Saudi Arabia’s Blood Pact With a Genocidal Strongman
Abdulrahman al-Amin is the most famous journalist you’ve never heard of. While the low-profile 63-year-old Sudanese expatriate now makes his home in Northern Virginia, his name is instantly recognizable to anyone who reads his reports on Sudanese politics, which appear regularly in Al Rokoba, a daily online site that is the go-to source for Sudanese who want to know the truth about their government.
“We’re pretty widely read,” al-Amin says, “because we publish insider reports on Sudan’s government—the corruption and criminality. Of course, that doesn’t make us popular with the government.”
But al-Amin isn’t only celebrated in Sudan. His articles are poured over by terrorism experts at CIA headquarters and at the agency’s station in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, which hosts the largest concentration of U.S. Intelligence officers in Africa. Of particular interest, as a retired senior intelligence officer told TAC, is al-Amin’s reporting on the heightened tensions between Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, what the former officer described as “a stew of blood, betrayal, corruption, and gold.”
Put simply, recent U.S. intelligence assessments confirm what al-Amin has reported: that the UAE/Saudi war in Yemen is beginning to unravel. Not only are the Emiratis and Saudis mired in a seemingly endless conflict, their 8,000-plus Sudanese mercenaries are beginning to turn on their Emirati and Saudi officers. This is the result of Saudi penny-pinching (large numbers of Sudanese soldiers are owed months of backpay) and the fact that UAE/Saudi commanders regularly and knowingly order the Sudanese units into virtual suicide missions against the Houthi rebels. According to the Middle East Eye, as of November of 2017, upwards of 500 Sudanese soldiers have died in the conflict.
“These guys are cannon fodder for the Saudis, and they know it,” Michael Horton, a Yemen expert and fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, says. The result has been a number of incidents in which Sudanese soldiers have murdered their UAE or Saudi commanders, what Horton described as “a nasty piece of business.”
The “nasty piece of business” began on March 25, 2015, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and a coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council members launched Operation Decisive Storm, sending GCC warplanes on bombing missions in support of the Yemeni president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had fled to Saudi Arabia after being ousted by Yemen’s Houthi militias. The UAE/Saudi intervention not only took the United States by surprise, it angered senior military officers at U.S. Central Command, which had been quietly supporting Yemen’s Houthi tribe in its fight against al-Qaeda.
Despite this, the U.S. turned on a dime. Within days of the intervention, and under pressure from Saudi Arabia’s allies on Capitol Hill, Centcom was directed by the Obama administration to provide military support to the UAE/Saudi-led operation, in the hope that the intervention would prove short and decisive. That’s not what happened. “This was supposed to be shock and awe,” a senior Centcom officer says, “so it was just bomb, bomb, bomb. The Saudis couldn’t do anything on the ground. The Houthis ran circles around them.” By May of 2015, UAE and Saudi forces were mired in a protracted stalemate.
But then the Saudis got some unexpected help. During a visit to Riyadh in April of 2015, Taha Osman al-Hussein, the powerful director of the office of Sudan’s president, suggested that the Saudis use Sudan’s military to help fight the Yemen war in exchange for Emirati and Saudi economic aid. At first, the Saudis were hesitant: they mistrusted Sudan’s ties to Iran and its support for Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis also feared that the international community would condemn them for allying with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Sudan’s western province of Darfur—where Bashir had unleashed the murderous “Janjaweed” Arab militia against breakaway rebel groups. The Janjaweed has been charged by the State Department with the deaths of 400,000 Darfur civilians between 2004 and 2007.
Eventually, however, Saudi King Salman gave his blessing to the arrangement because the war in Yemen was going poorly and because Sudan had taken steps to distance itself from Iran. The deal was sealed in May of 2015 during a high-level meeting that included Bashir, Taha al-Hussein, King Salman, and then-Saudi defense minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—who later, in his new role as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, would be implicated in the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In effect, Bashir had decided to put his country’s economy in the hands of the Saudis, while, for their part, the Saudis decided that making a deal with the devil was preferable to losing in Yemen. “Both sides were desperate,” Dr. Suliman Baldo, a senior policy advisor at the Enough Project (which tracks mass corruption and atrocities in Africa), told me. “Back then, the Saudis were stalemated in Yemen and Sudan’s economy was wobbly. Now the situation is actually worse: Salman’s military is losing and Bashir’s economy is collapsing.”
But the UAE and Saudis weren’t the only ones to make a deal with the devil—so too did the United States. “There’s not a person at the CIA station in Khartoum who doesn’t know that Bashir and his inner circle are world class kleptocrats,” the former intelligence officer with whom I spoke said. “But you know, this is all about terrorism and Iran. So when the Saudis made a pact with Bashir, we looked the other way.” Yemen expert Michael Horton is even more outspoken: “It’s not a case of we should know better,” he says. “It’s that we know better and do nothing.”
Even after sealing the Sudan agreement, however, the UAE and Saudis feared that Bashir had sent them the dregs of the Sudanese military. When the first boat carrying Sudanese fighters anchored off Aden, in October of 2015, Emirati officers refused to offload them until they’d been vetted. “They sat on those ships for weeks,” al-Amin says. “So right from the beginning there was mistrust.” But the Saudis kept their end of the bargain. In August of 2015, according to a report in Al-Monitor, the Saudis deposited just over $2 billion in Sudan’s central bank to shore up Sudanese foreign reserves.
But according to al-Amin, it’s the “off the books” Saudi-Sudan economic relationship that has proven crucial. Following the 2015 Saudi-Sudan accord, the UAE (the guiding hand behind many of MbS’s decisions) ), dropped its close monitoring of Sudanese gold shipments to their gold markets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. While the UAE had always served as the most lucrative laundering site for Sudanese “blood gold” coming out of Darfur, its markets were flooded with Sudanese gold following the 2015 understanding. As a result, Sudan — one of Africa’s largest gold producers — was further empowered to skirt U.S.-imposed economic sanctions (which have since been lifted). “Sudanese government-sponsored gold trafficking through Dubai is a multi-billion dollar annual market,” the former CIA officer with whom I spoke says. “Many gold buyers only care if there is a simple customs declaration, and they’re easy enough to get. Large bullion shipments are facilitated by complicit senior customs officials and Emirati royals, who all get their cut.”
The knock-on effects are profound: The UAE’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Sudanese conflict gold (especially from its lucrative mines in Darfur), has given the Bashir regime a desperately needed economic lifeline, in exchange the Emirates and Saudis have deepened their investments in Sudan and, most recently, been allowed to send recruiting officers to search for new Sudanese recruits free of Khartoum’s oversight. Additionally, the UAE/Saudi intervention in Yemen included deploying Sudanese mercenaries to fight terrorist groups in Yemen’s gold-rich Hadramout region, where the major mining concessions had been held by Qatar — until, that is, the UAE and Saudi Arabia clamped their embargo on Doha. Put simply, the Yemen war has empowered the Bashir regime and its Darfur militias while, at the same time, both the UAE and Saudis are using their fight in Yemen to lay claim to Qatar’s gold.
The final effect is even more worrisome. As a result of UAE and Saudi complicity in the illegal “blood gold” trade, the Bashir government has been sending its militias to quiet rebellions in gold rich provinces—opening new gold fields that have not yet been mined. “It’s kind of under-the-radar,” Michael Horton notes, “but Sudan’s fighting in Yemen has actually spurred fighting in Africa.”
Despite Sudan’s 2015 decision to buttress the intervention, the UAE/Saudi war effort has remained stalemated—and pressures have increased on Bashir to provide more help. In March of 2016, Bashir responded by ordering the deployment of 6,000 members of Sudan’s elite Rapid Support Forces (RSF), comprised primarily of Janjaweed fighters, to help in the fight. “Look at it from Bashir’s perspective,” the Enough Project’s Suliman Baldo told me. “The Janjaweed are tough but pretty independent, so Bashir gets to cull their ranks in Yemen at the same time that he calms his neighbors in Chad and Libya, who look on the Janjaweed as an independent and uncontrolled militia—a vicious and uncontrolled cross-border threat.”
Which is to say that, by early 2017, the big winner in the Yemen war seemed to be Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. But in fact that was not the case. While offloading the Janjaweed militia to Yemen short-circuited complaints about Bashir’s designs on his neighbors, the mounting Sudanese body count in Yemen and persistent complaints from Sudan’s military that the UAE and Saudis were scrimping on their pay led to widespread dissatisfaction among Khartoum’s elite. They worried that Bashir had sold himself, and their country, to a bunch of spoiled Gulf princes.
The curtain in this final act was raised that June, when Bashir’s intelligence services reported that Taha Osman al-Hussein, the director of the president’s office (and Bashir’s closest confidante), had been secretly taking payments from the Saudis for exercising influence on Bashir. This included the recommendation, made by Taha, that Bashir cut Sudan’s ties with Qatar—advice that Bashir rejected. Buying Taha did not come cheaply. “The reports on this put the figure, reliably, at between $20 and $25 million dollars,” Abdulrahman al-Amin told me, “which doesn’t count the mansion that Taha was given by the Emiratis on Dubai’s Palms Island.” Worse yet, as Bashir was informed, Taha had secretly taken on Saudi citizenship—which put him under the protection of Mohammed bin Salman.
The result was that on June 14, 2017, when Bashir turned on Taha and Taha fled to Khartoum’s airport, the Sudanese president couldn’t touch him. The standoff was resolved by senior Saudi officials, who urged Bashir to allow Taha (whose plane was surrounded by soldiers of Bashir’s personal guard) to fly to Riyadh.
Bashir’s tussle with Taha also resulted from Taha’s inability to deliver on the promise he’d made back in 2015, when he told Bashir that Sudan’s alliance with Saudi Arabia would result in better relations with the U.S. That was supposed to include Sudan’s removal from the State Department’s list of countries supporting terrorism.
Not only had that not happened, but Bashir had been shunned during the recent Arab summit in Riyadh, where he’d been hoping to meet with Donald Trump. The White House had made it clear that that wouldn’t happen. As a result, Bashir sent Taha instead. And so it was that, during a break in the meetings, it was Taha and not Bashir who was introduced to the American president. Standing between them was a leading Saudi official. This is Taha Osmen al-Hussein, our good friend from Sudan, the official said. Trump smiled and stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
Mark Perry is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. His most recent book is The Pentagon’s War (Basic Books, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @markperrydc.