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Sudan crisis: What if Hemeti lost the war he started?

With concern in Washington and anxiety in Riyadh, Hemeti's main backer, the UAE, might embark on another prudent retreat from military adventures abroad
Hemeti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries, wipes his sweat off during a meeting with his supporters in the capital Khartoum on 18 June, 2019 (AFP)

How do you turn a war criminal, whose militias terrorised Darfur by ramming men with pickup trucks and raping women in the name of jihad, into a hero of the Sudanese revolution?

Well, you need money.

The British PR agency whose pitch lies in front of me as I write this, put their "indicative fees" at between £100,000 ($125,000) and £125,000 ($156,000) a month. For their client, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, otherwise known as Hemeti, this is peanuts. 

The Sudanese politician Mubarak al-Fadil, whose party Hemeti attempted to bring on board, estimates Hemeti's worth at $7bn from the gold trade he runs between Sudan, the UAE and Russia. Al-Fadil even named the bank in the UAE where he claims half of Hemeti’s money is kept.

You also need deniability. The PR agency coyly describes itself as "boutique". 

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That means "we operate in a private and discreet manner. We do not advertise who our clients are. If you Google us you will find it very hard to discover our client base. We are not a listed company so do not have the pressures of a share price or shareholder activism."

The role of the military in Sudan, the PR pitch continues, is much misunderstood here in the West. 

"The general perception of the military is 'neutral-to-negative', when in reality it was the military who helped remove the former President Omar al-Bashir. Sudan would not have its fresh start if it were not for the military.”

But even more misunderstood, the pitch goes on, is the role of their client Hemeti. "The media tend to focus on the past, when his role in the current and future is more important. We would therefore seek to rebalance the perception of the military to 'neutral-to-positive'".

This was written three years ago, when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemeti were leading army members of the Sovereign Council, formed in August 2019, and a year before Burhan led his military coup in October 2021.

A carefully planned attack

At that stage Hemeti was already plotting his next move. While the memory of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) gunning down pro-democracy activists in a massacre in Khartoum in June 2019 was seared in the memory of Sudan, Hemeti was busy reinventing himself as a freedom fighter for a credulous western media. 

The PR pitch was written only seven months after that massacre. But they were only following the example set by the western diplomatic corps. In April 2019, ambassadors from the US, Britain and the EU rushed to shake hands with Hemeti in preference to al-Burhan, the little-known army general.

Sudan: How an RSF attack on Burhan set the tone for a bitter conflict
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The fighting that broke out on 15 April was not an accidental spat between two army generals who could not agree on who should be in charge. If the accounts gathered by MEE are accurate, it was a carefully planned attack.

Hemeti had prepositioned anti-aircraft guns in Khartoum. Why and against whom, his colleagues in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) had asked themselves?

Attacks by Hemeti’s RSF took place in numerous locations simultaneously: around al-Burhan’s residence, the intelligence HQ, army HQ, all of which are a stone's throw away from the airport in Khartoum; at the airports in Merowe and Al-Obeida, on the army HQs in Nyala in South Darfur and El-Fasher in North Darfur, and the city of Port Sudan.

At least 35 people died in the attempt to kill or capture al-Burhan, Sudanese sources close to the SAF told Middle East Eye. At the time of writing, the RSF was still holding hostages in the building of the intelligence headquarters, MEE was told.

Al-Fadil concurs with this assessment. "Not all of this attack was a reaction to the dispute between Hemeti and al-Burhan over the integration of the Rapid Support Forces into the armed forces. Rather, it was part of a major three-pronged scheme to seize power in Sudan with foreign encouragement," he wrote.

Foreign powers

But which foreign powers?

In September 2021, the United Arab Emirates began performing a U-turn. Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) embarked on a policy of rapprochement with the UAE president's keenest regional competitors, Turkey and Qatar

The UAE began what it claimed to be a "strategic assessment" of its policy of funding and organising military coups or attempting them in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. What return was it getting from its investment? Certainly none from the likes of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, nor Khalifa Haftar, who represented huge losses for their Gulf funders.

From now on, it was claimed, the Emirates would spread its influence through trade rather than coups. But had the leopard really changed its spots, I asked a Middle East official with first-hand knowledge of how the three brothers Mohammed, Tahnoun and Mansour bin Zayed operate? No, he replied, but they can change tactics. 

It is inconceivable that Hemeti launched a coup attempt against al-Burhan without getting the green light from Abu Dhabi

I was sceptical of the notion that the UAE had irretrievably abandoned hard power in favour of its softer alternative. And Sudan proves to be no exception. It is inconceivable that Hemeti launched a coup attempt against al-Burhan without getting the green light from Abu Dhabi. 

For one thing, half his money is tied up there. His bank is there. His Facebook operates out of there. The 11 gold refineries in the UAE are the lynchpin of Hemeti ’s business, melting gold stolen from Sudan’s mines and then laundering the precious metal onto the international market through the gold souk. 

Mansour bin Zayed, the vice president, has too many levers over Hemeti for him to safely incur their displeasure. MBZ could have gambled that he could profit from chaos in Sudan whether or not Hemeti succeeded in deposing al-Burhan.

Or he could have been persuaded, as indeed he was by Haftar at one point, that this would be a quick, clean coup over in a matter of hours. Where have we heard those words before? But both Hemeti and Haftar came close to succeeding.

The UAE's clear backing for Hemeti put Egypt, Sudan’s closest neighbour and for over a century its previous owner, in a bind. Egypt’s army and Sudan’s are hewn from the same block of wood. The institutional links between them bind them tightly together.

Cairo's deafening silence

At the time Hemeti launched his attacks, around 250 Egyptian military including pilots and planes were at Merowe air base and other locations in Sudan. Their presence was intended as a message to Ethiopia, that Egypt and Sudan were united in their joint opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is sucking the lifeblood out of the Nile.

They took no part in the fighting, and some were taken hostage by the RSF and their planes destroyed.

Egypt has been quiet about how many of its soldiers have been released and returned. SAF said in a statement that 177 Egyptian "captives" were returned home in three plane loads. They hurriedly retracted the word captives later . Sudan military sources say that the RSF still has foreign hostages, but they do not go into more detail. 

There was vague talk of some Egyptian troops having sought protection in the Egyptian Embassy. That still leaves scores of troops in Sudan, according to Egyptian sources with knowledge of the crisis. 

Egypt did initially come to SAF's defence, according to two outside sources.

How Egypt lost Sudan
Read More »

Sudan sources close to the SAF deny that Egyptian planes took part in the air strikes on the RSF. "Why would we need them? We have our own planes and pilots," one source said.  

But MEE has two independent credible sources saying that air strikes were carried out by Egyptian planes on RSF convoys attempting to reinforce positions in Khartoum from Port Sudan in the four days after the initial coup. 

That said, Egypt has been very quiet since. It was not so in Libya. 

When 29 Coptic Christians were killed by an Islamic State group attack on a convoy heading to the monastery in Minya in 2017, Egyptian warplanes had no hesitation in bombing what they claimed were IS camps in Derna, Libya. "Egypt will never hesitate to strike terror camps anywhere … if it plans attacking Egypt whether inside or outside the country," Sisi said.

Today, in comparison, the silence from Cairo is deafening. 

It has only called for "maximum restraint" from both sides in order to "protect the lives and capabilities of the brotherly Sudanese people, and uphold the supreme interests of the homeland,"  a statement issued by the foreign ministry said, adding meekly that it was "following developments".

Why the restraint? 

Three days before Hemeti moved against al-Burhan, MBZ arrived in an unannounced visit to Cairo. He was met at the airport by Sisi.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (C), Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (2nd R) and UAE's President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) attend the leaders summit on the second day of the COP27 climate conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on November 7, 2022. JOSEPH EID / AFP
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (2nd R) and UAE's President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) attend the leaders summit on the second day of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 7 November 2022 (AFP)

Egypt’s economy has been plummeting despite efforts to shore it up from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait and four separate loans from the IMF. Its currency has devalued by half since March 2022. 

Significantly, as Egypt is struggling to sell off state assets to shore up its plummeting currency, the Financial Times reported that Abu Dhabi’s sovereign fund ADQ, the prime UAE vehicle investing in Egypt, has paused its projects in the country.

It is not known what the two men discussed, but it is evident that MBZ had ample leverage over the bankrupt Sisi to stop the Egyptian army from coming to the rescue of their cousins in the SAF.

The Egyptian Army’s humiliation in Sudan only grew when Haftar, the general Sisi was once so keen on backing in Libya, rushed weapons, ammunition and combat troops from the Sudan-Libyan border. 

Anxiety in Riyadh

The Emirati punt on Hemeti is creating blowback in more capitals than Cairo, not least for Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

"The last thing Saudi Arabia needs right now is a Syria on the Red Sea," Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy researcher based in Riyadh, told Middle East Eye.

"Saudi really wants Sudan to be stable. If there is an unstable Sudan, the projects on the Red Sea will not fulfill their potential - that is the anxiety in Riyadh right now."

As indeed happened over Yemen, the rift between the ruler of Abu Dhabi and his former pupil, the young crown prince of Riyadh, is growing. 

MBS has learned the limits of aggressive foreign policy, and it was a lesson learned the hard way, through the hole the war in Yemen was making in his pocket. Not only were his forces unable to oust the Houthis from Sanaa and stop their missiles from raining down on airports and targets across the kingdom, but the bottom line was the war was costing him too much. 

The last thing that Mohammed bin Salman wants right now is a civil war of Syrian proportions on the opposite bank of the Red Sea

Once again the last three weeks in Sudan have revealed the disaster of promoting and financing military dictators, a disaster from which millions of innocent Sudanese civilians are currently suffering.

This time, however, trouble closer to home could be brewing for the Emirati state that is treading on too many toes in the region and on the African continent

Abu Dhabi is at the height of a financial boom. It's an entrepot for Russian oligarchs and exiles alike.

It's funnelling gold for Wagner in open defiance of US sanctions. It's funding coups in large influential countries like Sudan, far away from its shores, which destabilise neighbouring states.

It is courting China and experimenting in making the dirham a reserve currency in competition with the dollar.

It’s all going on at once and it’s all too good to be true.

This level of independent action is stirring concern in Washington. It is also making enemies in Riyadh, which has already once this year stopped trucks crossing from the Emirates into Saudi Arabia at the border, ruining their produce. 

MBZ and MBS each think they should now be the boss of the other: the former because he indubitably made the unknown prince the ruler he is today by introducing him, through a rapprochement with Israel, to the Trump clan; the latter because he now is the ruler of the largest and wealthiest Gulf state, to whom smaller states should swear allegiance. It’s not a good formula for the future.

Business stability in Abu Dhabi is supremely vulnerable to the sort of asymmetrical tactics it has pursued with such confidence to destabilise regimes elsewhere.  

If Hemeti loses the civil war he started, I expect another prudent retreat by MBZ from military adventures abroad. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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