The sight of diplomats fleeing Sudan amid chaotic scenes reflects the gravity of the situation, but also the extent of international interest in the strife-torn nation.
Days into fighting that has left at least 400 people dead, governments from across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas evacuated nationals – teachers, students and workers, as well as embassy staff – from the capital, Khartoum.
Of course, expat employees are to be found in all countries. But as a scholar of Sudanese history, it is difficult to ignore the fact that, in the words of one analyst, everyone wants “a chunk of Sudan.” While a 2019 coup ended the brutal dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, the years since have not given way to democracy. Rather, it has led to a period in which various overseas governments have sought to capitalize on the transition of power and Sudan’s strategic importance and mineral wealth.
And while a descent into all-out civil war would be devastating for Sudan, it would also create ripples that would be felt throughout the geopolitical world.
Where things stand
The evacuation of foreign nations followed the eruption of violence between the Sudanese military, led by the country’s leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally known by the name Hemedti.
The two men jointly ran the government but now find themselves deadlocked in a power struggle. On April 25, 2023, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. brokered a three-day ceasefire. Despite sporadic fighting, that ceasefire was later extended.
Efforts of international governments to broker peace may hint not only at a desire to halt the bloodshed, but also a desire to limit the fallout that the situation will have for world politics.
Sudan’s regional, economic and strategic importance
Sudan is located at a critical nexus, geographically. It borders Egypt and Libya in North Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, the East African nation of South Sudan, and Central Africa’s Chad and the Central African Republic.
Sudan is the site where the White and Blue Nile Rivers merge to form the main Nile and is home to more than 60% of the Nile River Basin. Safe management of the Nile’s water is crucial for stability of the region. Northern neighbor Egypt is 90% dependent on the river for its water supply, while Ethiopia to the east is looking to double the country’s electricity generation through the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The project has been a source of contention, though – Ethiopia began filling the dam in 2020-2021 without an agreement with Egypt, and last year Egypt protested Ethiopia’s planned third filling of the dam to the U.N. Security Council. The United Nations has called on the three nations to negotiate a “mutually beneficial” agreement over the Nile’s management – something that will be difficult should Sudan fall into a prolonged period of instability.
Sudan also has a strategic location on the Red Sea, a body of water that approximately 10% of global trade passes through, with the Suez Canal connecting Asian and European markets.
And then there are Sudan’s immense mineral resources. The nation is Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, has major oil reserves and produces over 80% of the world’s gum arabic – a component of food additives, paint and cosmetics.
Sudanese gold, Russia’s war
As a result of this strategic and economic importance, Sudan has attracted willing international partners. Gulf oil states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, saw Bashir’s ouster as a chance to stabilize the region and invest in everything from agricultural projects to Red Sea ports.
Sudan’s leaders have seemingly been none too picky about who they partner with. While much of the international community shunned and sanctioned Russia after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Sudan provided Moscow with an economic lifeline through its gold reserves.
Russia’s interest in Sudan’s gold dates back to 2017, when after a meeting between Bashir and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two countries established the Meroe Gold corporation – a subsidiary of the Wagner Group network of mercenaries.
Since the 2019 coup, Moscow has increasingly aligned itself with Hemedti, as the RSF leader sought to control more and more of the country’s richest gold mines. In July 2022, Sudanese sources told CNN that at least 16 Russian gold smuggling flights had embarked from Sudan over the previous year and a half.
The Wagner Group’s involvement in Sudanese gold extraction and its role in supplying fighters in Ukraine have prompted many observers to suggest that Sudanese gold is being used to finance Moscow’s war.
In return, Russia has provided political and military assistance to Sudan’s paramilitary leadership. According to U.S. officials, the Wagner Group has offered weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, to the RSF.
Hemedti is not alone in currying Russian support. Theodore Murphy, Africa director at the European Council of Foreign Relations, has suggested that the RSF leader’s now-rival, Burhan, would also be open to working with Moscow.
China a winner in Sudan scramble
China also has considerable interests in Sudan as part of its “Belt and Road” global infrastructure initiative. From 2011 to 2018, Beijing granted Sudan an estimated US$143 million in loans and has invested in projects such as the construction of Sudanese oil pipelines, Nile bridges, textile mills and railway lines.
Indeed, China was one of the main investors to Sudan during the rule of Bashir and one of the few countries to supply the regime with weapons.
China relies on Africa’s mineral resources to meet its own expanding industrial needs. China-Sudan mining cooperation dates back to the 1970s, and over 20 Chinese enterprises have operated in Sudanese mining with a total investment of over $100 million.
However, this relationship is not entirely one-way. Sudan exported $780 million worth of products to China in 2021 and in the previous quarter-century increased its exports to China at an annual rate of 10.6%. Indeed, China is Sudan’s second-largest trading partner after the UAE, and the African nation’s biggest supplier of goods.
Although the U.S. revoked long-standing sanctions against Sudan in 2017, allowing for American companies to pursue business interests in Sudan, Washington is still playing catch-up with China.
Concerns of contagion
The United States’ strategic interest in the Sudanese crisis can be considered through the lens of its opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over regional contagion – that is, the spread of instability.
Sudan’s potential to prop up Moscow’s war effort would make Western leaders wary of the RSF gaining an upper hand in the current fighting; the paramilitary group could reward Russia’s friendship with Sudanese gold. But with an apparent willingness of both sides of the current fighting to exploit the country’s gold mines in return for Moscow’s military assistance, a better outcome for the West – and indeed the Sudanese people – would be a transition away from military rule altogether.
Of perhaps more concern to Washington is the impact of an unstable Sudan on the region. In recent years, the U.S. has benefited from a warming relationship with Sudan’s leaders, especially through counterterrorism cooperation. The Biden administration will surely be fearful of Sudan’s instability providing the kind of conditions in which terrorist groups, such as al-Shabaab, may thrive. or that the situation could trigger a refugee crisis on Sudan’s borders, especially in Ethiopia and South Sudan – countries that are already struggling to keep fragile peace deals in place.
While the people of Sudan have the most to lose should the current fighting descend into civil war, the geopolitical significance of the country means millions in the surrounding regions – and indeed around the world – also stand to be impacted.
Christopher Tounsel, Associate Professor of History, University of Washington
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.