Is Iran forming an unlikely alliance with the Gulf to challenge the US?
What is behind Saudi Arabia’s mediation in Sudan and will it succeed?
Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic shift
Saudi Arabia in recent years has shifted its foreign policy towards a more balanced approach, balancing ties between major powers in the East and West, and focusing on rebuilding ties with regional powers. This has seen significant results in recent months as the Kingdom officially normalized its relations with former geopolitical rival Iran, with the mediation of China. It has also normalized its ties with Qatar and is attempting to pull back from the Yemen war. One of the main aims of this shift is the realization of Vision 2030, as a regional peace and stability is a cornerstone of the establishment of a thriving investment environment, attracting foreign investors.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah received on Sunday a telephone call from his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The officials discussed several issues of common interest between their countries.
Saudi Arabia’s economy grew by 3.9% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023, according to initial government estimates of real gross domestic product published on Sunday.
Non-oil activities grew by 5.8% in the first quarter from a year prior, the General Authority for Statistics said, citing flash estimates, while oil activities grew by 1.3%. Government services activities grew by 4.9%, it said.
Saudi Arabia has sought to reduce its diplomatic and economic dependence on the US, and establish itself as a potential mediator, feeding in to this trend. Saudi Arabia has emerged twice as a mediator in prisoner exchanges between Russia and other nations since the war in Ukraine began.
The kingdom said the crown prince used his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and governments around the world to facilitate the release of 10 foreign fighters captured by Russians in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia also claimed a role, along with the United Arab Emirates, in facilitating a high-stakes prisoner swap last month between Washington and Moscow, which saw the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Facilitating talks among rivals is a policy long employed by Oman and Qatar, which have mediated in conflicts stretching from Afghanistan to Yemen. Qatar maintains close ties with the Taliban leadership, some of whom reside in Doha. Qatar also hosts talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan in 2021.
Saudi Arabia seeks to establish a similar project in Sudan.
The importance of Sudan
Sudan’s importance in the context of Saudi Arabia’s diversification project must be highlighted in order to more fully understand why a peaceful resolution in the country is so important to the Kingdom.
According to Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy researcher in Riyadh, the last thing Saudi Arabia needs currently is a situation similar to Syria on the Red Sea.
Alghashian believes that stability in Sudan is crucial for Saudi Arabia’s plans for the Red Sea. The fear in Riyadh is that if Sudan remains unstable, the projects on the Red Sea will not reach their full potential.
Experts suggest that Saudi Arabia’s close proximity to Sudan is one factor behind its more cautious approach to the conflict. However, they also believe that a more profound change is occurring within the royal palace.
Sudan’s wealth in natural resources, including natural gas, gold, silver, chromite, zinc, and iron, has always been recognized by its partners. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, has been importing billions of dollars’ worth of gold in the past decade, with Sudan ranking as one of its top three exporters of gold after Libya and Ghana.
This trend has continued since the UAE established ties with General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the vice president of the Transitional Military Council that took charge of Sudan after the removal of former president Omar al-Bashir. As a result, Sudan has been exporting gold worth $16 billion annually to the UAE since 2019.
Will mediation succeed?
Mediators are pushing for an end to the deadly conflict in Sudan that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands, as the warring parties met for direct talks in Saudi Arabia.
The talks, which are being referred to as “pre-negotiation talks,” began on Saturday in the coastal city of Jeddah and involved the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both Saudi Arabia and the United States have expressed support for the talks and have called on both sides to actively engage in discussions with the aim of reaching a lasting ceasefire. A joint statement was released to this effect.
Since the conflict began in mid-April, numerous truces have been broken. However, the US-Saudi initiative in Jeddah marks the first serious attempt to bring an end to the fighting that has threatened Sudan’s fragile transition following years of unrest and uprisings. Sudan’s Forces of Freedom and Change, a political group leading an internationally-supported plan to transfer the country to civilian rule, have also welcomed the talks.
The pro-democracy movement views the discussions as a “first step” to preventing the collapse of the country and has called on military and RSF leaders to make a “bold decision” to end the conflict.
RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, confirmed his group’s participation and expressed hope that the talks would result in safe passage for civilians. “We remain optimistic that the discussions will achieve their objectives,” he said.
As of Monday, the Sudanese health ministry reported that at least 550 people, including civilians, had been killed, and more than 4,900 were injured. The conflict erupted on April 15 between the army of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti’s RSF following the collapse of an internationally-backed plan for a transition with civilian parties. Al-Burhan, a career army officer, currently leads a ruling council installed after a 2021 military coup and the 2019 ousting of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, while Hemedti was his deputy.
In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Khalid bin Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK, highlighted Riyadh’s mediator role, stating, “We have established good relationships with as many people as possible. When you engage with people, you can then use it with them when needed. The Middle East does not need more conflicts.”
Saudi Arabia’s neutral image has also been reinforced by the steady influx of Western expats and Sudanese refugees seeking refuge in the country. US President Joe Biden expressed gratitude to Saudi Arabia for its assistance in evacuating US diplomats.
Saudi Arabia’s positive relations with both sides and strong incentive to end the conflict could prove crucial in reaching a peace agreement between the warring parties in Sudan. However, due to the distance between the requests of both sides at the moment, this may take weeks or even months.