Sudan: Bashir Weathers the Storm

Ambassador Haim Koren investigates the longevity of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, in sharp contrast to the leaders of many neighboring countries.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir at the 12th AU Summit.  Public domain.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir at the 12th AU Summit.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The internal and geopolitical upheavals that have roiled the Middle East since 2011 have not left Sudan untouched. The military-led, Islamist-oriented regime of ʿUmar al-Bashir, which assumed power in 1989 —and somehow managed to survive a civil war and the eventual secession of the southern provinces, Bashir’s 2009 indictment as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court (for mass killings and pillage in Sudan’s Darfur province), and decades of U.S.-led sanctions owing to Sudan’s ties to terrorist groups— now faces new geopolitical and internal challenges that have compelled it to recalibrate its policies.

Traditionally, Sudan, which attained independence in 1956 after a half-century of rule by an Anglo-Egyptian condominium (British rule by another name), was deemed by its northern and larger neighbor, Egypt, as being part of its natural and vital sphere of influence, owing primarily to Egyptian concern for maintaining the flow of the Nile River. In the mid-1980s, the relationship soured, as Sudan became more stridently Islamist under the influence of the ideologue and activist Hasan al-Turabi, who played an important supporting role in Bashir’s coup. Although Sudanese Islam is Sunni, the new regime developed close ties with Shiʿi Iran, as part of its redefinition as a militantly Islamic and anti-Western regime. Part of this new orientation also led it to provide aid and succor to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaʿida.

In 2011, the Sudanese Foreign Minister began publicly calling for Sudan to reduce its ties to Iran and seek better relations with Saudi Arabia. This move came in response to Sudan's growing international isolation owing to its continued identification of Sudan as part of an "axis of resistance" led by Iran. Eventually, this bore fruit, particularly in the context of the intensifying Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. In 2016, Saudi Arabia persuaded Sudan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands (all members of the Arab League) to break off diplomatic relations with Iran in exchange for increased economic support. The civil war in Syria further pushed the Saudis to strengthen its Sunni coalition, which includes Sudan, while the Saudis also battle Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Concurrently, Western governments began pointing to Sudan as an island of relative stability in a chaotic region, owing to Sudan’s participation in fighting terrorism and its contribution to slowing the flow of immigration from Africa to Europe.[1] However, this more favorable view of Sudan in Western capitals was not shared by its neighbors – Egypt, Eritrea, and South Sudan – which accused Khartoum of continuing to sponsor terror.[2]

Domestically, Sudan has witnessed frequent labor strikes and unrest in recent years, particularly since U.S. and U.N. sanctions have contributed to Sudan having one of the weakest economies in Africa. For example, towards the end of 2016, medical doctors struck for higher wages, while hundreds of thousands of Sudanese boycotted governmental offices. Declining oil revenues, a significant source of income for the state, forced Bashir to lower the subsidy on fuel in 2017, causing much bitterness. That same year, university students engaged in often violent protests against economic hardships, violations of freedom of speech, and arrests of students, and even called for the regime’s demise. Recently, a court’s sentencing to death of a teenage bride for killing her husband during his attempt to (again) rape her triggered widespread protests that resulted in its cancellation. In September, Bashir dismissed his entire 31-member cabinet and appointed a new prime minister to tackle Sudan's inflation crisis, which has greatly increased the cost of living for the Sudanese public.[3]

One of the consequences of Sudan’s joining the coalition of Sunni Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia has been hints that it might be open to improved relations with Israel. Speaking in 2017, Yousif al-Kuda, leader of the Islamic opposition party al-Wasat, noted the costs of Sudan’s traditional anti-Israel stance over the years. Al-Kuda, a controversial cleric, said “there is no religious law prohibiting us from changing our anti-Israeli stance and examining our ties with Israel.” He continued, “now, countries that maintain contact with Israel have a stronger position to demand Palestinian rights.” Al-Kuda drew a connection between the possible establishment of economic, commercial and diplomatic ties with Israel and stability and peace in Sudan. This was the second public statement on the subject within a year. In January 2017, the issue was raised in Sudan’s National Dialogue conference, which included Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandor’s statement: “The issue of normalizing the relations with Israel is a matter that can be examined.”[4] Were this to lead to something concrete, it would undoubtedly result in the easing of Western sanctions against it, to Sudan’s obvious benefit.

Another indication of how Bashir is seeking to improve its regional and international standing was its dispatch of 6000 Janjaweed fighters, who have now been incorporated into Sudan’s regular army, to Aden to back Emirati troops fighting in Yemen. This came in response to an urgent call from the UAE crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the Sudanese leader.[5] Earlier, these same fighters, who between 2003 and 2013 had spread mayhem among the civilian population during the Darfur conflict, had been mobilized to stamp out sub-Saharan African migration flows through Sudan to the European Union. For years the United States has imposed punitive measures against Sudan in a largely unsuccessful attempt to get the Sudanese government to stop killing its own people. Yet, in January 2017, after nearly twenty years of hostile relations, Obama administration officials announced plans to lift trade sanctions, and formulate a new US strategy towards Sudan. Sudan now hopes to be able to buy American goods and attract much-needed investment to its tottering economy. U.S. analysts have noted that improved U.S. relations with Sudan could strengthen moderate voices within the country and give the Sudanese government incentives to refrain the kind of violence that has plagued the country for decades. To that end, the Obama administration even approved a grant of $200,000 of taxpayer money to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Sudan — a decade after the U.S. Treasury designated it as a terrorist-financing organization.[6] The Trump Administration has continued along this path, beginning the process of removing Sudan from the 2018 list of state sponsors of terrorism.[7] Bashir is also trying to deepen economic ties with Turkey, Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.[8] Politically, he has sought to mediate between the serious diplomatic crisis between the Saudis and Qatar (the latter is supposed to revamp the Sudanese port of Sawakeen).[9] By contrast, Sudan has openly tilted towards Ethiopia in its conflict with Egypt over the Ethiopian’s new Nahda dam on the upper reaches of the Nile.

Alongside his extreme ideological line, Bashir is a pragmatic politician. He has succeeded in preserving his rule longer than any Arab leader in the region. In spite of all his domestic and international difficulties, Bashir won acceptance from the Sunni Arab coalition, and is considered by European states as an efficient contributor to the war against terrorism and preventing immigration to Europe. Bashir has demonstrated his pragmatism by considering establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. He has also cut diplomatic relations with Iran and offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bashir's flouting of the ICC does not seem to bother too many countries and international organizations that strongly support human rights.[10] These developments have reinforced his standing at home. Bashir intends to run for re-election in 2020, and the opposition does not appear capable of seriously challenging him.


Haim Koren is a former Israeli ambassador to South Sudan and Egypt.

[3] Ahmed Younes, "Sudan's PM Acknowledges Economic Crisis, Vows Action," al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 9, 2018.

[4] Haim Koren,"Quo Vadis Sudan: Between the Horn of Africa and the Arab Shaking Fabric," RIMA (Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa), Occasional papers, Volume 5:7 (April 2017).

[5]Euro MPs criticize the use of Janjaweed to block migrants,” Africa Intelligence, Indian Ocean Newsletter 1445, February 24, 2017. 

[6] Sam Westrop, “Obama Administration Knowingly Funded an Al-Qaeda Affiliate,” National Review Online, July 25, 2018.

[7] Uriel Levy, "The U.S. has removed sanctions on Sudan, where the government is accused of crimes against humanity [Hebrew]," Davar Rishon, October 9, 2017.

[8] See, for example: "Sudan,Qatar ink $4 billion deal to develop Suakin seaport," Daily Sabah with Anadolu Agency (Istanbul), March 26, 2018; "Egypt, Sudan probe fostering agricultural cooperation," Egypt Today (MENA), February 24, 2018.

[10] Edith M. Lederer,  "Secretary General of the UN met with President of Sudan who accused of Genocide,” Times of Israel, January 30, 2018.