Don't let the Saudis ruin Sudan's democratic moment
By ELI LAKE | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: June 7, 2019
If ever there was a moment for some tough love between allies, it is now. America, and most of Europe for that matter, is calling for the generals currently in control of Sudan to cede power to civilians and prepare for elections. Three U.S. allies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — back the generals.
On Monday, the stalemate became a massacre when a paramilitary group aligned with the transitional military council attacked peaceful protestors at a sit-in in Khartoum. The death toll is now more than 100, according to the Central Committee for Sudan Doctors. Forty dead bodies were found in the Nile.
This is the context of a statement issued Wednesday by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia noting that it "has followed with great concern the developments in the brotherly Republic of Sudan." It offered "deep condolences to the families of the victims" and expressed hope that "all parties in Sudan will choose wisdom and constructive dialogue." It reaffirmed its "unwavering position in support of Sudan and its people."
In other words: We are very sorry that many people died but we are not withdrawing our support for the military junta that ordered the massacre and is seeking to crush a democratic movement. As Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, the statement is an attempt to "walk back the escalating crisis."
In recent days, the U.S. has begun to make public its unhappiness with the Saudi position on Sudan, where dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in April. On Wednesday, the State Department released a summary of a phone call between Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid Bin Salman. It said Hale noted "the importance of a transition from the Transitional Military Council to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people."
President Donald Trump's administration has mostly kept its criticisms of Saudi Arabia private, rarely offering a public rebuke of its ally. The Saudis, as well as the Emiratis, are heavily invested in Sudan and will have their own leverage with any government that comes next.
Saudi Arabia is "switching up its public messaging in part to rein in its Sudanese allies who are badly mishandling the transition," Devermont said. He noted that the kingdom has deep ties to Sudan's current military leadership, which supports the war in Yemen, and "wants to retain its influence across the Red Sea."
So a phone call from an undersecretary at the State Department, while a nuisance, is not going to be enough to get the Saudis to stop their counter-revolutionary meddling in Sudan. The Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians have an interest in preventing a democratic transition in Sudan — lest their own people learn that an Arab democracy is possible.
If the U.S. wants its allies to change their behavior, it has to take a firmer hand. As I have suggested, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could visit Khartoum to confer some legitimacy on the civilians leading the democratic protests. There should also be consequences for Saudi Arabia in particular if it continues to support the junta at this crucial juncture. Pompeo just used an emergency provision to override congressional objections to a slate of arms sales to Riyadh. He could just as easily declare that the emergency has passed.
None of this is to argue for ending the U.S.-Saudi alliance, as many congressional Democrats have suggested in the aftermath of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Saudi Arabia remains an important ally against both radical Sunni jihadists and Iran.
At the same time, Sudan has a real chance to end decades of tyranny. What happens there in the coming weeks could shape its future for decades to come. Strongly worded statements and sharp tweets from U.S. and European officials are not enough. It's time for the president and his Cabinet to use America's vast leverage with its allies to isolate the junta that is strangling Sudanese democracy in its crib.
Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.