The UAE’s network-centric statecraft is part of a broader battle for influence in northern Africa.
The war in Sudan is a multipolar 21st-century conflict in a multipolar world.
The country’s many stakeholders – first and foremost the two warring “generals”, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the Sudanese army, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – have become pawns in a wider competition to exercise influence in the strategically important Horn of Africa.
No country has been playing this game more assertively than the United Arab Emirates, which has curated and orchestrated a diverse grid of networks across the region.
Although Abu Dhabi does not likely have an interest in the current escalation and destabilisation of Sudan – one western official even suggested the Emirates had “buyer’s remorse” – its network-centric statecraft appears to have created a complex web of interdependencies and competition that it is now unable to control.
The story of the UAE in Sudan is a story of a relatively small, tribally based monarchy trying to exercise influence far beyond what one would conventionally consider to be its geostrategic weight. Defying traditional limitations of statecraft, the Bani Fatima branch of Abu Dhabi’s royal family has innovatively delegated statecraft to surrogates such as private individuals, corporations, banks, merchants, militias and mercenaries.
The story of the UAE in Sudan is a story of networks, curated by Abu Dhabi to achieve strategic objectives with plausible deniability and discretion, while supplementing the limited in-house capacity of its overburdened state institutions.
Although the UAE’s official engagement in Sudan is run via its ministries in charge of foreign and security policy, the shadowy networks that all connect seemingly coincidentally in Abu Dhabi and Dubai provide the Bani Fatima with the real levers of power on the ground.
These networks allow Abu Dhabi to link partners and competitors, state and non-state actors, and small and great powers to the UAE – elevating the Gulf state to an indispensable hub connecting unlikely regional and global players.
Web of connections
The relationship with Sudan’s warlord Hemeti, in particular, reveals a web of seemingly coincidental connections and activities that all tie back, directly or indirectly, to the Svengali in Abu Dhabi. The network that feeds the man who attempted a coup in Sudan is an intricate carousel of capital, arms, gold and mercenaries established by Abu Dhabi in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Looking at the immediate personal networks that make the warlord who follows the UAE’s counter-revolutionary playbook, UAE-based banks and front companies are front and centre when it comes to underwriting the RSF’s cash flow.
Ever since Hemeti provided thousands of boots on the ground to the Saudi- and UAE-led war in Yemen, the warlord has become an important node, especially in Emirati networks, across the region. Operating alongside Abu Dhabi’s proxy in Yemen – the militias of the Southern Transitional Council – Hemeti received arms and salaries for his mercenaries.
The discovery of UAE-purchased thermobaric bombs in the hands of the RSF suggests Abu Dhabi has also more directly propped up Hemeti’s fighting power on the ground. What needs to be seen is whether these weapons were delivered to Hemeti directly from the UAE, or more likely through its network of proxies in Libya.
What has been dubbed the Abu Dhabi express – a network that has fuelled the civil war in Libya since 2019 via UAE-made strongman Khalifa Haftar and Russia’s mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group – appears to be now extending its reach into Sudan.
The connection between Haftar and Russia’s infamous dogs of war was made in the UAE, Russia’s most important strategic ally in the region. According to US intelligence, UAE financing helped to facilitate the Wagner Group’s creation of a bridgehead in northern Africa.
Once Wagner started expanding further south, the mercenary group branched out into extractive industries, enriching itself through lucrative gold concessions in Sudan. Hemeti emerged as a key beneficiary of a shadowy gold trade that required a hub to bring gold to market and to allow the Wagner Group to pay for its operations on the African continent.
Dubai, as one of the world’s leading gold-trading hubs, provided the necessary avenues to exchange this gold for cash. Again, the UAE has emerged as a key hub connecting local actors with global powers, and ensuring the war in Ukraine receives the necessary cash injections.
Moreover, companies within the wider Wagner network have been allowed to set up shop in the Emirates. A logistical support company flying personnel, arms and gold across Africa was recently sanctioned by the US Treasury. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, hides behind a cloak of plausible deniability.
The networks the UAE has curated via the theatres in the region are now operating more or less organically, with Abu Dhabi just having to facilitate flows of capital and infrastructural support. The carousel appears well-oiled, as nodes in the network retain autonomy to reinforce their respective agendas. While Hemeti sent 1,000 RSF fighters into Libya in 2019, Haftar is now sending symbolic aid to his counter-revolutionary comrade in Sudan.
To the naked eye, the heterarchy that has emerged appears to be fairly chaotic, and it is not controlled by any one player. The UAE is just the hub that opens and closes some of the key valves, making it an indispensable actor that can exercise leverage.
Western diplomats are now pointing fingers at the UAE for executing its network-centric statecraft to aid warlords, court Russia, and promote mercenarism, after tacitly tolerating it for years. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that anyone – including the US – who wants to bring an end to the fighting in Sudan must dial 971, because any road to Hemeti leads inevitably through the Emirates.
Dr. Andreas Krieg is an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and a strategic risk consultant working for governmental and commercial clients in the Middle East. He recently published a book called ‘Socio-political order and security in the Arab World’.