As Operation “Decisive Storm” began to unfold in Yemen on March 26, Saudi Arabia was joined by its usual allies from the Gulf States (with the exception of Oman, which has amicable relations with Iran). But the coalition of mostly Sunni-majority states, which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, also had one seemingly surprising and absurd member: Sudan.
The Sudanese government has only provided three warplanes to the Saudi-led effort to rout the Houthis from power in Yemen. Clearly, the coalition does not need this paltry level of military support. So what’s driving Sudan’s participation? In a few words: the Sudanese regime’s survivalist tactics.
Joining the Sunni coalition against the Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen serves Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s domestic strategy for survival. No matter that Sudan has long had good relations with Iran. Since the military coup in 1989 that brought Bashir to power, his ruling National Congress Party has been bedfellows with the Iranian government. Sudan’s relations with Iran intensified further, after South Sudan’s secession in 2011. At the time, cooperation with Tehran, via military acquisitions and training programs, enabled the Sudanese regime to carry out attacks against its citizens in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and, of course, Darfur to subvert any and all attempts at challenging the government.
Now, with a general elections scheduled for April, the cash-strapped regime has peddled its military support to the Yemen operation in exchange for economic and financial aid from Saudi Arabia and its allies. The announcement came after Bashir’s visit to Riyadh on March 25, which coincided with the closure of Iranian missions and offices in Sudan and official statements from the Sudanese denying any alliance between Khartoum and Tehran the very next day.
But taking part in Operation Decisive Storm was not an impromptu decision by the Sudanese government. Bashir has meticulously calculated this move, ever since the Houthis began their advances toward Sana’a in September 2014, when he closed Iranian cultural centers in Khartoum and other areas and expelled the Iranian cultural attaché. These moves were followed by a meeting between Bashir and then Crown Prince, now King, Salman, in October 2014.
For an authoritarian regime that has been ruling Sudan for over a quarter of a century, financial assets and military power are two sides of the same coin of survival. Bashir has no qualms about changing his regional partners, as long as it keeps him in power.