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After Bashir: Sudan’s Shifting Role in the Middle East and Africa

Gulf countries could attempt to influence country’s changing regional power dynamic as military takes on greater importance, analysts say

As Sudan transitions to a new government following 30 years of repressive rule under ex-president Omar al-Bashir, the country may be poised to take on a new role in a region struggling with Islamist insurgencies.

Sitting at the crossroads between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan has long been beset by power struggles and conflict.

Last month, the military deposed al-Bashir after months of widespread demonstrations calling for an end to his rule.

Questions still remain about the country’s political future and analysts say that a number of neighboring powers could attempt to influence its direction as instability and protests there continue.

Sim Tack, a global analyst at Stratfor — a leading geopolitical forecasting firm based in Austin, Texas — explained that Sudan has pivoted from its previous alignment with Iran towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.

“For those Gulf countries, in addition to isolating Iran by seducing its allies, Sudan offers opportunities for agricultural investment and food production, as well as a military capability that Saudi Arabia has gladly leaned on for its war effort in Yemen,” Tack told The Media Line, referring to the military intervention the Saudis launched in 2015 against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Along with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, Khartoum has deployed fighter jets as well as ground forces in Yemen. According to local media reports, thousands of Sudanese soldiers are currently stationed in Yemen, though no exact numbers are available.

Some in Sudan, including opposition leader Sadiq Al-Mahdi, are against the country’s participation in the Saudi-led conflict and have called on the government to pull out its troops from Yemen.

However, last month the head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) indicated that the African country would keep its forces there.

In addition, Tack said, Sudan is looking towards the West. “This has even led to the [possibility of] Sudan being removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list by the US,” he noted. “[However], Sudan is not looking for a new commitment in terms of full alignment, but rather opening itself up to the international community as a way to enable trade, investment, and normalizing its interaction with the rest of the world to avoid negative effects of foreign actions like sanctions.”

Although a civilian-led transition would provide Sudan with more much-needed Western support, other actors such as the Gulf countries prefer that the military take on a “stronger role” because of its already existing close ties with Gulf allies, Tack added.

The TMC is set to govern Sudan for a two-year transitional period, after which it has promised to hold general elections, but protesters are demanding that it hand over power to a civilian government as soon as possible.

The Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), a broad coalition of opposition parties and one of the main forces behind the uprising against al-Bashir, has ratcheted up the pressure by declaring a two-day general strike.

The DFCF and TMC are at loggerheads over who will be in charge of the political transition.

Sherif Mohyeldeen, a non-resident scholar at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, stressed that Sudan plays a “vital role” at the regional level, especially with the regards to border security with neighboring countries like Egypt and Ethiopia.

He believes that Sudan’s traditional geopolitical influence has been characterized by its “continued history of conflict and instability,” and that a peaceful and non-violent transition of power would provide a good model for other countries to follow.

“The best-case scenario for the ongoing Sudanese uprising is for it to change [its] track… spreading the hope of change to other Arab and African nations,” Mohyeldeen told The Media Line.

Because of Sudan’s strategic location, allies and regional players have an interest in impacting the unfolding political situation, other analysts noted.

“Geopolitically, [Sudan] is [critical] because it sits on the Red Sea,” Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow specializing in the Horn of Africa at the London-based Chatham House, told The Media Line. “As well, it has been a contributor of troops to the Saudi coalition’s efforts in Yemen… so it’s an important member of several regions.”

While the main focus at the moment is to put in place a civilian-led administration, the transition is unlikely to be a smooth one, said Soliman.

“What we are coming to understand is that there will be an important role for the military and the [TMC] in any new emerging [leadership],” he noted.

Indeed, Sudan’s future role in the region will depend on the type of administration that eventually cements its rule.