By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ chequebook diplomacy driven-soft power strategy is being put to the test in Sudan where a stand-off between protesters and the country’s ruling military council is at a decisive point.
With protesters refusing to tear down barricades in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum and surrender the street, breaking off talks with the military council and demanding immediate instalment of a civilian government, the stand-off has become a battle of wills.
Like in Algeria, Sudanese protesters have learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that initially securing their success in forcing a long-standing leader to step down depends on their ability to sustain mobilization and street pressure.
Both Sudan and Algeria have, in the wake of the toppling of presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdulaziz Bouteflika, promised elections and arrested and/or detained officials and/or businessmen on corruption charges in a so far unsuccessful bid to pacify demonstrators and persuade them to end their protests.
With elections scheduled for July in Algeria while Sudan’s military is talking about one or more years of pre-election transition, Algerian protesters may have a leg up on their Sudanese brethren.
Nonetheless, protesters have also learnt that pledges of support by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt potentially are a Trojan horse. The UAE and Saudi Arabia led the regional effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia.
Egypt joined the counterrevolution after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president in a UAE-Saudi-supported coup in 2013.
As a result, protesters have also learnt that they are up against formidable opponents, who include not just the militaries and associated businessmen and politicians who have a vested interest in the ancien regime, but also their regional backers.
Saudi, UAE and Egyptian backing for renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in the battle for Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations-recognized government, serves as an immediate reminder of the obstacles and risks the protesters face.
It has prompted at least some Sudanese to demand that the ruling military council reject US$3 billion in aid offered in recent days by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
So far Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have paid lip service to the Sudanese and Algerian protesters while trying to bolster military efforts to be seen to be meeting their demands yet maintaining ultimate grip on their countries’ politics.
The removal of Mr, Al-Bashir in Sudan was of particular importance to the counterrevolutionary states because of the fact that he came to power with the support of Islamist forces, the Gulf states and Egypt’s bete noir.
Sudan moreover is geopolitically important because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, a battleground for rival camps in the Middle East, Mr. Al-Bashir’s playing of both sides of the Middle East divide against the middle, and the granting to Turkey of access to Suakin Island that faces the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.
Initial indications are that protesters’ fears that Saudi and UAE cheque book diplomacy comes with strings attached are not unfounded. Anti-Saudi and UAE sentiment has also been fuelled by the two states’ acquisition of Sudanese agricultural land in recent years and opposition to the war in Yemen.
The head of Sudan’s military council, Lt. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, developed close ties to the Gulf states in his former role as commander of Sudanese forces that are part of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen.
Mr. Burhan, in apparent recognition of the 22-month old UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, refused to meet with Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani days after receiving a Saudi-UAE delegation. Sudan has since said it was working out arrangements for a Qatari visit.
Similarly, UAE and Saudi cheque book diplomacy has also bolstered Mauritanian support for their fight against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This week’s visit by Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan to Iran during which the two countries agreed to form a joint quick reaction force to combat militant activity on their shared border, increase Iranian electricity sales to Pakistan and build a railway linking Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul, puts the effectiveness of Gulf cheque book diplomacy to the test.
Pakistan appeared to be tilting toward Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran after the kingdom and the UAE pulled the cash-strapped South Asian nation back from the brink with $US 10 billion in financial aid and pledges of another $10 billion in investment.
Saudi Arabia’s greater emphasis on cheque book diplomacy coincides with a substantial cutback in global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to the tune of an estimated US$100 billion over the last four decades.
The cutback means that funding has been focused on regions that are of geopolitical importance to the kingdom such as the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran and Yemen.
The cutback, however, does not mean that the fallout of the Saudi funding is no longer felt around the globe.
Some analysts believe that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman gives Saudi-backed ultra-conservative preachers a freer hand in Southeast Asia as opposed to Europe where he tries to project himself as an Islamic moderate. If so, its an approach that has produced at best mixed results.
Two Saudi-educated religious scholars, Bachtiar Nasir and Zaitun Rasmin, played a key role in ultra-conservative mass protests in 2016, the largest in Indonesian history, that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and ally of Indonesian president Joko Widodo.
Both students in the 1990s at the Islamic University of Medina, a key Saudi vehicle for the promotion of ultra-conservatism, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have since their return to Indonesia propagated a puritanical strand of Islam and built a substantial following among the middle class.
However, in contrast to the kingdom, that more recently has been pushing in countries like Algeria, Libya and Kazakhstan a quietist, loyalist interpretation of Islam, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have advocated political activism similar to the kingdom’s Sahwa or Islamic Awakening movement that called for peaceful political reform.
The movement, believed to have been partly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, lost ground with the banning of the Brothers in the kingdom and the arrest of many of its leaders after the rise of Prince Mohammed.
Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have aligned themselves with the far-right Sunni Muslim Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI), whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a charismatic preacher and one-time vigilante of Yemeni descent, fled in 2017 to Saudi Arabia, where he has been allowed to reside to escape sexual harassment charges.
The alliance provides Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin a mass base that they can mobilize. The two men, moreover, huge followings on social media. Mr. Nasir has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, 526,000 on Facebook, and 217,000 on Twitter.
Mr. Rizieq was briefly detained and questioned in November by Saudi police after he flew a black flag inscribed with the Muslim principle of tawhid or the oneness of God at the back of his Mecca residence. The flag resembled ones used by jihadists, including the Islamic State.
“Are you a criminal for installing the flag on your house? I don’t think so... I think Rizieq is not a threat to my country. If he had violated any laws, he would have undergone a legal process. Rizieq doesn’t have problems,” commented Usamah Muhammad Al-Syuaiby, the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia.
Despite the seeming differences with Saudi policy, Mr. Rasmin appeared to be doing the kingdom’s bidding when he travelled to Malaysia in advance of the 2018 elections to support those segments of the Sunni ultra-conservative community that wanted to ensure that scandal-tainted prime minister Najib Razak would be re-elected.
Saudi Arabia had sought to help Mr. Razak, who stood accused of defrauding Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund of billions of dollars, by publicly supporting some of his questionable assertions. The Saudi strategy failed with Mahathir Mohamed’s defeat of Mr. Razak and the souring of Saudi-Malaysian relations.
Ultra-conservatives toeing the Saudi line argued that a defeat of Mr. Razak would lead to chaos. They denounced those who voted against him as khawarij, literally ‘those who walk away’ but frequently defined as ‘the dogs of hellfire.’
In an interview with Utusan, the newspaper of Mr. Razak’s party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Mr. Rasmin backed the ultra-conservative argument that “it is prohibited to elect or let a non-Muslim be elected,“ a reference to the fact that Mr. Mahathir’s alliance included non-Muslims and liberals.
Taken together, developments in Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, suggest that the effectiveness of Saudi and UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy hangs in the balance. The developments raise the question whether short-terms successes can be maintained long-term.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.