How horrors in Sudan undermined US trust in its top Arab allies

Why We Wrote This

In relations between allies, common interests are important. So are common values. The Sudan military’s violent crackdown on civilian protesters has exposed a sharp split between the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies on both fronts.

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A protester flashes the victory sign in front of burning tires and debris on road 60, near Khartoum's army headquarters, in Khartoum, Sudan, June 3.

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The United States and its top Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were way out of sync on Sudan. Days after meeting with Emirati and Saudi rulers in Mecca and Abu Dhabi, leaders of Sudan’s military junta cut off talks with the country’s civilian and pro-democratic opposition. What followed was a brutal massacre in which more than 120 were confirmed dead.

The State Department then took the unusual step to publicize phone calls between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi and Emirati officials. “They are sending a message to the Saudis and to the UAE that we want a civilian government and that they should stop supporting this military regime that is violating human rights,” says Herman J. Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

But even as the U.S. moves now to contain the bloodshed, another dynamic is in play, say Arab diplomats familiar with White House policy: a reported personal “disinterest” in Sudan among President Donald Trump and his immediate inner circle that is allowing the U.S. State Department to reassert itself.

The brutal repression of pro-democracy protesters by Sudan’s military is exposing cracks in the United States-Gulf Arab alliance, under which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been entrusted to safeguard U.S. interests in the region.

At its core, the spiraling violence in Sudan is showcasing diverging threat perceptions between the U.S. and its Gulf partners. While the U.S. is concerned about the potential rise of extremism and anti-U.S. terrorism, its allies are focused on democratic impulses in Sudan that would threaten their own internal stability.

But even as the U.S. moves now to contain the bloodshed, another dynamic is in play, say Arab diplomats familiar with White House policy: a reported personal “disinterest” in Sudan among President Donald Trump and his immediate inner circle that is allowing the U.S. State Department to reassert itself.

With the U.S. dispatching its top diplomat on Africa to Khartoum, it appears the days of Gulf Arab monarchs steering U.S. policy in the region may be numbered. 

The Gulf playbook

After Sudanese people-power toppled longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in April, the military and democracy activists held talks over a transition to a civilian government.

Then Saudi Arabia and the UAE dusted off the playbook they had used in post-revolution Egypt and Libya: Bolster a strongman, cement a friendly military dictatorship, repress all calls for democracy and dissent.

Yet while the strategy cemented Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s grip on power and propelled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord, to a near-victory, something went wrong in Sudan last week.

Days after meeting with Emirati and Saudi rulers in Mecca and Abu Dhabi, leaders of Sudan’s military junta cut off talks with the opposition – a move many observers expected would be followed with a crackdown on protesters.  

Yet unlike the brutal efficiency of Mr. Sisi’s gunning down of Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the streets of Cairo in 2013, the crackdown by the military junta in Khartoum was gory, recalling the atrocities of the janjaweed militia.

Dozens of bloated bodies, some hacked to death, were recovered from the bottom of the Nile. Mass rape was reported. Viral videos spread of militiamen taunting and laughing as they clubbed old men and women. More than 120 people were confirmed dead. And then, an Internet blackout was imposed that continued as of Wednesday.

The Gulf monarchies had unleashed the scorched-Earth genocidal violence previously carried out by the fringes of Mr. Bashir’s regime in Darfur and South Sudan onto the streets of Khartoum for the very first time – and in front of cameras.

Cleaning up the mess

“The Sudanese, African, and Arab publics and the international community are starting to realize the impact of Gulf intervention in Sudan,” says Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

“These massacres and brutal crackdown have Saudi and UAE fingerprints all over it, and the U.S. administration is implicated as supporting them by supplying weapons and political support to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.”

In the wake of the violence, the State Department took the unusual step to publicize phone calls between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi and Emirati officials.

Mr. Hale spoke with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman “about the brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters by Sudan’s Transitional Military Council on June 3,” according to the State Department, in which Mr. Hale noted “the importance of a transition from the Transitional Military Council to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people.”

A second communiqué noted that Mr. Hale called UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash to “discuss the situation in Sudan and efforts to support a political solution.”

According to veteran U.S. diplomats, the communiqués sent a message to both Arab capitals and the military junta in Sudan that “the U.S. does not accept the Saudi and UAE arguments” for military rule in Khartoum.

“They are sending a message to the Saudis and to the UAE that we want a civilian government and that they should stop supporting this military regime that is violating human rights and is, at its basic form, the janjaweed militia,” says Herman J. Cohen, former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Privately, U.S. diplomats in the Middle East speak of frustration in Washington that the U.S. must intervene, as one put it, to “clean up their mess” in Sudan.

Regional stability

Central to Washington’s and the Gulf’s disagreement over Sudan is regional stability.

Sudan, which straddles both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, has implications for dozens of nearby states including Ethiopia, Egypt, Chad, Somalia, and even across the Red Sea.

There is a growing apprehension that instability in Sudan could threaten U.S. interests and its allies; it was from Sudan that Al Qaeda plotted and arranged the deadly 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people.

However, the UAE and Saudi Arabia view Sudan purely through the lens of their own regimes’ stability and economic interests, according to those close to their thinking. A continuation of a military regime in Khartoum dependent on the Gulf would ensure the continued supply both of Sudanese soldiers and militias to fight their war in Yemen and cheap agricultural produce to their arid countries.

And the repression of democracy advocates, they believe, would prevent an export of protests and demands for freedoms and civil liberties back home.

“I think Saudis and officials in UAE are content to have an autocratic government there, largely because they think it will forestall the prospects of jihadists taking control and ensure their stability,” says Johnnie Carson, a former ambassador who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Obama administration. 

“But the reality is that if in fact the will of the Sudanese people is suppressed under a military authority, then we will see continued instability in that country, and that instability will have effects far outside its borders,” Mr. Carson says.

Remnants of the regime

Increasing the tensions between the White House and the Gulf are vastly differing views of the Sudanese military council that has seized power.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council, is a favored ally of Riyadh, and his Rapid Support Forces are fighting in Yemen. But to the U.S., Mr. Hamdan is a war criminal who helped lead the janjaweed forces’ genocidal atrocities in Darfur.

The rest of the council are remnants of the Bashir regime, which had previously harbored Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and exported jihadists to Somalia, raising concerns within the National Security Council that unless a peaceful handover to a civilian government occurs, extremism could breed in Sudan once again.

This turns on its head the core argument Saudi Arabia and the UAE has used to champion military regime proxies across the Arab world: put in a strongman, or the Islamists will rise up.

In Sudan this line of reasoning has fallen flat for some members of the Trump administration, particularly among hawkish advisers such as John Bolton, who described the recent massacre as “abhorrent.” 

As the State Department reasserts its role, the White House this week appointed Donald Booth, a respected career diplomat with intimate knowledge of Africa, as a special adviser on Sudan.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy was expected to arrive in Khartoum Wednesday to hold talks with the military junta to urge a civilian transition, an admission that diplomacy by proxy through Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has had “catastrophic” results.

“Sudan is an enormously important state to get right,” says Mr. Carson. “The U.S. has to engage both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get them to understand that it is in their own interests as well as our interests – and most importantly the people of Sudan – to have a civilian-led government and not an authoritarian government controlled by military officials.”

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