Counterrevolutions in the Middle East

Counterrevolutions in the Middle East


04/2019  | Reading time: 8 minutes

In the last couple of months, analysts tended to assess the countrywide mass protests in Sudan which lasts since December 2018 to be the long-awaited second wave of Arab Spring. In April 2019, the Sudanese army took over the country’s leadership from Umar al-Bashir, who served as leader of the country since 1989, and promised a democratic transition process. Seemingly, the analogy of the 2011 revolution in Egypt might be easily applied to the Sudanese changes. In reality however, we are witnessing a counterrevolutionary process very similar to the 2013 military takeover in Egypt which has been ignited by the Gulf crisis and in which the military elite is influenced by the interests of the regional, and partially of the great powers. In the next couple of years, it might be decided whether a military regime will consolidate its power, as it has already happened in Egypt, or a civil government will be shaped, that kind we see in Tunisia. The decision about that, however, might not be made in Khartoum, but in Riyadh, Doha or Ankara.


Source: Wikimedia, Jesse B. Awalt

The narratives created about the mass protests in Sudan (see here or here) that have taken place between December 2018 and April 2019 made the impression that the story of the Sudanese developments might be easily included in the scenarios of the early period of the Arab Spring. The radical raise in oil and food prices, at least in local terms, led to sporadic local protests that have been transferred to the capital city of Khartoum, thus became country-wide. The initially general discontentment increased into a demand for change of government in Sudan where political power had been unabatedly claimed in the last 30 years, since 1989, by Umar al-Bashir. To the peaceful protests, the government responded with increasingly violent police action, in response to which the army changed side to the protesters, arrested president Bashir and many members of his government, and finally a democratic transition process was promised. After Sudan became independent (1956), civilian and military regimes alternated each other regularly, Umar al-Bashir’s being an example for the latter. The question now is whether this trend is continuing, that is, the interim military council transfers the leadership to the civilian people, as popular mobilization was the direct cause for Bashir’s fall, or a new military junta will be formed. In order for us to understand why this development is in fact part of a foreign-initiated counterrevolutionary script, we need first to analyze the prior and current developments of regional power competition.


Solidarity protest in Marseille in support of the Sudanese mass protests in December 2018
Source: Shutterstock

The domino effects of the Arab Spring have been felt in all Arab countries, however, the government of Sudan, which have been effected for decades by economic hardship, persevered with the necessary involvement of the army in the consolidation. The shock effect caused by the changes has brought the only and very important result of the secession of South Sudan in 2011 due to which Sudan lost about two thirds of its oil revenues. Many of the North African and Middle Eastern states hereafter became a playground for regional and great power interests. The Arab Gulf monarchies have tackled the domino effects of the Arab Spring, manifested in some domestic political discontent, by fine-tuning their economies. Moreover, they realized that by pursuing an active foreign policy, almost independently of great power interests, they can avoid shock effects in the future. They changed the direction of the Arab Spring’s domino effect and started to play an active role in shaping the domestic politics of the countries in North and East Africa, the Levant and the Gulf (basically Bahrain and Yemen), both by political, financial or military means. The goal was simple: they need to support the ascendance of friendly regimes and to provide them with an economic environment that ensures their stability through direct investments and aids and with the execution of short- and long-term cooperation agreements.

A stability of any given regime in Sudan has always been highly determined by regional and great power interests. Sudan's geographic and ethnic heterogeneity is the source of political heterogeneity and continuous conflict, which the outer powers have always used to enforce their own interests. Due to the geographical proximity, for Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Sudan's instability is a security risk. The security of North Africa and also that of the Gulf is closely linked to the security situation of the Red Sea and especially that of Egypt and Sudan. However, the stability of African states is not only important from a military security perspective. For the Arabian Gulf States that are aspiring to diversify their economies besides achieving food security and competitiveness, East and West Africa are real treasure troves. The rich Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar are investing billions of dollars in African agriculture and other sectors. It is noteworthy that after China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are competing as the most important investor countries in Africa. Meanwhile, African guest workers, including more than 500.000 Sudanese, are moving the economy of the Gulf States and contributing to the survival of the Sudanese economy. Thus, there has been significant economic interdependence between Sudan and the Gulf states over the past decades. However, the stability of relations is directly threatened by Sudan's internal political instability, which might be triggered and exploited by the above-mentioned countries themselves for achieving their own goals.

With Iran, Sudan and most Arab states found a common denominator by supporting the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Iran has mobilized extraordinary resources and a powerful propaganda facility to support the Palestinians. Mainly on the basis of this common cause, there has been a close friendship between the governments of Sudan and Iran since the 1980s. As part of this, the Iranian Navy has docked Iranian warships several times in Port Sudan and has been involved in delivering Iranian armed shipments to Palestine. Additionally, Iranian cultural influence has become felt in the otherwise Sunni majority in Sudan. However, US commercial sanctions against Sudan, which came into force in the 2000s, put the African state in a difficult position, and Iran, also under economic sanctions, was unable to provide any substantial assistance, so President Bashir was forced to accept the economic aid and investment offered by the Arab Gulf States (in exchange for downgrading Sudan’s Iran-relations). But Bashir’s actions did not make it clear that he was a reliable partner for the Gulf monarchies. The leader of Sudan has placed himself at the wrong side of the political and economic blockade against Qatar that has been in place since 2017, led by Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf states made extraordinary security investments in East Africa after the 2000s, primarily to secure their economic interests and, secondly, to project their power into the region. It was necessary to protect and maintain the stability of the preferable local political regimes, as Turkey and Iran, the two most populated big economies in the Middle East, also made significant investments in African economies. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, as well as their rivals mentioned above, have created a series of military bases in countries of the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia invested more than 1 billion dollars in the Sudanese economy in relation to former’s Yemeni military operation launched in 2015, and expected Yemen in return the African state's military cooperation and support in the international conflict. However, the healthy rivalry for influence between the Arab states of the Gulf, Turkey and Iran did not significantly affect the domestic political stability of East African countries so far. In fact, competition has led to an increase in foreign invested capital, and all regional authorities have been interested in local stability. Ultimately, these have been positive-sum political games. A number of local conflicts have been concluded with a peace treaty mediated by the Arab states of the Gulf. The political and economic equilibrium in Sudan has been disrupted due to the export of “cold war”-like local conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran which was ignited during the Iraq and Syria crises. Already during the reign of King Abdullah economic sanctions had been imposed on Sudan by the Kingdom, to which the UAE has joined. Then, after 2015, King Salman and Muhammad bin Salman gradually removed the economic aid system from Sudan.

The diplomatic crisis that arose in 2017 between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has further contributed to uncertainty and instability in Sudan. Since, primarily on part of Saudi Arabia, now only zero-sum outcomes became acceptable in the political and economic competition between Saudi Arabia and its partners and Qatar and its partners, it was expected that the new situation would lead to new local dynamics. As seen in previous decades, the Sudanese leadership has remained open to all major foreign investment when the Turkish and Qatari governments have arrived with substantial investment offers in 2017. The Turkish–Saudi power competition peaked at the worst moment in the summer of 2018, when Sudan's economic situation reached a critical point. For the Sudanese economy, Turkish and Qatar investments were promising, but direct Saudi aid has become essential for everyday survival. We might ask whether it was the Sudanese leader who made the wrong decision or the conscious decisions of the Saudi leadership led to the Sudanese economy crossing the critical point which since December 2018 made the popular dissatisfaction movement unstoppable. It is a fact that since Sudan has not terminated its relations with Turkey, which has started to build a military base in the African country, and with Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have decided to end their direct support last December. Even in January 2019, political analysts did not suspect that the Sudanese processes will irreversibly lead to the fall of the Bashir regime.

The fall of Umar al-Basir was the direct cause of the size and intensity of the popular dissatisfaction movement, but the economic collapse that led to this was clearly induced by to the political crisis in the Gulf. The “Cold War” situation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Iran has led to the displacement of the Sudanese regime, but the relocation of the conflict to Sudan does not stop at this point. The Sudanese people are aware of the magnitude of foreign political intervention, fearing that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have a say in the election of the next regime’s leaders as well. Their fear is well-founded, as after the removal of Bashir, Saudi Arabia and its allied Egyptian leaders have provided immediate support to the leaders of the Sudanese Interim Military Council, whose heads have a decisive say in Sudan's military participation in Yemen. While American decision-makers are pushing for a quick and democratic transition, the Gulf regimes agreed on a long mandate given to the Sudanese military council. All signs lead to the conclusion that the future of Sudan will be determined by the counter-revolutionary foreign policy of Arab states.

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