Why the US is unable to restrain the UAE in Sudan

In late April, the US envoy to the UN urged the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and others to stop interfering in Sudan’s war, warning that a “crisis of epic proportions is brewing.”

That comes as Washington has faced mounting pressure from senators, human rights groups, and the UN to address Sudan’s crisis, which is causing a dire humanitarian catastrophe.

With over a year since the Rapid Special Forces (RSF) split from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the violence has killed over 15,000 and internally displaced over 6.7 million, while forcing 1.8 million to flee to neighbouring countries. However, the death toll provided by the UN is likely a gross underestimate, given the country is too dangerous for observers to enter.

“The US has turned a blind eye to Africa for a long time and in this vacuum the UAE have established itself as a key proxy of Russian and Chinese interests”

Failure to address the horrific conflict has also seen a resurgence of abuses in the Darfur region, with Human Rights Watch warning of renewed ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide against the Black African Masalit population, in a region enduring endless conflict this century.

That would also mean the overall death toll is likely far higher.

An Emirati-Russian nexus in Sudan

Following the popular revolution against Omar Bashir in April 2019, Abu Dhabi has built close ties with Sudanese military figures. Chief among them were the RSF and its leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as “Hemedti.”

In an increasingly apparent alignment with Russia, those connections have continued. The warlord has visited the UAE on multiple occasions, including meeting President Mohammed bin Zayed in March 2023, a month before the war, while his commercial headquarters is based in Dubai.

Abu Dhabi has reportedly established a military base in Chad, which facilitates the provision of military support to Hemedti; an assertion denied by Abu Dhabi but deemed “credible” by the UN.

According to the ICC and Human Rights Watch, there are grounds to believe that both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese military may be committing war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide against non-Arab peoples in Darfur. [Getty]

In 2023, the UAE inaugurated a field hospital in Amdjarass, situated near the Sudanese border, designed to treat Sudanese refugees, yet reportedly also wounded fighters from Sudan’s RSF, as per various media reports.

Satellite images have shown that the local airport in Amdjarass has been converted into an airfield with military characteristics, featuring temporary aircraft shelters and a hangar.

Sudan plays a key role in Abu Dhabi’s commercial networks which also includes Libya, Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somaliland. Moreover, Abu Dhabi has seen Hemedti’s forces as a means of safeguarding gold mines in which it has invested.

“The UAE have monopolised the trade of minerals from Africa, mostly gold, on which Russian firms rely to advance their interests across the continent. Likewise, the UAE controls the entire illegal arms trade into Sudan that is benefitting the RSF through Uganda and Chad,” Andreas Krieg, Associate Professor at Kings College London, told The New Arab.

He added that this strategy not only strengthens the UAE’s position but also makes it an indispensable partner for Russia’s policy in Africa, which relies on the networks Abu Dhabi has created in Sudan.

With Russia’s Africa Corps, previously the Wagner Group, smuggling resources and selling them in Dubai, money can then be used to buy supplies, which are then transported to Sudan along with the Russian mercenaries.

“This is all part of the UAE’s quest for relevance, becoming a key broker and interlocutor between non-state actors it controls and great powers,” Andreas Krieg added.

Declining Western influence

Facing pressure over Israel’s war on Gaza and subsequent regional tensions, to say nothing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions with China, Sudan’s war has slipped down the pecking order in priorities for Western nations.

And as Washington’s influence in Africa wanes, while Russia and China’s clout expands, the Biden administration has found its capacity and resolve to restrain Abu Dhabi increasingly limited.

“At this moment in world affairs, it feels like the US needs the UAE far more than they need us. That means on an issue like Sudan, where Washington is trying to get Abu Dhabi to moderate its behaviour, it has very little leverage to use without putting at risks other asks it has of UAE,” Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at CSIS who also served with the CIA and State Department in Africa, told The New Arab.

“Although the US has faced pressure to bring an end to Sudan’s crisis, its unwillingness to rein in on the UAE, or even engage in diplomacy with Abu Dhabi to push for a peace settlement, further testifies its declining leverage”

In terms of broader US-UAE relations, Abu Dhabi has grown disillusioned with the Biden administration, notably on the conditions of US weapons sales and perceived lack of commitment in the face of Iran’s network of regional proxies.

Since the Biden administration could seek Emirati political and financial backing in reconstructing Gaza following Israel’s war, Washington may be hesitant to impose punitive measures on Abu Dhabi for its involvement in Sudan.

A lack of diplomacy

There’s also the issue of weakening American diplomacy prior to Sudan’s descent into civil war. Although the US brokered the transitional government in July 2019 between civilian groups and the military, Washington ignored concerns that the post-revolution agreement was at breaking point.

That continued lack of diplomacy has evidently enabled Sudan’s descent into civil war and currently doesn’t look set to improve.

“The fact is that we have had a Special Envoy for Sudan for almost 3 months now and he has made only a single day-long visit to UAE, arguably the most determinative external party to the conflict,” added Cameron Hudson.

“If we were serious, he would be authorised to camp out in Abu Dhabi and Sudan would be a talking point in every senior-level interaction with Emirati officials and it just isn’t.”

8.5 million people have been forcibly displaced since the outbreak of war in Sudan in April 2023. [Getty]

The US isn’t the only Western partner that could struggle to contain Abu Dhabi’s actions in Sudan.

Last month, the UAE reportedly cancelled four ministerial meetings with UK ministers after a previous UN Security Council meeting in early April, where the SAF accused Abu Dhabi of backing the RSF and Abu Dhabi felt the UK didn’t do enough to shield it from criticism.

However, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry also accused the UK of failing to rein in Abu Dhabi, arguing it was prioritising its commercial interests. Moreover, a report from The Guardian stated the UK was holding secret talks with the RSF, highlighting risks that it was legitimising the group accused of human rights violations.

Despite facing pressure to address Sudan’s crisis, the UK’s focus on post-Brexit trade deals with Arab Gulf states, including the UAE, makes it cautious in criticising the UAE, ultimately weakening any leverage it has over the warring parties.

Turning a blind eye

The US has neglected Africa, enabling Russian military clout and Chinese investments to expand, which has arguably created the circumstances for Sudan’s war to flourish.

“When it comes to Africa, the UAE in recent years has stopped balancing its relations [with the US] and has invested nearly unequivocally into its relations with Moscow,” said Andreas Krieg.

“The US has turned a blind eye to Africa for a long time and in this vacuum the UAE has established itself as a key proxy of Russian and Chinese interests.”

Iran, a Russian ally, is increasing its influence in Sudan, potentially causing conflicts of interest. According to a Bloomberg report in January, Iran has supplied drones to the SAF, rivals of Hemedti.

More recently, the SAF has been seen with Iranian-made anti-tank missiles, while the RSF has also been sighted with them, prompting speculation that the RSF may have seized and then deployed them.

Despite the risk of a “proxy war” between the two Russian allies, Moscow may hope to leverage its ties with both Abu Dhabi and Tehran to prevent such a clash. However, given the necessity of Russia’s networks with the UAE, it may be unwilling, or unable, to challenge Abu Dhabi. 

Although the US has faced pressure to bring an end to Sudan’s crisis, its unwillingness to rein in the UAE, or even engage in diplomacy with Abu Dhabi to push for a peace settlement, further testifies its declining leverage – not only over the region but also its traditional Gulf allies.

A lack of diplomacy will only mean Sudan’s humanitarian crisis becomes graver. There are certainly questions over how far Hemedti can go in achieving Abu Dhabi’s geopolitical objectives, given his forces currently aren’t as self-sustaining as other Emirati client actors, like Khalifa Haftar in Libya or Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC).

Despite increasing reputational damage for the UAE in the West, the fractured geopolitical landscape may only spell more bad news for Sudan in the near future.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey

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