatic energy Saudi Arabia is putting into deescalating the Sudanese crisis must be understood within the context of Riyadh’s interests. Analysts say that the kingdom has nothing to gain from instability in Sudan, which can drive a refugee crisis and create new opportunities for armed groups.

Turmoil in Sudan could also harm Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda, especially given its plans for NEOM – a zero-carbon smart city project – and tourist attractions on its Red Sea coast. Sudan is also an important investment destination for Saudi Arabia, particularly with respect to the kingdom’s food security strategies.

Nonetheless, Riyadh will be challenged to help restore stability to Sudan. With both al-Burhan and Hemedti seeing the fight as existential and the two sides seemingly committed to destroying the other, an end to the conflict in the short term may be difficult to foresee.

“Just because it’s an important test for Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy one,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), told Al Jazeera.

“The same applies to the US role in trying to reassert its brokering ability in the Middle East region after many years of all too often declining to play that role or having frozen itself out of diplomatic processes by refusing to speak to one or more major actors in a given situation.”

Despite Saudi intentions, events on the ground in Sudan will determine the result. “If one side is gaining a military advantage over the other, then we’re more likely to see concessions from the losing side,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North African analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE.

“Right now, given that no foreign powers are currently moving into Sudan to substantially alter the balance of power, it seems likely that the RSF and the Sudanese military will continue to fight until they’re either exhausted or one has a military breakthrough.”

Evacuations and soft power

Beyond negotiations, Saudi Arabia has also been active in facilitating the evacuation of foreigners from Sudan since the fighting broke out. By sending naval and commercial ships to Port Sudan to ferry about 8,000 people of various nationalities to Jeddah, the Saudis have been able to buy a significant amount of goodwill.

“Riyadh’s facilitation of evacuation of foreigners illustrates Saudi Arabia’s significance as an indispensable actor in the region,” explained Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at AGSIW.

“This is an illustration that Saudi Arabia is not just a significant economic actor, but also a geopolitical and geostrategic one. Their efforts are perhaps a loud yet implicit response to those in Western capitals who argue that Saudi Arabia is not as strategically important as it once was, and therefore their relations with [Riyadh] ought to change.”

The Saudi role in evacuating foreigners from Sudan in recent weeks has been a “net positive” for Riyadh’s diplomatic strategy, said Bohl.

“While it certainly doesn’t change the minds of those who are anti-Saudi partisans, it does improve the country’s image in places like Washington who are nevertheless still viewing Saudi Arabia’s increasingly independent foreign policy with scepticism.”

A special role

Saudi Arabia’s unique position in the Arab world gives it a special diplomatic role to play in relation to Sudan’s crisis.

“The leaders of the SAF and the RSF view Saudi Arabia as neutral,” said Youseif Basher, a Sudanese journalist. “The [Sudanese] army views Ethiopia and Kenya as allies of the RSF, while the RSF sees Egypt as a strong ally of the army.”

The RSF, which has received high levels of Emirati support for years, views Egypt with mistrust, which means that Saudi Arabia is somewhat balanced between Abu Dhabi and Cairo’s positions in Sudan.

As both al-Burhan and Hemedti vie for external legitimacy, the two seek Riyadh’s support. “Both Sudanese generals view Saudi Arabia as an important actor to have on their side,” Alghashian said.

“In other words, they both realise they cannot afford to have Saudi Arabia against them, hence why both generals [are willing] to have Saudi play a mediatory role.”

Within this context, although it is unclear if either side will be making any compromises towards peace, both al-Burhan and Hemedti’s sides concluded that it was in their interest to show up in Jeddah.

“It wouldn’t benefit either to boycott or provoke Saudi Arabia, the US, and the international community by refusing to even meet,” Ibish told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera