Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced late last week that Israel will sign a full peace agreement with Sudan in the course of 2023. The announcement followed a visit to Khartoum by Cohen.
This development reflects the further crystallization and further advance of the undeclared regional alignment of which Israel forms a part, and in which Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are all crucial components.
The announcement comes against a background of the close partnership between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Sudan's current military rulers, alongside significant Emirati investment in the country.
A setback for Iran
If an agreement is indeed signed, it will mark an important setback for Iran, which once used Sudan as a way station on the arms trail to its allies in Gaza; and for Turkey and Qatar, which maintained close relations with Sudan's ousted Islamist leaders.
Sudan is already a signatory to the Abraham Accords, to which it committed itself in January 2021. But Khartoum at that time signed up only to the formal, declarative part of the agreement. In return for this commitment, Sudan was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and received a series of financial inducements.
Unlike the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, however, it did not go on to then sign a formal bilateral agreement with Israel.
The commitment to the Abraham Accords took place during a period of political transition for Sudan. In April 2019, the regime of Islamist president Omar al-Bashir was toppled by a military coup, following months of protests against his rule. Al-Bashir had ruled Sudan since 1989 and had presided over a hardline Islamist regime, aligned with Muslim Brotherhood forces, and offering a haven for a time to Osama bin Laden and his followers.
For two decades, al-Bashir also aligned his country with Iran before seeking his way back to closer connections with the Gulf countries for economic reasons after 2011. Saudi Arabia and the UAE proved amenable, but al-Bashir failed to back Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the crisis with Qatar in 2017. The latter concluded that he was a liability and should be replaced.
Political stability did not follow the removal of Bashir. Rather, under the nominal rule of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok alongside a transitional military council, various interests jostled for power. It was the Hamdok government that formally aligned with the Abraham Accords in 2021.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh correctly saw the ousting of al-Bashir as a chance to bring Sudan fully into their axis. In the wake of domestic opposition to military rule, and US and Western disapproval of the military's heavy-handedness and human rights record, the Emiratis and Saudis sought to co-opt the domestic opposition gathered under the umbrella title of the Forces of Freedom and Change.
At the same time, their key partnership was with the Sudanese Armed Forces, specifically with General Abdel al-Fattah Burhan and with General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemedti. Hemedti is the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
THE FAMILIAR tale in many Arab countries sees the military arrayed against the forces of political Islam, with secular and civil forces often crushed between them. The Sudanese situation did not conform to this simple binary, since the Sudanese Armed Forces had for many years backed the Islamist regime, hence elements of it remained close to Islamist circles.
In September 2021, elements of the military, aligned with loyalists of the ousted al-Bashir regime, attempted a coup against the transitional government. The coup attempt was foiled. A month later, the military leadership (without links to old regime figures), under General Burhan removed Hamdok from power on October 25 and assumed power itself.
From the outset, Burhan sought to orientate toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia and made clear his willingness to increase public cooperation with Israel (tacit cooperation in the field of intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism already existed).
Burhan held his first official trip abroad, after the coup, to the UAE in March. His purpose, straightforwardly, was to raise funds. The Sudanese economy was in a nosedive. He was successful.
The UAE, however, has continued to play a sophisticated role, leveraging earlier relationships with the Sudanese military and with the civilian leadership. Perhaps aware that it was not facing an Egypt 2013-type situation, where the choice was Islamist civilians or non-Islamist officers, Abu Dhabi has worked to reconcile the military and civilian leaderships, while allowing real power to remain in the hands of the military.
The successful forging by Burhan of a relationship with the UAE has gone hand in hand with moves toward Israel. Pre-existing communication and cooperation in the security field have been openly acknowledged since the military coup. In February, Burhan said that relations in this area were "not secret," and that the sharing of intelligence enabled Khartoum to "arrest terrorist groups in Sudan that could have undermined the security of Sudan and the region."
In the course of 2022, a number of public statements were made by senior Sudanese leaders that appeared to be preparing the way for the establishment of full diplomatic relations. In September, at a meeting of the African Union, Burhan expressed his willingness to travel to Israel. In November, he offered congratulations to Benjamin Netanyahu on his election victory.
The Emiratis and Saudis have sought to offset claims that they were in the process of paving the way for a "Sisi" type regime in Khartoum, by continuing to support dialogue between the military authorities and the civilian political leadership. At the same time, the authorities in the course of 2022 appear to have successfully contained the weekly popular demonstrations against their rule, which never seriously constituted a threat.
Burhan has made a number of public statements pledging his intention to step aside eventually, and for the Sudanese Armed Forces to cede power to an elected civilian leadership. No timetable has been set for this, however. In the meantime, power remains firmly in the hands of the military and its backers.
Burhan's clear decision to align with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has begun to pay dividends. In December, the military government signed a $6 billion preliminary agreement with two UAE firms to build a new port on the Red Sea coast. According to a recent report by Associated Press, Abu Dhabi Ports Group and Invictus Investment are to build and manage the new port at Abu Amama, 200 km. north of Port Sudan.
So the direction of events is clear. The tacit alliance of which Israel is a part has the upper hand within Sudan. There appear to be no serious obstacles to its continued rule. A decade ago, Sudan formed part of Iran's pathway to Israel and influence in Africa, and was in cooperation with Sunni Islamist and jihadi forces.
This situation has now been reversed. The transition of Sudan's relations with Jerusalem – from covert cooperation to confidence-building moves, and now it would appear imminently to full diplomatic relations – form a natural element in this process.
Full relations with Sudan, in turn, will be of benefit to Israel in terms of monitoring hostile activity along the Red Sea coast and in terms of potentially opening doors to other African countries, including Djibouti and Somalia.
Sudan will also form an important component in the ongoing effort to contain Iran along the entire southern Red Sea coast. So the latest developments constitute a significant achievement for what Egyptian analyst Mohammed Soliman has termed the "Abrahamic Alliance."
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.