Hemeti’s patrons in the Gulf
By Austin Bodetti
Sitting at the edge of Sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan has often seemed an outlier in the Arab world. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have turned the African country into the latest frontier of a campaign for regional hegemony.
Ongoing protests that sparked the downfall of Sudan’s ex-President Omar al-Bashir and the ascent of like-minded strongmen have only increased the sense of urgency in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where policymakers are working to ensure that Sudan, a recent but critical ally, remains within the Emirati/Saudi-led bloc’s ever-expanding sphere of influence.
After the Sudanese Armed Forces staged a coup d’état against Bashir on April 11 in response to demonstrations against his decades-long rule, the putschists handed power to the Transitional Military Council (TMC), a junta led on paper by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Most observers, however, believe that General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. “Hemeti”), who acts as Burhan’s deputy, holds the greatest sway in Khartoum. Hemeti also remains popular with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Hemeti commands the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force that has fought rebels from Sudan’s minority groups in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. The RSF served as a replacement for the Janjaweed, militias that, like the RSF, committed war crimes in a punitive interpretation of counterinsurgency.
Under Hemeti’s watch, the RSF has sent fighters, including children, to support an Emirati- and Saudi-led war against the Houthis, Iranian-allied militants in Yemen. Despite the upheaval in Sudan, 30,000 Sudanese soldiers continue serving in Yemen.
In May, Hemeti took his first trip abroad as his country’s newest strongman, attending a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and declaring that Sudan would keep backing MbS’s push against Iran and the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have rewarded Hemeti’s loyalty, sending Sudan USD 3 billion in financial assistance and humanitarian aid a week after the coup.
While Hemeti was cementing his alliance in Riyadh, Burhan visited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), as well as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, another strongman aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. MbS and MbZ’s patronage for Hemeti mirrors what happened in Egypt, where Sisi, a former general, circumvented the democratic demands of the Arab Spring by usurping power in a coup and violently quashing dissent. Sisi too has benefited from Emirati and Saudi largesse, hinting at the regional powers’ wider strategy.
Despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s success in influencing Egypt’s trajectory, MbS and MbZ will likely encounter unique risks in Sudan. Before joining Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s war on the Houthis in 2015, Sudan had established a strategic partnership with Iran, only cutting ties in a bid to court Saudi investment in early 2016.
Iran’s military and political alliance with Sudan lasted no less than a quarter century. In 2010, Bashir’s opponents alleged that he had allowed Iran to build a factory in Sudan to arm the Houthis and other Iranian-allied actors. In Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, Sudan’s relationship with Iran raised grave concerns that Tehran could use Khartoum as a platform to project influence across Africa.
Although Hemeti is now trying to earn goodwill from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, pleasing their anti-Qatari leaders by expelling al-Jazeera and refusing to meet a Qatari delegation, little would stop him from following Bashir’s example and switching to a more generous patron at a moment’s notice.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will have to decide how long they can look past Sudan’s decades-old associations with ethnic cleansing and terrorism. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum in the 1990s under Bashir’s protection; the United States—Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s most important ally—has considered Sudan a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1993.
In 2004, Washington termed Bashir’s ruthless war on rebels in Darfur “genocide.” The Janjaweed, in which Hemeti served as a commander, not only spearheaded that campaign but also committed its worst atrocities.
Will Saudi Arabia and the UAE hesitate to link themselves further to one of the Arab world’s most notorious regimes as the regional powers struggle to move past their own reputational challenges?
Any partnership with the TMC could cause significant damage to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s standing in the international community, which has already criticized the pair’s crackdown on domestic human rights activists and role in thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen. For its part, Saudi Arabia is still dealing with the fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents.
When Hemeti dispatched the RSF to disperse protesters in Khartoum on June 3, he compounded his own difficulties with the international community. The RSF killed one hundred demonstrators and injured another seven hundred, seventy survivors of rape among them. Britain, France, Germany, the US, and the African Union condemned the massacre.
All the while, Hemeti has declined to extradite Bashir and other Sudanese officials wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated in Darfur, likely realizing that the ICC could one day move to prosecute him as well.
As Riyadh and Abu Dhabi navigate Sudan’s post-coup turmoil, the cost-benefit ratio of their alliance with Hemeti will likely define their decision-making. Enough outcry from the international community might force the regional powers to reconsider their ties to the strongman, but his contributions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s war machine in Yemen have made the partnership worthwhile so far.
Based on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s sustained support for authoritarians in Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely overlook Hemeti’s abuses as long as the Sudanese strongman keeps Khartoum aligned with Saudi and Emirati national interests. From Sudan’s perspective, meanwhile, exporting tens of thousands of soldiers seems a small price to pay for escaping international isolation and receiving billions from the Persian Gulf, allowing this tenuous marriage of convenience to persist.