In a move that affirms its belief that regional problems need regional solutions, Saudi Arabia scored yet another diplomatic victory by brokering a deal between Sudan and Chad to quell spillover fighting from the Darfur crisis. While the impact will become clearer in the months ahead, there is no denying that the recent accord – encouraging the two African neighbors to stop rebels and opposition groups from staging cross-border raids and support the African Union’s efforts to stabilize Darfur – breaks new ground in a festering crisis.
The Sudanese government signed the African Union-sponsored Darfur Peace Agreement with a main faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement in the Nigerian capital in May last year, but violence continued unabated. The latest agreement is significant because African Union peacekeepers have said that the Darfur conflict cannot be resolved unless hostilities cease on the Sudan-Chad border.
After a string of proactive diplomatic efforts to address the region’s compounding crises – Palestinian infighting, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran – Saudi Arabia used the Arab Summit in Riyadh in March to venture into resolving the conflict across the Red Sea. King Abdullah pushed for a dialogue among Sudanese President Omar Beshir, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chairman of the African Commission Alpha Oumar Konare to evolve a mechanism to overcome the Darfur problem.
Within weeks, Khartoum said it had accepted the second phase of the UN plan, which involves the dispatch of 3,000 UN personnel to provide logistical, communications and air assistance to 7,000 poorly equipped African Union troops who have been unable to turn around four years of bloody ethnic strife in Darfur.
Apart from being a major economic power in the Gulf and Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s need to get involved in conflict resolution efforts in the Arab and Islamic worlds stems from its leadership’s newfound zest for attempting to slowly start addressing the Muslim world’s accumulated baggage of problems. The recent diplomatic initiatives also come at a time when the United States is ineffective in dealing with the Iraq and Iran situations, and indifferent to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not to mention its inactivity with regard to many other problems of the region.
With regard to Darfur, the Saudi attempts to mediate could also have been a reaction to prove critics, such as Chad, wrong. In November 2006, Chad – in a letter to the UN Security Council – accused Sudan and groups in Saudi Arabia of playing a role in the Chadian rebels’ attempts to overthrow the N’Djamena government. In facilitating the Sudan-Chad deal, Riyadh set the record straight that one of its main principles of foreign policy is non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries and proved that its intentions were only constructive.
Further, Saudi Arabia understands that it is pitiful for a fellow Arab country like Sudan to be oil rich and yet be steeped in poverty and unemployment. Sudanese production and export of light, sweet crude have risen rapidly in the last few years. The country started exporting oil only in 1999, and has already become sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest oil producer, with only Nigeria and Angola ahead in the race. The country’s Energy Ministry reported production of some 500,000 barrels per day in 2005 despite internal upheaval. According to the “Oil and Gas Journal , Sudan had proven conventional reserves of 563 million barrels in January 2006, with the Energy Ministry estimating total oil reserves at five billion barrels.
According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2006, Sudan was ranked 141 out of 177 countries. With large fields remaining undeveloped, exports are set to boom if peace prevails not only between the north and south of the country, but also along the borders, thereby throwing up the prospect of significant poverty alleviation and unemployment reduction.
The mood to help Sudan out of the moribund situation was clear when Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Al-Jubeir said last month that his country “will bear its responsibilities to alleviate the sufferings of our brothers in Sudan.
Sudanese Minister of State for Foreign Relations Ali Ahmed Karti seemed to endorse that statement while acknowledging that Saudi Arabia would be a guarantor of the accord. Asked if the Kingdom would offer money to both parties to ensure the agreement sticks, Karti said: “There is no stipulation in the agreement but the understanding is that the kingdom will help Sudan and Muslims everywhere. While scholars see historic Saudi Arabia-Darfur relations, there are economic stakes in the present age too. In December 2005, an agreement was signed in Jeddah between Sudanese and Saudi businessmen establishing a holding company for investment, which started by setting up a $10 billion public share-holding company in the field of real estate. A committee formed between the two sides is working toward implementing the agreement, which covers the agricultural, animal, petroleum, power and transport fields as well as banking services.
But, the most important reason behind the Saudi push towards addressing the crises in the region, including Darfur, lies in its conviction about the need for unity. The Saudi leadership recognizes that the Arab world is fragmented and further divisive issues would throw the region into chaos that would be hard to salvage. It is this belief that encouraged Saudi Arabia to facilitate the signing of the Mecca Declaration in October 2006, when about 50 Iraqi religious leaders agreed to work towards ending the sectarian bloodshed in the war-ravaged country; the power-sharing accord between rival Palestinian factions in February this year; and adoption of the first “pan-Arab initiative for peace in the Middle East at the Arab Summit in Riyadh in March.
In fact, the 19th Arab League Summit, under the leadership of King Abdullah, sought to buck the trend of Arab disunity and inconclusiveness. In identifying that Arabs themselves were to blame for the external intervention in the region, and underlining that the Arab countries would not encourage external forces to decide the region’s future, the Saudi king has rekindled a new hope that needs a collective regional endeavor to keep it dynamic.
Abdulaziz Sageris the Chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the center.