A desperate Bashir

It has been eight weeks since anti-government protests began in Sudan, and the government is running out of money. And so Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is not spending his time addressing rallies and strategizing with his inner circle on how to quell or placate the most serious protests in his government’s 30 year history. He is on a plane, criss-crossing the Middle East and North Africa, visiting heads of states in the hope that he can extract some support to bridge his regime for another few months, to fill petrol pumps with fuel and ATMs with cash. These financial boosts have, in the past, come in many forms, ranging from vanilla aid to development schemes, where land or strategic ports are sold off to foreign sovereign leaders and billionaires. During Osama bin Laden’s years in Sudan, it was rumored that, at one point, the government had sold him over half of the agricultural land under its control. When he was expelled from Sudan, his losses were estimated to have reached US$300 million. 

This has been the key to Bashir’s success: his ability to flog whatever he can and to extract liquidity, with no paper trail. In doing so, he also became skilled at playing regional relationships well, and often against each other. He is a master of short-term calculation, both in his internal relationships and abroad. His Cabinet members are often purged abruptly without warning, and his regional alliances have always been based on one consideration: ensuring that, when in a bind, there are funds to buttress the regime. Bashir’s is a government that always seems to be on the brink, but never collapses. It is never out of the woods, but it is always above water. Until now.

In recent weeks, Bashir has been on an alms-seeking tour of the Middle East and North Africa, but so far his begging bowl remains empty. Running an oppressive, corrupt, fiscally reckless government is an expensive business, especially when another survival strategy has been the creation of a large patronage class that needs to be oiled. The regime is under stress at the best of times. Adding seven weeks of protests and strikes — and the security response needed to police, detain and even kill protesters — has sent the government into distress and Bashir on a MENA tour.

His first stop, Qatar, was polite but disobliging. Last year, the two governments agreed to a $4 billion deal to jointly develop Suakin port on the Red Sea coast of Sudan, but no new financial assistance was announced after the recent meeting. When the protests first broke out, there were reports that Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani offered Bashir “all that was necessary,” but it seems this promise has expired. The statement issued by the Qatari government expressly avoided the matter of support, couching the meeting as an update, one in which “the Emir affirmed Qatar’s firm stance on Sudan’s unity and stability, and they discussed the latest developments in the Darfur peace process.”

It is unlikely that Qatar was Bashir’s preferred first port of call. Saudi Arabia has been the country’s closest regional ally as of late, with Bashir lending (or more accurately, selling) military support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen. To visit Qatar in such a high-profile way is a clear indication that there are no bridges left with Saudi to burn. This has been a delicate balance for Bashir to maintain, and it seems he has finally lost it. In trying to stay on the right side of two wealthy benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he may have alienated both. After the visit to Qatar, the Saudis sent a delegation to Khartoum that included Saudi Arabia’s commerce minister, transport minister, and minister of state for African affairs. The aim of the visit, according to the Saudi Press Agency, was to “enhance economic relations with Sudan and increase trade exchange.” This sounds very much like a fire-sale visit, whereby the Saudis are trying to see what bargains can be picked up in the Sudanese government’s state of precariousness, rather than one in which they are throwing their weight behind Bashir.

The Qatar visit was followed by another to Egypt, where Bashir wasted no time in trying to ingratiate himself with the Egyptian president by saying that what Sudanese protesters were attempting was a Sudanese “Arab Spring.” But again, this is a hastily cobbled together attempt at rapprochement on the part of the Sudanese regime, which, in 2016, filed a UN Security Council complaint against Egypt, accusing of it attempting to illegally annex the disputed border region of Halayeb and Shalateen. In 2018, relations deteriorated once again, to the point that the Sudanese ambassador was recalled from Cairo. A last-minute shimmy, in trying to find common cause with an Egyptian regime that seems to be configured mainly to prevent another Arab Spring uprising, is desperately transparent. 

Bashir’s next planned trip is to Kuwait. Again, his previous calculations are coming back to haunt him. Sudan did not back Kuwait during the Iraq invasion, and the Kuwaitis have not forgotten. Already, a social media campaign entitled “No to Bashir’s visit” has started. Attached to it are painful memories of being abandoned by Sudan during Kuwait’s time of need. It does not augur well that, in Sudan’s own time of need, Kuwait will take the high road for no discernible benefit.

Bashir may yet receive a last-minute lifeline and secure enough support to plug the shortfalls in the Sudanese economy and daily hemorrhaging of putting down angry demonstrations. But judging from the polite but unmistakably cool reception he is receiving in the region, his knack for surviving on the brink seems to have run out.

Nesrine Malik 

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