Abandoned by the UAE, Sudan’s Al Bashir was destined to fall

In his 30 year rule, Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir survived coup attempts, rebellions and war. Insiders say it was his failure to read the politics of the region, and maintain one key alliance, that led to his downfall. A Reuters report

Sudan's deposed president Omar Al Bashir (File photo)

In his 30 year rule, Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir survived coup attempts, rebellions and war. Insiders say it was his failure to read the politics of the region, and maintain one key alliance, that led to his downfall. A Reuters report

On the night of April 10, Sudan’s feared spymaster, Salah Gosh, visited President Al Bashir in his palace to reassure the leader that mass protests posed no threat to his rule.

For four months, thousands of Sudanese had been taking to the streets. They were demanding democracy and an end to economic hardship.

Gosh told his boss, one of the Arab world’s longest serving leaders, that a protest camp outside the Defence Ministry nearby would be contained or crushed, said four sources, one of whom was present at the meeting.

His mind at ease, Al Bashir went to bed. When he woke, four hours later, it was to the realisation that Gosh had betrayed him. His palace guards were gone, replaced by regular soldiers. His 30-year rule was at an end.

A member of Al Bashir’s inner circle, one of a handful of people to speak with him in those final hours, said the president went to pray. “Army officers were waiting for him when he finished,” the insider told Reuters.

They informed Al Bashir that Sudan’s High Security Committee, made up of the defence minister and the heads of the army, intelligence and police, was removing him from power, having concluded he’d lost control of the country.

He was taken to Khartoum’s Kober jail, where he’d imprisoned thousands of political opponents during his rule. There he remains. It was a remarkably smooth putsch against a man who had seen off rebellions and attempted coups, survived U.S. sanctions and evaded arrest by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur.

Reuters interviewed a dozen sources with direct knowledge of events leading up to the coup to piece together how Bashir finally lost his grip on power. These sources, including a former government minister, a member of Al Bashir’s inner circle and a coup plotter, portrayed a leader who was skilled at manipulating and controlling rival Islamist and military factions in Sudan, but increasingly isolated in a changing Middle East.

They described how Al Bashir mishandled one key relationship – with the United Arab Emirates. Oil-rich UAE had previously pumped billions of dollars into Sudan’s coffers. Al Bashir had served UAE interests in Yemen, where the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are waging a proxy war against Iran. But at the end of 2018, as Sudan’s economy imploded and protesters took to the streets, Al Bashir found himself without this powerful, and wealthy, friend.

The sources recounted how National Intelligence and Security Service head Gosh contacted political prisoners and Sudanese opposition groups to seek their support in the weeks before the generals moved against Al Bashir. And in the days before the coup, these sources said, Gosh made at least one phone call to intelligence officials in the UAE to give them advance warning of what was about to happen.

The UAE and Saudi governments didn’t respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this article. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter in June, after Al Bashir’s removal, that the Emirates were in communication “with all Sudanese opposition elements and the Transitional Military Council” that has assumed power.

“There is no doubt it is a sensitive period after years of Bashir’s dictatorship and Muslim Brotherhood,” Gargash went on, referring to Al Bashir’s Islamist allies in Sudan.

A betrayal

Relations between Al Bashir and the UAE were still warm in February 2017, when Al Bashir visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Some 14,000 Sudanese troops were fighting in Yemen as part of a Saudi and UAE-led military coalition against Iranian-aligned rebels.

The prince, known among diplomats as MbZ, was now hoping for Al Bashir’s cooperation in another regard – cracking down on Islamists – said a senior official in the Sudanese government who was briefed on the meeting by Bashir.

The UAE was leading regional efforts to counter political Islam, which it and Saudi Arabia viewed as a direct threat to monarchic rule and the region. Those efforts gained new urgency from 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings swept the Middle East. One Islamist group in particular was going from strength to strength: the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE and Saudi Arabia consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood says it is peaceful.

In 2012, Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi as their first Islamist president. He was ousted by the army a year later, to the satisfaction of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which together with Gulf ally Kuwait sent $23 billion in aid to Cairo over the next 18 months.

In Sudan, the influence of Islamists was more deeply entrenched than in Egypt, and stretched back decades. Bashir seized power in 1989 as the head of an Islamist junta. Now Islamists controlled the military, intelligence services and key ministries. According to the senior government official, Al Bashir and MbZ reached “an understanding” that Bashir would root out Islamists and, in return, the UAE would provide Sudan with financial support. Al Bashir didn’t indicate how he planned to do this.

In broadcast remarks during the meeting, MbZ thanked the Sudanese leader for sending his troops to support the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “I want to say a word of truth about the president. When the going got tough and things got worse, Sudan supported the Arab alliance without asking for anything in return,” said MbZ, sitting alongside Al Bashir.

Watching officials cheered and clapped.

Billions of dollars from the UAE flowed to Sudan after the Abu Dhabi talks. The UAE state news agency reported that in the year to March 2018, the UAE channeled a total $7.6 billion in the form of support to Sudan’s central bank, in private investments and investments through the Abu Dhabi Fund For Development.

3 billion Dollars in aid for Sudan agreed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia after Bashir’s fall

One of Al Bashir’s most trusted aides, the director of his office, Taha Osman El Hussein, was charged with handling Sudan’s relations with the UAE and with Saudi Arabia. El Hussein, a former intelligence officer, was described by colleagues as ambitious and skilled. But government ministers resented his influence, complaining they could not get to Al Bashir without going through El Hussein, and that El Hussein effectively controlled foreign policy. In one instance, he made an important foreign policy announcement to Sudan’s state news agency and Saudi Arabia’s press agency, bypassing the Foreign Ministry.

“He was the man who had a magic hold on Al Bashir’s mind,” said Ghamar Habani, a senior official in Al Bashir’s National Congress Party.

El Hussein’s enemies, including Sudan’s then spy chief and leading politicians, publicly accused him of spying for Saudi Arabia. Sudanese intelligence alleged Saudi Arabia and the UAE had deposited $109 million for El Hussein in a bank account in Dubai. El Hussein denied these allegations, which Sudanese media reported at the time, in meetings with Al Bashir, several sources told Reuters.

Al Bashir finally dismissed El Hussein in June 2017 when it emerged he’d taken Saudi citizenship, said the former government official. El Hussein moved to Riyadh and became an adviser to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a position he still holds, shuttling between the two states.

Reuters couldn’t reach El Hussein for comment. The UAE and Saudi governments didn’t respond to questions about the matter.

“The issue of Taha (El Hussein) left a big scar on Bashir,” said Habani, the senior member of Al Bashir’s National Congress Party.

His sacking was also a blow to the UAE.

”We are Islamists”

In the summer of 2017, a diplomatic crisis exploded among Gulf Arab states. The UAE and Saudi Arabia severed relations with Qatar, angered by its continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The rift put Al Bashir in a difficult position. Qatar, like the UAE, had provided billions of dollars of financial aid to Sudan’s impoverished economy.

Al Bashir’s Islamist allies in Sudan pressed him to maintain links with Qatar and not to take sides in the dispute. Their message was very clear, said the former government official, “we should keep relations with Qatar.”

In March 2018, Sudan and Qatar announced plans for a $4 billion agreement to jointly develop the Red Sea port of Suakin off Sudan’s coast.

Al Bashir had chosen not to throw his support behind the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the dispute.

He had also opted not to diminish the influence of Islamists in his government. The senior government official said Al Bashir was afraid to alienate powerful Islamist figures. Among these powerbrokers was Ali Osman Taha, a former first vice president, and his successor Bakri Hasan Saleh, who took part in the coup that brought Al Bashir to power. Reuters couldn’t reach Taha or Saleh for comment.

Originally published by Reuters: By KHALID ABDELAZIZ, MICHAEL GEORGY and MAHA EL DAHAN

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