Over the past few days, Saudi Arabia has evacuated thousands of foreign nationals caught in the crossfire in Sudan to its territory. She is also trying to mediate in this bloody crisis which risks turning into civil war. This activism towards this vast African country located a few hundred kilometers across the Red Sea is the latest demonstration of Riyadh’s desire to position itself as an indispensable regional partner.
After years of instability and rivalries in the region, Saudi Arabia now aims to establish itself as a force promoting dialogue. Saudi diplomacy is thus banking on the “stabilization” of the Middle East and the defense of its economic interests. It is in this spirit that Riyadh re-established its own diplomatic ties with Iran on March 10 after a seven-year hiatus and appears to be closing in on a deal with the Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen against whom it is fighting. war since 2015.
Riyadh therefore has every interest in getting involved to prevent the country from sinking into civil war, which also gives it the opportunity to project the image of proactive diplomacy in favor of stability and peace.
It is with these words and Saudi flags that people evacuated from Sudan are welcomed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s major port city on the Red Sea. Two weeks after the start of the crisis, more than 5,000 people of around 100 nationalities had already set foot there. A red carpet was literally rolled out to them and roses were handed out. There are Canadian citizens among those welcomed on Saudi soil, while Canada, like other countries, has been criticized for not coming to the aid of its nationals quickly enough.
The evacuees arrived in Jeddah from the coastal city of Port Sudan, which many reached by road from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Tens of thousands more have fled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan.
For Saudi Arabia, these evacuations are an opportunity to showcase the “hospitality” of the kingdom, thus thanked by many countries since the beginning of the operations. Regularly criticized for its human rights violations, the war in Yemen and the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attributed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country is thus striving to restore its image.
Qatar was essential during the chaotic evacuations of tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan in August 2021. Doha was then thanked for its support and NATO even granted it “major ally” status a few months later .
Today, Riyadh plays a similar role, although on a smaller scale. Beyond the Sudanese case, Saudi diplomacy aims to make itself indispensable to all the actors involved in the Middle East, including China, Russia and the United States of Joe Biden, who has particularly complicated relations with Mohammed ben Salman. In fact, relations between Riyadh and Washington have been withering for the past ten years, in a context where the United States has been gradually disengaging from the Middle East since the presidency of Barack Obama.
This collaboration can also be seen in the context of the Sudanese crisis. On April 29, the United States organized its first exfiltration operation of American citizens by road, from Khartoum to Port Sudan, before they were evacuated to Jeddah. A week earlier, Riyadh and Washington jointly brokered a three-day humanitarian ceasefire, which was broken. The two successive extensions of 72 hours each were also not observed. Saudi diplomacy now says it is working on a return to dialogue between the two factions.
Riyadh also benefits from criticism directed at the international community, particularly the UN, for its responsibility in the situation in Sudan, but also for the slowness of its humanitarian response when the conflict broke out almost three weeks ago.
Note, however, that Saudi Arabia also has its share of responsibility in this crisis, since it has supported the Sudanese military for years.
Despite the respective proximity of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to the forces of the two rival Sudanese generals Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, their ability to bring them back to the negotiating table is uncertain. To be continued. But the evacuation operations staged by the Saudi kingdom and its attempts at mediation have already enabled it to promote the image of proactive diplomacy.