Analysts believe the Saudi-UAE alliance and Egypt have thrown their support behind the country's military council to counter a civilian uprising demanding democratic rule.
Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, was the scene of heavy traffic last weekend as the generals from Sudan’s ruling military council packed their bags before heading for a visit to their international backers.
Early Saturday, the head of Sudan’s ruling military council, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, visited neighbouring Egypt.
The visit marked his first trip abroad since the army ended the 30-year rule of authoritarian Omar Al-Bashir rule and began to govern the country.
The Sudanese opposition members rejected the military rule and remained on the streets, demanding an immediate handover to civilian rule.
Burhan met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, himself a former military chief who got the top job after leading the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mursi.
Despite sour relations between the two neighbouring countries over border disputes and dams on Nile waters, the two North African nations have recently cultivated close ties.
When the protests, which were fueled by frustration over economic grievances, broke out in Sudan last December, high-ranking Egyptian officials, including Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, flew to Kahortum to show Egypt's support for Bashir against the uprising.
Egyptian support for the Bashir regime continued even after he was overthrown. Although Sisi vowed to support “will of the Sudanese people”, his backstage support for the military council, which is comprised of generals under Bashir's rule, demonstrates the complete opposite.
The African Union (AU), currently chaired by Egypt, initially gave Sudan’s military 15 days to hand over power to civilian rule.
However, soon after the first deadline, Sisi organised another AU meeting in Cairo and gave a three-month deadline to the ruling military council, a move that aimed to ease international pressure on the military council.
After Egypt, Gen. Burhan headed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he met with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who once again expressed the UAE’s support for Sudan for “preserving Sudan’s security and stability”.
However, analysts believe the tiny Gulf state, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, aims to counter the Sudanese uprising precisely to counter civilian rule and democracy.
“While the UAE and Saudi do not want to be seen to be openly supporting the military over civilian rule, they will create an arrangement like the one in Egypt, where the leader appears to be with pro-civilian, while the military calls the shots,” Andreas Krieg from King’s College London told TRT World.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to expand the role of the military in Khartoum so that they are the kings in the background.”
Meanwhile, while Burhan toured the Gulf, his deputy-general, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Jeddah.
Contrary to Burhan’s cautious statements, Dagalo, who held a prominent role in Bashir’s regime, did not hesitate to give the first hint of the council’s foreign policy strategy.
“Sudan stands with the kingdom against all threats and attacks from Iran and Houthi militias,” he said.
Dagalo, who would later become the leader of a militia group that became Bashir’s main source of power, is also the architect of Sudan’s military campaign in the war in Yemen.
Since 2015, Sudan has made a significant military contribution to the Saudi-led Yemen war, in which it has lost hundreds of its soldiers.
Support for Sudan’s military council is by no means limited to state visits.
The new de-facto leaders are seeking legitimacy amid international pressure for a democratic transition.
“The fact that Dagalo vows to continue to support the war effort in Yemen shows that the aid money that has been promised to Khartoum by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh is yielding results in their favour,” Krieg said.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have jointly pledged $3 billion in financial and material aid to Khartoum since the military seized power. About $500 million has already been deposited at Sudan’s central bank.
Critics say Gulf aid aims to strengthen the military’s power in Khartoum rather than improving the dire conditions of Sudanese people.
“Authoritarian stability for the UAE means that they have like-minded regimes in power across the region with whom they can do business. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh want simple strategic relations, with just one contact person to call should they need anything; a pluralistic political system means complexity in which you need to garner support from a variety of actors”, Krieg told TRT World.
But the people of Sudan don't buy it. There have been widespread protests condemning pro-military stances of both the Saudi-UAE alliance and Egypt in Sudan, in which demonstrators have been increasingly vocal against any foreign intervention.
In fact, on the same day the Saudi-UAE alliance announced the aid package to Sudan, protesters demanded that Gulf states not “meddle” in their country, chanting: “We do not want Saudi aid even if it means eating beans and falafel”.
Sudanese experts and politicians also worry that by pumping money to the country’s rulers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will attempt to mould the country’s governance to their liking.
“A soft landing for the old regime is being orchestrated by Middle Eastern powers so that they can keep their allies in power,” Mohamed Yusuf Al-Mustafa, who leads the the Sudanese Professionals Association, the country’s most powerful union, told the Washington Post.
“They exhibit the classical Arab attitude toward Sudan: support military leaders, protect your interests and turn a blind eye to bad behaviour.”
“Like many Muslims all around the world, the Sudanese protesters know that the Saudi and Emirati regimes have become the worst enemies of progressive Islam,” University of Minnesota Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar told TRT World.
Dr Krieg warns that backing from the Gulf monarchies means the Sudanese military might not step back so easily.
“Even if they appoint a civilian leader and allow for elections, the military can manipulate the constitutional process to an extent that it will remain in power behind the scene,” Krieg said.
He reminds readers of how Sisi seized power in Egypt.
“Sisi dropped his uniform at some point to look like a civilian ruler when in reality, he consolidated the military’s grip on power,” he said.
Professor Samatar, however, remains hopeful.
“It is refreshing to see an African-Muslim popular movement challenge those rotten regimes,” he said.