How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War


By Talal Mohammad

Fighting in Sudan, now in its third month, shows no signs of abating. The country’s two rival generals have flouted multiple cease-fires as they vie for control. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who first gained power after the 2019 ousting of longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir and later cemented his position in a 2021 coup, is fighting Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Under Bashir, Hemeti led the RSF (formerly known as the Janjaweed) alongside Burhan’s army in Darfur. After a so-called Sovereign Council was formed following the 2021 coup, Hemeti stepped in as Burhan’s deputy. However, their relationship became turbulent as both generals squabbled over power and how to merge the RSF into the Sudanese military. The clashes—which began on April 15—have so far resulted in hefty humanitarian costs, with more than 3,000 people dead and some 2.1 million internally displaced.
But the conflict between Burhan and Hemeti is not just a domestic squabble. Sudan is a bridge that links the Middle East and Africa, and its abundant natural resources mean the battle for Khartoum has taken on a regional dimension. Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view the war as a chance to cement their hegemonic status in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia supports Burhan, the UAE has backed Hemeti.

Given Burhan’s international legitimacy, the chances of an RSF victory over the Sudanese military are slim. More likely is that Burhan and Hemeti establish rival spheres of control in Sudan that mimic the situation in Libya, where an ongoing rivalry between various political and military factions has created a fragmented state with multiple centers of power. In such a scenario, the RSF would be a thorn in the side of Burhan and his external benefactors—giving the UAE added leverage in the country’s future and helping to cement Abu Dhabi as the emerging preeminent power in the Gulf.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—have been ostensible allies for decades. But their relationship has always featured a hint of competition for regional primacy that is now escalating.
For a long time, tensions within the Middle East required Saudi Arabia and the UAE to prioritize partnership over competition. Now, as Riyadh normalizes ties with its archrival Tehran—and appears be to mediating in Lebanon, Syria, as well as among feuding Palestinian political parties—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken his rivalry with the UAE up a notch.
Geopolitical changes have been buttressed by economic ones. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE focused on diversifying their economies away from oil, forging more prominent regional and international roles in aviation, sports, infrastructure, and other areas. Riyadh under Mohammed bin Salman has shifted from an identity dominated by Islam to hypernationalism, while Abu Dhabi under President Mohammed bin Zayed has adopted a cultural policy that promotes more religious diversity and acceptance.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh began butting heads in 2009, when they disagreed over where to locate the GCC’s proposed central bank, which would have promoted a more unified Gulf economy and a common currency. The council agreed that the UAE would house the bank, only for Riyadh to pull out of the plan at the last minute without explanation. Neither the bank nor the currency has since come to fruition. Instead, tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bubbled to the surface—sometimes violently by proxy.
The UAE is considered a partner in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. But since the conflict began in 2015, Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s objectives gradually diverged, as Riyadh supported the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, while Abu Dhabi opted to back the Southern Transitional Council. This gave the UAE control over many of Yemen’s ports and islands—and therefore access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Horn of Africa.
In 2019, fierce clashes broke out between the Southern Transitional Council and Hadi’s forces in a bid to control the port city of Aden. But the Saudi-Emirati rivalry in Yemen was not limited to ports. Reports leaked to Al Jazeera in 2018 showed that Riyadh had planned to construct a pipeline transporting Saudi oil to the Yemeni seaport of Nishtun on the border with Oman, which would have reduced the risk of any Iranian threats by bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. The project would have undermined the UAE’s key position in oil and gas transportation and given the kingdom more control within OPEC.
Outside the Middle East, Washington has also become a key venue for Saudi-Emirati competition. The rise of Mohammed bin Salman—who U.S. intelligence concluded ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—has caused the relationship between Riyadh and U.S. policymakers to become frosty in recent years. This gave the UAE a golden opportunity to replace Riyadh as Washington’s favorite Gulf military ally.
Abu Dhabi’s standing was only bolstered when it signed the U.S.-sponsored Abraham Accords to normalize ties with Israel in 2020. (The United States is currently promoting Saudi-Israeli normalization, to little bite from Riyadh so far.) While the United States suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen, the Trump administration chose to supply its most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, to the UAE—although the Biden administration paused the sale for review. If the deal goes through, it would make the UAE the first Arab country to receive the plane.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have expanded their competition to Africa—and resource-rich, strategically located Sudan in particular.
Gulf countries have played a significant role in Sudan since Bashir’s ouster. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh immediately funded the Transitional Military Council, the junta that took over, with $3 billion worth of aid. At the time, Saudi and Emirati interests in Sudan were generally aligned, and both helped play a role in the country’s short-lived democratic transition. Both states also extracted concessions from Khartoum: Sudan provided military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and the UAE mediated Khartoum’s accession to the Abraham Accords.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also long invested in Sudan’s economy. As of 2018, Abu Dhabi had cumulatively invested $7.6 billion in the country. Since Bashir fell, the UAE has added another $6 billion worth of investments that include agricultural projects and a Red Sea port. In October 2022, Riyadh announced that it would invest up to $24 billion in sectors of Sudan’s economy including infrastructure, mining, and agriculture.
As emerging Middle East hegemons, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are now at odds—each seeking to control Sudan’s resources, energy, and logistics gateways by aligning with Burhan and Hemeti, respectively. While their interests in the country initially aligned—particularly when Bashir remained neutral during the Saudi-Emirati blockade on their foe Qatar—Burhan has since sought to thaw relations with Doha. The UAE gained trust in Hemeti because RSF fighters had been active in southern Yemen since 2015 and in 2019 expanded to Libya to back Gen. Khalifa Haftar, one of the country’s rival leaders who is backed by Abu Dhabi.
While Saudi Arabia has cooperated with Egypt in supporting Burhan, the UAE has collaborated with Russia in supporting the RSF through the paramilitary Wagner Group. The Wagner Group has been active in Sudan since 2017, when it signed contracts with the country’s resource ministry for projects in Darfur, where the RSF was active. Wagner in 2019 became active in Libya, fighting on behalf of Haftar. (After Wagner’s failed mutiny in Russia last month, its future is uncertain, though reports suggest the group is still operating “as usual” in the many countries where it is active.)
Abu Dhabi has kept silent about its alliance with the RSF. But reports suggest Hemeti has acted as a custodian of Emirati interests in Sudan, guarding gold mines controlled by Wagner; gold from these mines is then shipped to the UAE en route to Russia. The three-way relationship between the UAE, the RSF, and Russia via the Wagner Group was cemented by Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, when Moscow became more dependent on gold and other finances to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department recently sanctioned two firms associated with Hemeti that operate in the gold industry, Al Junaid and Tradive. They are based in Sudan and the UAE. (Treasury also sanctioned two defense companies associated with Burhan.)
While the UAE has been fighting for gold, Saudi Arabia has worked tirelessly to brand itself as a peacemaker and humanitarian in Sudan. Riyadh has sponsored cease-fire talks with the United States in the Saudi city of Jeddah, provided aid to the Sudanese people both inside and outside the country, and helped evacuate many civilians out of Khartoum. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—a Saudi ally—has also provided aid to the Sudanese military, particularly air support, in its bid to regain full control of the state.
Analysts have suggested that Egypt may be considering a full-scale invasion of Sudan in a bid to help Burhan fight the RSF. This would ensure that Saudi investments in Sudan are protected and also expand Riyadh’s influence into Africa. But, as Mahmoud Salem recently wrote in Foreign Policy, Egypt finds itself in a Catch-22: Cairo “does not have the resources or the desire to fight a war, yet it cannot afford to ignore the situation any longer.”
The fall of Sudan under the control of either Burhan or Hemeti—and thereby either the Saudi or Emirati sphere of influence—would shift the balance of power in the Gulf and escalate tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. But it is unlikely that the outcome of the war will be this clear-cut: Similar to Libya, Sudan is likely to fracture even further, perhaps along ethnic and tribal lines.
The conflict in Sudan is an opportunity for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to expand their regional presence—and control. For Riyadh, a total victory for the Sudanese military would reinforce its stature as a leader in Arab and Islamic worlds. For the UAE, any RSF gains create leverage to weaken Riyadh’s grip over the Middle East—which would be a win for Abu Dhabi.

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