Sudan’s recently escalating problems, both domestic and foreign, are due to its regime’s foreign policy stunts. One example of these is the fanfare over Sudan’s decision last month to shut down the Iranian cultural center and its branches across the country and the rumors about what motivated this step given the strong ties between the regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Tehran. Sudanese authorities tried to give a “heroic” touch to the step by announcing that Tehran had sought—in vain—to convince them to reverse the decision which Khartoum said was not negotiable. “Sudan will not allow Iran to take advantage of its needs, whether on the economic, political or military levels in order to achieve its purposes at the expense of society and religion,” Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti said.
Karti, a leading member of the ruling party, intended his statement to relay a message both at home and abroad. On the domestic level, he sought to contain growing criticism against the so-called trend of converting Sunnis to Shi’ism, a phenomenon some religious authorities have threatened to counter. On the international level, Sudan is trying to address the increasing tensions with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, we must ask: If Sudan’s political, military, economic and security ties with Tehran are not new, and if the activities of the Iranian centers, of which it is estimated there are more than 26 comprising cultural centers, schools, societies and libraries, have been known for years, then why has the Sudanese government only now taken this step?
The explanation lies in the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have started implementing punitive economic measures against the Sudanese regime, including a halt to bank dealings and a ban on livestock imports and other commodities. The measures are limited, but the message is strict and clear. The phase of making complaints during bilateral meetings is over, and ties with Sudan have entered a phase of sanctions and punitive measures aimed at forcing Khartoum to reconsider its policies. Obviously, the Sudanese regime is worried given that they come at a time when it faces an escalating economic crisis that may threaten to give rise to protests similar to the ones that took place in September last year.
The problem with the Sudanese regime is that its duplicity has lost it both credibility and friends. That is why some questioned Khartoum’s recent decision and warned it may simply be a maneuver aimed at absorbing the Arabian Gulf’s anger, particularly since Tehran said it had not received any formal notification in this regard and that the step only targeted the Iranian cultural center not the ongoing and well-established political, military and security ties.
On the other hand, the Saudi–UAE measures may be a warning shot but in another direction, prompted by the repercussions of the crisis between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar. Recent reports indicate that Qatar, following pressures from other GCC states aimed at containing the crisis that prompted Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama to recall their ambassadors from Doha, has “partially” agreed to some of the demands. One such demand is keeping Muslim Brotherhood elements, particularly Egyptians, away from its territories. But Qatar did not go far in its implementation of this demand, nor has it changed, it seems, its policy of allying with and supporting the Brotherhood. Qatar has now struck a deal with the Sudanese regime to host members of the Brotherhood, such a step would move GCC pressure onto Sudan as well, which may explain the economic measures on Khartoum.
The Sudanese regime’s secret and public alliances with Islamist movements have been the reason behind its strained foreign relations since the 1990s. These alliances have at different times caused Khartoum problems from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Today these alliances are coming under the spotlight again due to Qatar’s request that it host leading members of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Annoyed by Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, who care about achieving stability in Egypt, will not remain silent in case the Brotherhood leadership moves to Sudan.
Also related to the Brotherhood dossier is the recent debate over the Sudanese plane that was reported to have been transferring weapons for radical Islamist militias that overran the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The Sudanese regime’s support for Libya’s Islamist rebels has been well-known since the last days of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s era, and this has been confirmed by leading members of the Sudanese regime. Regardless of the plane incident, many figures believe that the Sudanese regime and Qatar, as well as other parties, support Libya’s Islamists who, if they reach power, would tighten the Brotherhood’s hold around Egypt.
The Sudanese regime will continue its maneuvers in a bid to adhere to power at any cost, and share its goals and commitments with the Brotherhood. But its political stunts will bring Sudan nothing but more calamities and crises.