Eurasia Review: Sudan Puts Saudi-UAE Religious And Cheque Book Diplomacy To The Test – Analysis

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Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ chequebook
diplomacy driven-soft power strategy is being put to the test in Sudan where a
stand-off between protesters and the country’s ruling military council is at a
decisive point.

With protesters refusing to tear down
barricades in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum and
surrender the street
, breaking off
talks with the military council and demanding immediate instalment of a
civilian government, the stand-off has become a battle of wills.

Like in Algeria, Sudanese protesters have learnt from
the 2011 popular Arab revolts that initially securing their success in forcing
a long-standing leader to step down depends on their ability to sustain
mobilization and street pressure.

Both Sudan and Algeria have, in the wake of the toppling of presidents
Omar al-Bashir and Abdulaziz Bouteflika
, promised elections and arrested and/or detained officials and/or
businessmen on corruption charges in a so far unsuccessful bid to pacify
demonstrators and persuade them to end their protests.

With elections scheduled for July in Algeria while
Sudan’s military is talking about one or more years of pre-election transition,
Algerian protesters may have a leg up on their Sudanese brethren.

Nonetheless, protesters have also learnt that pledges
of support by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt potentially are a Trojan horse.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia led the regional effort to roll back the achievements
of the 2011 revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and
Tunisia.

Egypt joined the counterrevolution after
general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s first and only
democratically elected president in a UAE-Saudi-supported coup in 2013.

As a result, protesters have also learnt that they are
up against formidable opponents, who include not just the militaries and
associated businessmen and politicians who have a vested interest in the ancien
regime, but also their regional backers.

Saudi, UAE and Egyptian backing for renegade
Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in the battle for Tripoli
, the seat of the United Nations-recognized
government, serves as an immediate reminder of the obstacles and risks the
protesters face.

It has prompted at least some Sudanese to demand that
the ruling military council reject US$3 billion in
aid
offered in recent days by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

So far Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have paid lip
service to the Sudanese and Algerian protesters while trying to bolster
military efforts to be seen to be meeting their demands yet maintaining
ultimate grip on their countries’ politics.

The removal of Mr, Al-Bashir in Sudan was of
particular importance to the counterrevolutionary states because of the fact
that he came to power with the support of Islamist forces, the Gulf states and
Egypt’s bete noir.

Sudan moreover is geopolitically important because of
its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, a battleground for rival
camps in the Middle East
, Mr.
Al-Bashir’s playing of both sides of the Middle East divide against the middle,
and the granting to Turkey of access to
Suakin Island that faces the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah
.

Initial indications are that protesters’ fears that
Saudi and UAE cheque book diplomacy comes with strings attached are not
unfounded. Anti-Saudi and UAE sentiment has also been fuelled by the two states’
acquisition of Sudanese agricultural land
in recent years and opposition to the war in Yemen.

The head of Sudan’s military council, Lt. General
Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, developed close ties to the Gulf states in his
former role as commander of Sudanese forces that are part of the Saudi-led
military coalition fighting in Yemen.

Mr. Burhan, in apparent recognition of the 22-month
old UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, refused to meet with
Qatari foreign minister
Mohammed
bin Abdulrahman al-Thani days after receiving a Saudi-UAE delegation. Sudan has
since said it was working out
arrangements for a Qatari visit
.

Similarly, UAE and Saudi cheque book diplomacy has
also bolstered Mauritanian
support
for their fight against Qatar and
the Muslim Brotherhood. 

This week’s visit by Pakistani prime minister Imran
Khan to Iran during which the two countries agreed to form a joint quick reaction
force to combat militant activity
on their shared border, increase Iranian electricity sales to Pakistan
and build a railway linking Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul, puts the
effectiveness of Gulf cheque book diplomacy to the test.

Pakistan appeared to be tilting toward Saudi
Arabia in its dispute with Iran
after the kingdom and the UAE pulled the cash-strapped South Asian
nation back from the brink with $US 10 billion in financial aid and pledges of
another $10 billion in investment.

Saudi Arabia’s greater emphasis on cheque book
diplomacy coincides with a substantial cutback in global funding of
Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism
to the tune of an estimated US$100 billion over the last four decades.

The cutback means that funding has been focused on
regions that are of geopolitical importance to the kingdom such as the troubled
Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran and Yemen.

The cutback, however, does not mean that the fallout
of the Saudi funding is no longer felt around the globe.

Some analysts believe that crown prince Mohammed bin
Salman gives Saudi-backed ultra-conservative preachers a freer hand in
Southeast Asia as opposed to Europe where he tries to project himself as an
Islamic moderate. If so, its an approach that has produced at best mixed
results.

Two Saudi-educated religious scholars, Bachtiar Nasir
and Zaitun Rasmin, played a key role in ultra-conservative mass protests in
2016, the largest in Indonesian history, that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki
Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and ally of Indonesian
president Joko Widodo.

Both students in the 1990s at the Islamic University
of Medina, a key Saudi vehicle for the promotion of ultra-conservatism, Messrs.
Nasir and Rasmin have since their return to Indonesia propagated a puritanical
strand of Islam and built a substantial following among the middle class.

However, in contrast to the kingdom, that more
recently has been pushing in countries like Algeria, Libya and
Kazakhstan
a quietist,
loyalist interpretation of Islam, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have advocated
political activism similar to the kingdom’s Sahwa or Islamic
Awakening
movement that called for
peaceful political reform.

The movement, believed to have been partly inspired by the Muslim
Brotherhood
, lost ground with
the banning of the Brothers in the kingdom and the arrest of many of its
leaders after the rise of Prince Mohammed.

Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have aligned themselves with
the far-right Sunni Muslim Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or
FPI), whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a charismatic preacher and one-time
vigilante of Yemeni descent, fled in 2017 to Saudi Arabia, where he has been
allowed to reside to escape sexual harassment charges.

The alliance provides Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin a mass
base that they can mobilize. The two men, moreover, huge followings on social
media. Mr. Nasir has 1.1 million followers
on Instagram
, 526,000 on Facebook, and 217,000 on Twitter.

Mr. Rizieq was briefly detained and questioned in
November by Saudi police after he flew a black flag inscribed with the Muslim
principle of tawhid or the oneness of God at the back of his Mecca residence. The flag resembled
ones used by jihadists
, including the
Islamic State.

“Are you a criminal for installing the flag on your
house? I don’t think so… I think Rizieq is not a threat
to my country
. If he had
violated any laws, he would have undergone a legal process. Rizieq doesn’t have
problems,” commented Usamah Muhammad Al-Syuaiby, the Saudi ambassador to
Indonesia.

Despite the seeming differences with Saudi policy, Mr.
Rasmin appeared to be doing the kingdom’s bidding when he travelled to Malaysia
in advance of the 2018 elections to support those segments of the Sunni
ultra-conservative community that wanted to ensure that scandal-tainted prime
minister Najib Razak would be re-elected.

Saudi Arabia had sought to help Mr. Razak, who stood
accused of defrauding Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund of billions of dollars, by
publicly supporting some of his questionable assertions. The Saudi strategy
failed
with Mahathir Mohamed’s defeat
of Mr. Razak and the souring of Saudi-Malaysian relations.

Ultra-conservatives toeing the Saudi line argued that
a defeat of Mr. Razak would lead to chaos. They denounced those who voted
against him as khawarij, literally ‘those who walk away’ but frequently defined
as ‘the dogs of hellfire.’

In an interview with Utusan, the newspaper of Mr.
Razak’s party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Mr. Rasmin backed
the ultra-conservative argument that “it is
prohibited to elect or let a non-Muslim be elected,“
a reference to the fact that Mr. Mahathir’s alliance
included non-Muslims and liberals.

Taken together, developments in Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan
and Southeast Asia, suggest that the effectiveness of Saudi and UAE religious
and cheque book diplomacy hangs in the balance. The developments raise the
question whether short-terms successes can be maintained long-term.

Eurasia Review


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