How Sudan Could Become a Gulf Proxy War

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This article was produced in coordination with Deputy Africa Desk Chief Sebastien Gray.

The UK is facing accusations from human rights activists of attempting to suppress criticism of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for allegedly supporting the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), one of the primary belligerents in the Sudan War. Accusations have also surfaced against Iran and Russia for their support of Sudan’s army in the war, raising fears of a new proxy war on the continent.

Accusations Against the UK Puts Proxy Intervention in the Spotlight

The UK has been accused by human rights activists of putting its relationship with the UAE above the lives of civilians in Sudan and attempting to dissuade various nations from issuing condemnations towards the UAE, likely in an effort to not introduce any complications into their relationship. The UAE is one of the UK’s closest allies in the Gulf, sharing economic ties and hosting the UK’s permanent military installation at Al Minhad Air Base. According to Yonah Diamond, an international human rights lawyer, the UK had pressured nations not condemn the UAE at informal talks that had been hosted in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The talks had been hosted in order to discuss potential legal action against the UAE over its support of the RSF.

The UK has denied the accusations.

UAE Alleged Support to the RSF

Sudan has been engulfed in civil conflict for more than a year now. The conflict is primarily a power struggle between the leaders of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF, a rebrand of the Janjaweed forces used by the government to fight the insurgency during the War in Darfur. The two groups, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, respectively, are battling one another for control of the state and its resources.

Much of the world has joined together in calling for peace and negotiations between Sudan’s warring parties, but these calls have largely fallen flat.

Instead, several nations have been accused of funding and supplying the conflict, including the UAE. Sudan has continually, throughout the entire conflict, accused the UAE of supplying the RSF with arms and funds, which they argue has allowed the RSF to continue its war effort against the SAF. Despite these accusations, the UAE has denied any involvement, and the UN has not imposed any sanctions on the UAE, although United Nations (UN) monitors have described the claims as “credible. Sudan has repeatedly urged the UN to take action against the UAE, including extending an arms embargo from the Darfur region to Chad and the UAE. These sanctions have been in place since 2005, amid the wider Darfur conflict.

According to Sudan, the UAE transfers weapons by plane to Chad, Sudan’s western neighbor, where they are flown over the border into the hands of the RSF. Darfur spans the entirety of Sudan’s border with Chad. While not controlling all of Darfur, the RSF has a stronghold in the region and controls a significant portion of the border with Chad. Due to this, Sudan requested sanctions be expanded to Chad and the UAE, with Sudan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ammar Mahmoud, stating that there was “no reason to maintain Darfur sanctions if they do not include countries actively violating relevant Security Council resolutions, particularly the UAE and Chad.”

On June 18th, Sudan and the UAE headed to the UNSC for further discussions on Sudan’s accusations. The UAE rejected Sudan’s accusations, as they have several times in the past. The UAE’s Ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Abushahab, called the accusations “ludicrous,” adding that they only served to distract from the “grave violations that are happening on the ground.”

On June 13th, the UNSC passed a resolution in which it called for the RSF to “halt their siege” upon the North Darfur city of El Fasher. The resolution also called for external actors to “refrain from external interference which seeks to foment conflict and instability.” Notably missing from this resolution was a direct affirmation of Sudan’s accusations and a call upon the UAE, which Sudan refers to as the RSF’s “official and regional sponsor,” to halt its support of the RSF. Such language has also been absent from previous UN resolutions that called upon external actors to halt supplying both sides of the conflict with military aid, thus extending the duration of the conflict.

Members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group are seen in a desert area about 100 kilometers north of Khartoum on Sept. 25, 2019. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Gold to Blame?

The UAE is the leading recipient of illicit gold smuggled out of Africa, according to a Swiss report published in May. The investigation found that gold smuggled out of Africa “generally lands in the UAE,” which received 47 percent of gold from Africa, imported to non-African countries in 2022. Reportedly, 80 percent of Sudan’s national gold production is smuggled out of the country.

Hemedti, the leader of the RSF, has a substantial interest in the industry. His family company, Al Gunade, is in gold mining and trading, with stakes held by his brother Abdul Rahim Dagalo and two of Abdul Rahim’s sons. Hemedti is listed as a director, according to documents analyzed by the NGO Global Witness. While Abu Dhabi has kept relatively silent about its alliance with the RSF, an investigation by the New York Times suggested Hemedti is all but a custodian of Emirati interests in Sudan, with gold from mines controlled by Wagner shipped to the UAE, en route to Russia.

Saudi Places Bets

While the UAE has been allegedly supporting the RSF and cashing in on Sudan’s gold wealth, Riyadh has been working to brand itself as the peacemaker for Sudan. In November, Saudi Arabia sponsored cease-fire talks in Jeddah, provided humanitarian aid, and helped to evacuate civilians out of Khartoum at the onset of the war. Further crystalizing Gulf tensions in Sudan itself, Saudi’s ally, Egypt, has reportedly considered a full-scale invasion of Sudan to back the Sudanese military, although the conflict in Gaza has almost certainly redirected Egypt’s focus back to its eastern border.

“While many Western analysts might see Sudan as a country in Africa, which it obviously is, for the [Gulf Cooperation Council States] and other Arab countries it is an Arab country. So, any sort of instability, civil wars, disruptions of this magnitude, in particular, are a grave concern for everyone also because it is very close in proximity to the Gulf,” Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera last year.

Sudan’s Army Deepens Ties With Iran, Russia

Iran, once an ally of ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir, has provided armed drones to Sudan’s military, a move that analysts say helped the Army regain control of some parts of the capital city of Khartoum. The acting foreign minister of Sudan’s army-backed government, in a significant diplomatic move, visited his Iranian counterpart, Hussein Awad Ali, in Tehran in late May. According to the state-run SUNA news agency, the two allegedly discussed increasing ties and reopening embassies. Tehran and the Sudanese army reopened diplomatic ties in 2023 after a seven-year hiatus linked to Sudan’s role in a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that fought the Houthis in Yemen.

Sudan received shipments of Mohajer-6 single-engine unmanned drones manufactured in Iran by Quds Air Industries. The drones are capable of carrying precision-guided munitions and conducting air-to-surface attacks, according to Western officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Analysts who examined satellite imagery confirmed the unmanned craft’s arrival in the country.

A Mohajer-6 drone and radio tower seen in a satellite image analyzed by PAX. (Source: Planet Labs Inc.)

Iran’s provision of drones and other material support to Sudan’s army is “widely accepted in the diplomatic community,” said Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “Regaining an ally in Sudan, especially along the Red Sea, would be a major win for Iran but will spook other regional and Western powers.” The move, however, would pit Iran against Gulf power UAE in the region.

Also in late May, the Sudanese Army announced a potential agreement with Russia, a move that could see a military fueling station established on the Red Sea coast in exchange for weapons. Moscow has long-coveted Sudan’s 530-mile coastline, and an agreement for a Russian naval base there would stoke Western fear of Russia’s expanding footprint on the continent. The announcement came as Sudan’s army is locked in a bloody battle to regain territory lost to the RSF and as Sudan’s junta-backed government seeks new allies, increasingly drawing in foreign powers. Russia is playing a two-part game in Sudan, negotiating with the Sudanese military and government for sea access while supporting the RSF and, thereby, access to Sudan’s gold through the Wagner Group, which it became more dependent on after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions.

The Global Stakes in Sudan’s Conflict

The conflict in Sudan is an opportunity for Russia, Iran, and some Gulf states to expand their regional presence as each seeks to control Sudan’s resources, energy, and logistics. While none of these powers have been effective at bringing a peaceful resolution to the war, all have played a significant role in its continuation. Just this month, more than 55,000 civilians fled Sinja, the capital of Sennar state in southeastern Sudan following reports that the RSF had overtaken the capital. It is likely that as civilians continue to flee the crisis, the RSF will continue to gain ground, and Russia and Iran will continue to step into the vacuum left behind.

The intervention of Iran and Russia on the side of the military, alongside allegations of UAE support to the RSF and Saudi Arabia’s allyship with Egypt, underscores the geopolitical significance of Sudan’s mineral wealth and Red Sea coastline, where heavyweight powers are vying for access and influence, risking broader destabilization of the region and the rise of a new proxy war outside of the Middle East. Which way power in Sudan falls—to Hemedti and the RSF or de facto ruler of Sudan Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—would create a power shift nearly 2,000 miles away in the Gulf and open rifts between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as the region sits on the brink of all-out war.

Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius is the Editorial Operations Chief and Acting Middle East Desk Chief for Atlas News. She has a degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. With extensive experience in South Asia and the Middle East, she brings nuanced analysis to the team and upholds the tenets of journalism across the newsroom - accuracy, integrity, and trusted editorial standards.