In previous times, when Saudi Arabia sought to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations, it did so overtly. Whether funding foreign masjids to advance Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam or sponsoring militant groups with unambiguous links to Riyadh, it used to be that when Saudi Arabia wanted change in a foreign nation, there was no real attempt to hide such developments.
Under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, this has partly change. While western media has struggled to form a cohesive narrative through which to portray military strongman and US citizen Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing attempt to take Tripoli, Haftar’s own movements make it clear just how much Saudi Arabia is backing the renegade military man who once fled Libya as a traitor in the late 1980s.
Haftar was in Riyadh where he met the Saudi monarch just days before he began his assault on Tripoli. It has further been reported that Haftar has received millions of dollars from Riyadh. Thus, it is clear that in spite of Riyadh’s US partner’s support of the fledgling and endlessly corrupt Tripoli regime, Saudi Arabia along with its Egyptian and Emirati allies are firmly behind Haftar.
Recent events in Sudan have served as a reminder to the world that whilst long serving and recently ousted President Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989 with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, since then, Bashir had become something of a post-ideological/poly-ideological political survivor. At various times Bashir has been friendly with and had disputes with countries as diverse as Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Gaddafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. In many ways, the only two nations with whom Bashir has had consistently good relations were China and Russia. In respect of just about every other country that seeks strategic relations with Khartoum, Bashir’s career was something of a geopolitical game of ping-pong.
Recent years however had seen Bashir’s Sudan greatly improve relations with Turkey and also Turkey’s closest Arab ally Qatar. To this end, Turkey has signed an agreement with Khartoum to construct a modern port at the location of a once prominent Ottoman Port at Suakin. Yet whilst this apparently win-win project did not immediately radiate political overtones, there were in fact many to be found. Suakin was a traditional Ottoman port of call for those on the Hajj to the Holy City of Mecca. From Suakin, pilgrims would take a short maritime journey to Jeddah before moving on to Mecca. For Saudi Arabia, this was seen as a Turkish attempt to influence what could once again become a major route for those on the Hajj. As Turkey and Saudi Arabia continue to compete for influence among the region’s millions of Sunni Muslims, Riyadh certainly took notice of the Turkey-Sudan port deal.
Although Sudan continues to provide mercenaries to the Saudi coalition in nearby Yemen, Bashir’s juggling act between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and the Turkey-Qatari partnership on the other, proved to be one that has self-evidently been a source of consternation in Riyadh.
To be sure, issues of poverty, corruption, genuine human rights concerns and a general political fatigue in the face of Bashir’s lengthy rule were in fact sources of the protests which led to the former President’s ouster. That being said, the rapidity with which Sudan’s new military rulers have moved against Bashir suggests that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
Reports have now emerged that Bashir is under arrest whilst the country’s new self-proclaimed rulers issue frequent statements of extreme disapprobation against their former boss. This combined with the fact that Turkeys’ calls for calm and moderation are becoming increasingly vocal whilst Saudi state media is celebrating the fact that Sudan’s new regime has refused to receive Qatar’s foreign minister, makes it clear that the new forces in Khartoum are acting in a manner that leans heavily towards Riyadh and away from the Turkey-Qatar partnership that Bashir had been drawing ever closer to in his final years in power.
Although the situation in Khartoum remains fluid to the point of being chaotic, it is already becoming clear that while the origins of the coup where in many ways organic, the management of events since the ouster of Omar al-Bashir has been one that is incredibly favourable towards Saudi Arabia whilst being notably less so to Turkey and Qatar.
This likewise proves that in the age of Muhammad bin Salman, direct intervention into foreign nations via religious groups and militants has been replaced by using Riyadh’s economic influence to force rulers of poorer nations to do as Saudi Arabia wishes.