Last week, protests broke out in Sudan after the government tripled the price of bread. The protests have continued into this week, with thousands participating in cities across the country. In Khartoum, protestors marched on the presidential palace, calling for President Omar al-Bashir’s resignation, and a coalition of union groups is insisting that a transitional government take his place. Nearly 40 people have been killed by security forces, and on Monday, doctors began a strike in solidarity with the protestors. Al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1989, has promised to answer protestors’ demands with more sweeping reforms, but he has made it clear that he intends to stay in his post.
Sudan is no stranger to civil unrest. Over the past 70 years, it has weathered two civil wars, and a third conflict resulted in its partition, hence South Sudan. But this time, it’s likely that certain regional powers – namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt – are paying close attention to the outcome.
Sudan’s strategic value stems from two geographical features: its Red Sea coast and the convergence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. The Red Sea coastline has proved alluring to Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, while Sudan’s control of the Nile’s northward flow is of interest to its northern neighbor, Egypt, which is highly dependent on that source of water.
When al-Bashir came to power, he signed a defense agreement with Tehran, giving Iran a foothold on either side of Saudi Arabia. Iran proceeded to build weapons factories in Sudan, and it is believed that Israel targeted some of the factories in airstrikes in 2009, 2012 and 2015, concerned as it was that the weapons would be shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon via North Africa and the Mediterranean. But as Iran spreads itself too thin, Sudan has fallen on its list of priorities.
More recently, political and economic changes in Sudan provided an opening for Iran’s greatest rival, Saudi Arabia. In 2011, when South Sudan broke away, it inherited the majority of the formerly shared oil reserves but remained dependent on Sudan for transport to the Red Sea and, therefore, international markets. Sudan needs the income it receives from granting South Sudan access to its ports. Yet the outbreak of South Sudan’s own civil war, which quickly followed its independence, crippled the oil industry. (The recent South Sudan peace deal aimed to increase oil production by 20,000 barrels per day; production had fallen from 350,000 barrels per day at its peak to 135,000 barrels per day). This put additional stress on Sudan’s finances, since it is heavily dependent on oil revenues for its budget. The recent fall in oil prices has only made things worse.
Sudan’s need for foreign investment was an opportunity for Saudi Arabia. The government’s decision to increase bread prices was partly due to Sudan’s declining budget revenues and the sinking value of the Sudanese pound, which fell from 4 pounds to the U.S. dollar in 2014 to 29 today. (That’s just the official rate; the black-market price is closer to 40 pounds to the dollar.) Riyadh injected volumes of capital that Iran simply couldn’t afford, effectively buying Sudan’s alliance. Saudi Arabia pledged at least $11 billion in investment there – in exchange for between 3,000 and 10,000 Sudanese soldiers for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
The exchange has worked for the two. Sudan has military forces and badly needs investment, and Saudi Arabia has money and wants to limit its commitment of ground forces in Yemen. Sudan’s defection to Saudi Arabia was undoubtedly part of the motivation for the U.S. to lift long-standing sanctions on Sudan at the end of 2017, although it did so claiming Sudan had made strides in abandoning aid for terrorism.
Turkey, on the other hand, is setting its sights farther afield as its power in the Middle East grows. The Red Sea is an important trade route for Turkey; it connects the Suez Canal to the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Arabian Sea. Keeping these sea lanes open is critical for Turkey, and having a base south of the Suez Canal gives it a way to pressure Egypt from the rear (useful if Egypt were ever to block Turkey’s access to the Suez Canal, which would affect Turkey’s nautical access beyond the Eastern Mediterranean). Turkey, therefore, has started to invest in building up Sudan’s Suakin port, which is expected to serve as a trade hub – but which could also easily be used as a naval base.
As Turkey becomes more involved in the Middle East, its interests will inevitably butt up against Saudi Arabia’s as the two compete to lead the Sunni world. Turkey’s base in Suakin, therefore, is doubly threatening to Saudi Arabia. It poses the risk of a foreign naval presence off Saudi Arabia’s west coast and will allow Sudan to play Turkey and Saudi Arabia off one another for ever better investment deals.
Egypt, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, is also threatened by Turkey’s involvement in Sudan. The two aren’t especially friendly. Turkey is sympathetic to a unique brand of political Islam that seeks to create a more religious state by using extant secular political structures, as opposed to violent revolution, the imposition of Sharia, and so on. That approach has created close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a likeminded Islamist organization to which the Egyptian government has been historically hostile. When news of Turkey’s port first broke, Egypt was rumored to have sent hundreds or thousands of soldiers to the United Arab Emirates’ base in Eritrea. Egypt denied the deployment’s existence, and in November Sudan and Egypt agreed to joint border patrols. Still, Egypt will remain suspicious of Turkish presence along the Red Sea.
More immediately, Egypt must consider its water supply. Since the Nile is primarily fed by its Blue tributary, which originates in Ethiopia, both Sudan and Ethiopia hold that power. Egypt has had tense negotiations with Ethiopia about the construction of its Grand Renaissance Dam, which it believes could significantly decrease the flow of the Nile, and it can’t risk a similar situation in Sudan.
None of this is to say protests in Sudan will lead to another civil war. Yet today, more so than 20 years ago, regional powers have a greater vested interest in Sudan, so any domestic unrest is unlikely to stay domestic. Ultimately, this is emblematic of a broader trend: increased foreign competition in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.