How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War

How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War

Gulf heavyweights view the conflict as an opportunity to cement their hegemonic status in the Middle East.

Fighting in Sudan, now in its third month, shows no signs of abating. The country’s two rival generals have flouted multiple cease-fires as they vie for control. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who first gained power after the 2019 ousting of longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir and later cemented his position in a 2021 coup, is fighting Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Under Bashir, Hemeti led the RSF (formerly known as the janjaweed) alongside Burhan’s army in Darfur. After a so-called Sovereign Council was formed following the 2021 coup, Hemeti stepped in as Burhan’s deputy. However, their relationship became turbulent as both generals squabbled over power and how to merge the RSF into the Sudanese military. The clashes—which began on April 15—have so far resulted in hefty humanitarian costs, with more than 3,000 people dead and some 2.1 million internally displaced.

But the conflict between Burhan and Hemeti is not just a domestic squabble. Sudan is a bridge that links the Middle East and Africa, and its abundant natural resources mean the battle for Khartoum has taken on a regional dimension. Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view the war as a chance to cement their hegemonic status in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia supports Burhan, the UAE has backed Hemeti.

Given Burhan’s international legitimacy, the chances of an RSF victory over the Sudanese military are slim. More likely is that Burhan and Hemeti establish rival spheres of control in Sudan that mimic the situation in Libya, where an ongoing rivalry between various political and military factions has created a fragmented state with multiple centers of power. In such a scenario, the RSF would be a thorn in the side of Burhan and his external benefactors—giving the UAE added leverage in the country’s future and helping to cement Abu Dhabi as the emerging preeminent power in the Gulf.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—have been ostensible allies for decades. But their relationship has always featured a hint of competition for regional primacy that is now escalating.

For a long time, tensions within the Middle East required Saudi Arabia and the UAE to prioritize partnership over competition. Now, as Riyadh normalizes ties with its archrival Tehran—and appears be to mediating in Lebanon, Syria, as well as among feuding Palestinian political parties—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken his rivalry with the UAE up a notch.

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