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Sudan looks to Qatar

Sudan's Bashir seeks Qatar support amid protests

President Omar al-Bashir addresses supporters during a rally at the Green Square , Khartoum, January 9, 2019
President Omar al-Bashir addresses supporters during a rally at the Green Square , Khartoum, January 9, 2019 REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir held talks with Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on Wednesday, in his first trip abroad since nationwide protests broke out on 19 December calling for him to step down. Triggered by the high cost of living, they have since mushroomed into the biggest threat to date to al-Bashir's three-decade rule.


Officially, President al-Bashir came to Qatar to discuss his "fraternal relations" with Emir Sheikh al-Thani.

The deeper reason critics argue, was for support.

"Since 2006, Qatar has been the largest single Arab investor in Sudan," explains Antonino Occhiuto, a junior analyst with the Euro-Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"Qatar is ready to offer all of the necessary help for Bashir to overcome the soaring inflation, the bread shortages in terms of financial, political support, and the backing that Bashir needs to survive this," he told RFI.

A cash injection could be what the Sudanese president desperately needs to stave off an economic collapse in his country.

But he may be going about it the wrong way.

"The government sees the problem as an economic problem, yes the economy is one of the problems, but the main problem is this regime," says Alasbatt Mohamed, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), a group of doctors, lawyers and teachers, who have been leading the protests for six weeks now.

“Even if Qatar gives billions of dollars to Sudan it won’t make any difference. The change we want is to change this regime, this dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir," Mohamed explains to RFI from Paris.

Will of the people vs realpolitik

Yet despite the "unprecedented" protests, which have killed at least 40 people since 19 December according to rights groups, it is likely to be business as usual in Sudan, says the Euro-Gulf Information Centre's Occhiuto.

“None of the global powers nor regional governments are willing to turn their back on Bashir. Bashir has been an incredibly efficient leader in the past 30 years in hedging between regional and global powers," he says.

Seen as a guarantor of stability in Africa's often volatile Horn region, Bashir has notably carved out an image for himself as an effective mediator in South Sudan's peace process.

"The South Sudan government is watching the protests in Sudan carefully," explains Peter Gai Manyoun, Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Transitional Justice in Kampala, Uganda.

"If these opposition parties overthrow Bashir, there's a fear that the peace agreement will not continue in South Sudan, and there will be a new civil war," he tells RFI.

Nations ranging from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to China and US, are all keen to ensure the president's survival, fearing they could be next, like their Arab Spring counterparts.

Which is likely why on Wednesday, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani threw his full support behind Bashir, calling for Sudan's "unity and stability."

Scramble for Red Sea

The Sudanese president came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

One reason Bashir has lasted so long is partly due to his ability to play different actors off against each other.

For Occhiuto, Bashir is doing that in a new scramble for the Red Sea, off the coast of Port Sudan.

"Bashir has received four billion dollars in investment from Qatar to jointly develop the port of Suakin," he says, a move that has angered Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, which fears the deal could divert trade away from Cairo.

"But at the same time, Sudan has been one of the few countries ready to commit ground troops to the Saudi and Emirati-led campaign in Yemen," adds Occhiuto, saying that Bashir is exploiting the ongoing rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to extract more money from both.

Sudanese people 'fed up'

Meanwhile, protests in Sudan are on-going.

Sudanese police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters on Tuesday as demonstrators staged night-and-daytime rallies against the government, with more rallies planned outside the presidential palace on Thursday.

“So long as he has international support, he has every chance of crushing internal dissent," continues Occhiuto. "However, the moment he starts struggling in combining all the different interests of the players that are supporting him, then we will see more trouble for Bashir.”

For Alasbatt Mohamed, of the Sudanese Professional Association, nations such as Qatar should rethink their support of Bashir.

"If you support Omar al-Bashir, you will lose your money because it will not go to the Sudanese people," he tells RFI.

"It will go to al-Bashir and his entourage, they take the money of the Sudanese people; and they don't do anything good for the Sudanese people."

He says people are fed up. "For more than 30 years, all we have known is war and a hard life. There [are] no job[s], there is [a] problem getting food and gas, and there are too [many] problems in our country. The people have had enough.”


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