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Sudan Tribune

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Sudan’s Bashir in aggressive push to mend ties with UAE

February 23, 2015 (WASHINGTON/ABU DHABI) – Sudanese president Omer Hassan al-Bashir started a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Saturday aimed at assuring the oil-rich Arab Gulf state that his country could be a strong ally in Abu Dhabi’s war against Islamic terrorist groups.

Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir (C) flanked by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L) and UAE Vice-President Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (R) in Abu Dhabi on 22 February 2015
Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir (C) flanked by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L) and UAE Vice-President Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (R) in Abu Dhabi on 22 February 2015
The 11-member delegation which accompanied Bashir was a clear sign of the importance attached by Khartoum to this trip but also puzzled some observers on the need for an entourage of this size. It included the ministers of presidency, defence, foreign affairs, finance, investments, electricity, minerals, livestock and fisheries, labour as well as the director of intelligence and head of police.

This is believed to be his first official trip to UAE since 2008.

The relationship between the two countries has evolved with ups and downs over the last two decades.

In 1992, Abu Dhabi expelled the Sudanese ambassador and six other diplomats. The UAE has refused subsequent requests to restore full diplomatic relationship until 1999.

But relations have quietly deteriorated as Khartoum’s links with Iran strengthened. UAE is in a long-standing territorial dispute with Iran over the three Gulf islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb.

Iran refuses international arbitration over the dispute and insists that its sovereignty over the islands is non-negotiable.

Even though this visit was labelled as an official one, there were signs of reservations on the part of Abu Dhabi as few high-level meetings took place between the delegation and UAE officials.

Bashir met with Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and UAE vice-president Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum only on the sidelines of the International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX), which is a biennial arms and defence technology sales exhibition.

He is expected to meet again with al-Maktoum in Dubai on Tuesday and Sudanese expatriates in UAE later that day before heading back home.

On Monday, Bashir and his delegation toured the country’s western province with the justice minister and UAE ambassador in Khartoum.

A UAE official told Sudan Tribune that Bashir’s visit was arranged at the last minute after he confirmed his attendance at IDEX after receiving an invitation last Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Bashir expressed to al-Nahyan his willingness to partner with UAE to counter the threat of radical Islamic groups such as ISIS, particularly in Libya. UAE is one of the leading members in the global coalition led by the US conducting airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria.

Officials in Abu Dhabi listened to Bashir’s propositions but were wary that he may be “playing a political game or seeking to manipulate things in favour of his agenda,” the official said.

Bashir also gave the impression that “he has his back to the wall”, the official said but nonetheless described the talks as “positive”.

He stressed that no commitments were made by Abu Dhabi during the visit, adding that the future of relations would depend on Khartoum’s next moves.

Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University in Al Ain, described Bashir’s visit as an “symbolic” and one that “sends a lot of interesting messages”.

“This is his first visit [in a long time] and maybe it will break the ice a little bit. I see an opportunity for Bashir to give his version of the story directly and explain things that need to be explained,” Abdullah told Sudan Tribune.

“I think UAE and Saudi Arabia of course and gulf states in general are not very happy with Bashir and they expressed this in many different ways,” he added.

Over the last few years there have been mounting signs of deteriorating relations between Khartoum and Gulf states capitals, with the exception of Doha. Observers speculated that Sudan’s growing ties with Iran could have been the reason.

Sudan has regularly allowed Iranian warships to dock in Port Sudan across Saudi Arabia drawing concern by the United States and its allies in the Gulf.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia closed its airspace to the plane carrying the Sudanese president on his way to Tehran where he was scheduled to attend the inauguration ceremony of then president-elect Hassan Rouhani, thus forcing him and his delegation to return home.

The mostly Sunni Muslim Arab Gulf states are wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East, fearing the Shiite-led country is seeking regional dominance that will stir sectarian tensions.

However, last year Sudanese authorities ordered the closure of Iranian cultural centre in the capital Khartoum, and other states in a move which was seen as gesture to the Arab Gulf states.

Besides Sudan’s ties with Iran and Muslim Brotherhood, Abdulla said that Bashir’s status in the international community as an “outcast” who is shunned by many countries is also a factor.

“There are tons of concerns about Bashir and about Sudan,” he said.

UAE was perhaps the only Arab country to criticize Khartoum’s handling of September 2013 protests which erupted after government decided to lift fuel subsidies which to the death of hundreds of demonstrators.

Bashir is also one of several Sudanese officials who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

UAE is not an ICC member and therefore has no legal obligation to arrest the Sudanese leader.

Asked whether Bashir’s statements to Abu-Dhabi based Alittihad newspaper that Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is the biggest threat to stability in the Arab world could speed up rapprochement with Khartoum, Abdulla said that the Sudanese president “has to back up his words with actions”.

Last November, Abu Dhabi has formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood and local affiliates as terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia did the same months prior to that.

Bashir said that ever country has the right to take any measures necessary to preserve its security against the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The official statements are good but they are not good enough…specially that there is a strong and known links between Muslim Brotherhood and Khartoum and for example there are reports of Egyptian MB figures staying in Sudan,” he added.

The 1989 coup which brought Bashir to power was orchestrated by the National Islamic Front (NIF) of Hassan al-Turabi but the two men fell out a decade later in a bitter power struggle.

But Bashir remains backed by the bulk of the country’s Islamist movements and he has repeatedly asserted that his government will adopt an Islamic constitution.

Abdulla also described Bashir’s remarks about coordination with UAE on Libya as a gesture to show that he is in Abu Dhabi “with a different attitude and that any concerns you may have are unfounded so let us start a new page”.

“Abu-Dhabi will be watching Khartoum’s next moves very closely,” he said.

Sudan has been accused of supporting Libya’s Islamist militias that are currently in control of Tripoli.

Last September, Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said Sudan had attempted to airlift weapons and ammunition to the new rulers in Tripoli.

Khartoum denied this, saying the weapons were meant for the joint border force.

Thinni’s main military partner, former army general Khalifa Heftar, has also accused Sudanese of having joined Ansar al-Shar’ia and other Islamist groups which are battling pro-government forces in the eastern city of Benghazi.

On the other hand the Tripoli government has accused Egypt and UAE of helping Heftar militarily. The US said last year that the two countries carried out air strikes on armed Islamist factions in Tripoli.

A thaw in bilateral ties could pave the way for Khartoum to capitalise on Abu Dhabi’s vast wealth for the sake of giving a boost to Sudan’s faltering economy.