When the Trump administration released its revised Muslim ban turned travel ban on Sunday, a handful of unlucky nations found themselves added to the list.
One country, though, managed to slip its way off: Sudan.
It caught Sudan-watchers by surprise.
Indeed, Sudan has precious little lobbying capacity. But it has a friend in the right place: The United Arab Emirates recently began lobbying on Sudan’s behalf in Washington, putting its considerable capital to work. The diplomatic favor comes as Sudan has stepped up its on-the-ground involvement in the war in Yemen, giving the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition the kinds of boots on the ground those nations are uninterested in risking themselves, preferring to wage an aerial campaign instead.
“Sudan is doing the UAE’s dirty work,” explained one well-placed U.S. government source not authorized to speak publicly about the situation. In exchange, UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba has put his substantial diplomatic weight behind the Sudanese government. Otaiba is particularly close with White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner plays a leading role in setting Mideast policy for the administration.
In September 2015, 45 Emirati soldiers in Yemen were killed in battle, the deadliest military event in the small nation’s history, sending shockwaves through the country. It is hard to overstate the impact of those 45 deaths in the UAE, giving the Gulf state reason to outsource the fight.
Sudan is an original member of the Saudi-led (and U.S.-backed) coalition in Yemen. When the bombing campaign began in March 2015, Sudan contributed four of its fighter jets and dispatched ground troops to Aden later that year. While Saudi Arabia has relied mostly on bombing from the air, Sudanese troops have suffered heavy losses fighting alongside the Saudi-backed government, retaking cities from the Houthis and policing cities in the south.
To date, Sudan has provided more than 1,000 troops and promised to commit even more. “There are 6,000 fighters from special forces, ground forces, and elite troops ready to participate when requested by the leadership of the coalition,” Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan’s defense minister, said in May. “Even if more troops and military contributions are needed, we are ready for any developments.” The Sudanese fighting force became even more important after Qatar withdrew its soldiers from the coalition in June.
And Sudan is reaping the rewards of its military alliance with the Gulf states. Since 2015, it has received billions of dollars in loans from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and funds from Dubai and Abu Dhabi are helping to prop up its central bank.
That Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Saudi-backed leader of Yemen, must rely on foreign government troops to wage the ground war is an indication of his lack of popular support. After Arab Spring protests unseated Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime leader of Yemen, in 2011, Hadi was installed by international actors as part of a power-sharing deal. He was later elected president in a 2012 election in which only his name appeared on the ballot.
For the past decade, Sudan has repeatedly been named as one of the world’s worst human rights violators, giving it a strong incentive to ally with countries close to the United States, in order to blunt such criticism.
Sudanese government forces have purposefully attacked civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile region, according to Human Rights Watch, and the sitting president, Omar al-Bashir, has been charged with multiple counts of genocide by the International Criminal Court, related to his actions in Darfur. The court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2009, but despite pressure from activists and the ICC, numerous countries have declined to arrest him during state visits.
Update: September 28, 2017:
Saudi Arabia and the UAE previously lobbied the Obama administration to normalize relations with Sudan, after Sudan cut diplomatic ties with Iran. According to a senior Obama administration official, Otaiba was a key player in pushing the Obama White House to ease sanctions on Sudan in 2016, culminating in a 2017 executive order from Obama that lifted some trade and financial sanctions. The order stated that sanctions would resume in 6 months, unless the future secretary of state certified that progress had continued. In July, the State Department extended its own deadline by three months, pushing the decision off until the fall.