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The Geopolitical Implications of Sudan’s Descent into Chaos and Its Impact on the Strategic Goals of the U.S.


The sight of diplomats fleeing Sudan amid chaotic scenes reflects the seriousness of the situation, but also the magnitude of the international interest in the strife-torn nation.

Days in fighting gone at least 400 deadgovernments of across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and America evacuated nationals – teachers, students and workers, as well as embassy staff – from the capital Khartoum.

Of course, expat employees can be found in all countries. But if one scholar of Sudanese historyis it hard to ignore the fact that, in the words of an analyst, everyone wants ‘a piece of Sudan’. While one Coup of 2019 ended the ruthless dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, the years that followed have made no room for democracy. On the contrary, it has led to a period in which several overseas governments have attempted to capitalize about the transfer of power and the strategic importance and mineral wealth of Sudan.

And while a decline into all-out civil war would be devastating for Sudan, it would also create ripples that would be felt across the geopolitical world.

Where things stand

The evacuation of foreign nations followed the outbreak of violence between the Sudanese army, led by the country’s leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.

The two men jointly led the government, but are now in a power struggle. On April 25, 2023, Saudi Arabia and the US reached a three-day ceasefire. Despite sporadic fighting, that ceasefire was later extended.

Attempts by international governments to bring about peace may indicate not only a desire to stop the bloodshed, but also a desire to limit the impact of the situation on world politics.

The regional, economic and strategic importance of Sudan

Sudan is located on 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 Central African Republic.

Sudan is where the White and Blue Nile rivers converge to form the main Nile and is home to more than 60% of the Nile basin. Safe management of the Nile water is crucial for the stability of the region. Northern Egypt does 90% depending on the river for its water supply, as Ethiopia looks to the east doubling the country’s electricity generation through the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

However, the project has been a source of contention – Ethiopia began filling the dam in 2020-2021 without agreement with Egyptand last year Egypt protested against Ethiopia’s plans third filling of the dam to the UN Security Council. The United Nations has called on the three nations to do so negotiate a “mutually beneficial” agreement on the management of the Nile – something that will be difficult if Sudan enters a prolonged period of instability.

Sudan also has one strategic location on the Red Seaa body of water that about 10% of world trade goes throughwith the Suez Canal connecting Asian and European markets.

And then there are Sudan’s immense mineral resources. The nation is of Africa third largest producer of goldhas large oil reserves and produces more than 80% of the world’s gum arabic – a component of food additives, paints and cosmetics.

Sudanese gold, Russia’s war

As a result of this strategic and economic importance, Sudan has attracted willing international partners. For example, the oil states in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates saw Bashir’s ousting as an opportunity to stabilize the region and invest in everything from agricultural projects to ports on the Red Sea.

Sudanese leaders have apparently not been too picky about who they work with. While much of the international community shunned and rebuked Russia after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Sudan provided Moscow with a 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 Putinthe two countries founded the company Meroe Gold – a subsidiary of the Wagner Group network of mercenaries.

Since the 2019 coup, Moscow has more and more joined Hemedtias the RSF leader tried control more and more of the country’s richest gold mines. Sudanese sources told CNN in July 2022 at least 16 Russian gold smuggling flights had embarked from Sudan for the past year and a half.

The Wagner Group’s involvement in Sudanese gold mining and its role in supplying fighters in Ukraine has led many observers to suggest that Sudanese gold is used to finance the war in Moscow.

In return, Russia provided political and military support to the Sudanese paramilitary leadership. According to to US officialsthe Wagner Group has offered weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to the RSF.

Hemedti is not alone in seeking Russian support. Theodore Murphy, Africa director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, has suggested that the RSF leader’s current rival, Burhan, would also be open to cooperation with Moscow.

China a winner in Sudan scramble

China also has significant interests in Sudan as part of its “Belt and Road” global infrastructure initiative. From 2011 to 2018, Beijing granted Sudan a estimated US$143 million in loans and has invested in projects such as the construction of Sudanese oil pipelines, Nile bridges, textile factories and railway lines.

That was indeed China one of the main investors in Sudan during the reign of Bashir and one of the few countries arming the regime.

China relies on the mineral resources of Africa to meet its own growing industrial needs. Mining cooperation between China and Sudan dates back to the 1970s and more than 20 Chinese companies are active in Sudanese mining with a total investment of more than $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 by 10.6% year-on-year. China is indeed from Sudan second trading partner after the UAE, and the African country’s largest supplier of goods.

Although the US lifted long-standing sanctions against Sudan in 2017allowing US companies to pursue business interests in Sudan, Washington is still catching up with China.

Concern about contamination

The United States’ strategic interest in the Sudanese crisis can be viewed through the lens of its opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine and concerns about regional contagion — that is, the spread of instability.

Sudan’s potential to support Moscow’s war effort would make Western leaders wary of the RSF gaining the upper hand in the current fighting; the paramilitary group could reward Russia’s friendship with Sudanese gold. But with one apparent readiness on both sides of the current fighting to exploit the country’s gold mines in exchange for Moscow’s military aid, a better outcome for the West – and even for the Sudanese people – would be a transition from military rule.

Perhaps what concerns Washington more is the impact of an unstable Sudan on the region. In recent years, the US has benefited from a warm relationship with Sudanese leaders, especially through counter-terrorism cooperation. The Biden administration will certainly fear the instability of Sudan that creates the kind of conditions in which terrorist groups, such as al-Shabaab, can thrive. or that the situation a refugee crisis on the borders of Sudanespecially in Ethiopia and South Sudan – countries already struggling to maintain fragile peace agreements.

While the people of Sudan have the most to lose if the current fighting degenerates into civil war, the geopolitical significance of the country means that millions in surrounding regions – and even around the world – will also be affected.

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