The conflict in Sudan is threatening to evolve into a proxy war with several outside interests into the geopolitical control of Sudan. What roles are the major powers are playing behind the scenes in keeping the conflict going and what they hope to gain from it in the long run?

The Sudan conflict has evolved into one with multiple sides as well as different historical and geo-political dynamics. Sudan ​has ​become ​a microcosm of a larger powerplay ​in ​which ​the ​rising ​powers ​of ​the ​Middle ​east ​seek ​to ​project ​their ​power ​and ​gain ​an ​advantage ​over ​their ​rivals. ​ Sudan ​expert ​Cameron ​Hudson is quoted ​by ​the ​Financial ​Times saying ​that “the ​war ​is ​being ​fueled ​by ​external ​forces ​vying ​for ​influence ​in ​the ​strategically ​important ​country. ​Foreign ​policy ​claims ​that ​multiple ​Middle ​eastern ​nations ​are ​involved.” ​The ​Guardian, ​meanwhile, ​has ​pointed ​the ​finger ​at ​everyone ​from ​the ​US ​to ​Iran ​to ​the ​UAE. ​The ​key ​point ​then, ​is not ​that ​Sudan ​is ​secretly ​a ​proxy ​war. ​Its ​that ​its ​openly ​one ​a ​proxy ​conflict ​unfolding ​in ​a ​country ​bordering ​the Red ​Sea, ​yet ​one ​that is ​going ​broadly ​unremarked ​on. Who then are the players in this conflict.

United Arab Emirates; creating a new African power bloc.

In recent years, the UAE has become increasingly active in both the Middle East and Africa, often pursuing policies that diverge from America’s stated interests. For instance, Abu Dhabi has been financing Ethiopia’s leader, Abiy Ahmed, providing him with drones that played a significant role in his victory in the violent Tigray conflict. However, the Gulf monarchy’s involvement in African affairs predates the outbreak of hostilities in Ethiopia. During the tumult of Sudan’s revolution, the UAE was among the earliest countries to establish relations with the civilian-led transitional council, offering guidance and expertise. According to World Politics Review, “Abu Dhabi guided the post-Bashir transition according to its own preferences and interests.” One of its primary objectives was to secure support for investment in the $6 billion Abiy Umama port complex on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, a strategic asset coveted by the UAE for some time.

 Allegations suggest UAE involvement in smuggling weapons to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Darfur via Chad. Despite UAE’s denial, leaked reports to the UN Security Council indicate otherwise. Analysts suggest UAE’s support is crucial for sustaining the RSF, with some claiming an 80% chance of the war ending if UAE withdraws its backing, according to expert Ahmed M. Khalafala.

Abu Dhabi appears determined to increase its support rather than withdraw it. Recently, a UAE jet transported Hamedi to Ethiopia for talks with Abiy Ahmed, suggesting that President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan may be envisioning a future coalition of states in the region backed by his support. However, this strategy could draw in other nations concerned about the RSF or wary of UAE influence in Sudan. Eritrea, for instance, may fear an RSF victory due to ongoing border tensions with Ethiopia following the Tigray conflict. Saudi Arabia might also be uneasy about a potential alliance between Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa, and a Khartoum controlled by the RSF. However, these concerns hinge on Hamedti’s success. While his victory seemed probable as recently as December, recent developments suggest otherwise as the SAF launches offensives to recapture Khartoum. The sudden shift in dynamics could be attributed to the involvement of another player in this proxy conflict.


The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) seemed to be in crisis earlier this year, with calls for General al Buran to step down after a series of losses. However, the SAF surprised observers by successfully assaulting Omdurman, breaking a siege and indicating a potential push towards Khartoum.

While this may have come as a surprise to casual news readers, those closely monitoring the conflict might have anticipated this turn of events. Beginning in January, Iranian cargo planes began making significant deliveries to the SAF-controlled port of Sudan. Reports suggested that these deliveries included new Mahaja six drones, a claim that was later confirmed when these drones were used to bomb a path through Omdurman, breaking the siege.

Tehran’s interest in expanding influence in Africa, particularly on the Red Sea, motivated this support. UAE’s efforts to freeze out Iran from the Red Sea region led to them supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), potentially to counter Iran’s influence, but it may have backfired as Iran seeks permission to build a naval base in Sudan. Despite these developments, other nations like the US, while not backing the RSF, advocate for a ceasefire and peace talks. Russia and Iran, forging an anti-Western axis, have conflicting interests in Sudan, with Russia supporting the RSF and Iran arming the SAF.

Wagner group; the shadow from Moscow

The Wagner Group is providing support to Hamedti and the RSF, likely motivated by Hamedti’s control over Sudan’s gold mines. According to The Economist, the RSF plays a central role in Sudan’s gold industry, smuggling large quantities of gold bullion to the UAE where it is sold on the market. This has enriched Hamedti and provided crucial financial support to the RSF. Moreover, this arrangement has been beneficial to Russia, as Sudanese gold smuggling helps Moscow bypass Western sanctions. In exchange for access to gold mines, Wagner has supplied the RSF with surface-to-air missiles, enabling them to target and shoot down SAF fighter jets.

In September 2023, reports emerged that Ukrainian special services were carrying out a military operation against the Wagner group and RSF in Sudan. Video evidence from that period reportedly show Ukrainian forces employing small drones against the RSF. As highlighted by CNN, the footage displayed characteristics typical of Ukrainian drone tactics, including the distinctive pattern of drones directly targeting their objectives. Such tactics were deemed highly unconventional for Sudan and the broader African region.

The modest Ukrainian presence in Sudan is a deliberate move by the Zelensky administration to convey a strong message globally: that Ukraine is prepared, eager, and capable of confronting Russia regardless of the location. The decision to deploy Ukrainian forces to Sudan in support of the struggling Sudanese government also reflects the Zelensky administration’s efforts to cultivate alliances in Africa. This move acknowledges the continent’s geopolitical dynamics, where several countries have backed Russia in various conflicts.

Libya, Egypt and everything in-between

Writing in the Guardian, Sudanese Journalist Nesrine Malik points to the despotic governments in North Africa such as Egypt who backed the SAF after the revolution to “extinguish the prospect of a democracy flourishing in their backyard.” This backing not only destabilized the initial push for democratic reforms in the country in 2021 but also created a power vacuum which has led to the conflict.

Sudan shares a border with Libya in its far northwest, a geographical proximity that proves advantageous to the Wagner Group. This is because the group is aligned with the warlord who governs eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar. A recent investigation by The Guardian revealed that mercenaries are engaged in extensive fuel smuggling operations across the border, which subsequently aids the RSF in maintaining their vehicles. Writing in the Guardian, Jason Burke admits that “This has been the case for years but has escalated now there is open war. Massive criminality, with well-entrenched networks involved in everything from narcotics trafficking to the theft of valuable antiquities moving to exploit the chaos? There are already reports that networks are mobilizing to dig at Meroe, the famous archaeological site 190 miles north of Khartoum and the site of recent heavy fighting.”

The instability in Sudan is spreading to neighboring countries like Chad and the Central African Republic, which are now struggling with an influx of Sudanese refugees. Additionally, the conflict is affecting South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 but still relies on Sudan’s infrastructure to export its oil. However, in February of this year, a major pipeline in Sudan ruptured during intense fighting, causing a significant loss of income for South Sudan, which heavily depends on oil revenue. This loss exacerbates the challenges faced by South Sudan, a nation already plagued by poverty and instability.

The conflict in Sudan has and will continue to have a wide range of implications for several countries in and around the region. The reality of Sudan is that this conflict is not primarily driven by ideology. While there may be Islamist elements involved, their beliefs hold little significance in the current fighting, despite claims suggesting otherwise. Neither Hemedti nor Burhan have articulated a clear political vision, indicating that ideology plays a marginal role in their motivations. The current conflict in Sudan holds far greater significance than its media coverage suggests. It has the potential to become one of the defining wars of our time. While it may not receive as much attention as conflicts in Ukraine or Gaza, Sudan’s crisis is of global importance, and everyone should be aware of its implications. And as the war continues to rage on, the powerplay of external forces could lead to ramifications not just for Sudan and her neighbors but for the rest of the world at large.  

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