The ongoing conflict in Sudan is causing concern for neighboring countries and other nations for a variety of reasons. These include shared Nile waters and oil pipelines, the shape of a new government, and the potential for a new humanitarian crisis. Sudan has a history of conflict, but this time, fighting is taking place in the capital instead of a remote area of the country. The nation lies in an unstable region bordering the Red Sea, Sahel, and Horn of Africa.
Five of Sudan’s seven neighbors – Ethiopia, Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, and South Sudan – have faced political upheaval or conflict themselves in recent years. The fighting that erupted between the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Saturday in Khartoum has derailed an internationally backed plan for a transition to civilian rule after the 2019 removal of Omar al-Bashir.
Egypt and Sudan are concerned about threats to their supplies from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream on the Blue Nile. The two nations have pushed to regulate the Ethiopian dam’s operation. Any tension in ties between Khartoum and Cairo could disrupt their efforts to secure a deal. Sudanese refugees are by far the largest foreign community in Egypt, numbering an estimated 4 million people, including about 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
Sudanese mercenaries and militia fighters have been active on both sides of the conflict that split Libya after 2011. In recent years, many Sudanese fighters have returned to Sudan, contributing to tensions in western Sudan’s Darfur region, where another conflict raged for years and fighting continued after a deal with some rebel groups in 2020.
Chad worries about the crisis spilling across the border to areas where the refugees live. Most are from Darfur, and during the Darfur conflict, Chad faced cross-border raids from Sudan’s Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, which morphed into the RSF. The raiders attacked Darfur refugees and Chadian villagers, seizing livestock and killing those who resisted.
Wealthy oil producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long sought to shape events in Sudan, seeing the transition from al-Bashir’s rule as a way to roll back Islamist influence and stabilize the region. Investors from both countries have money in a range of projects from agricultural enterprises to an airline and strategic ports on the Red Sea coast.
South Sudan exports its oil output of 170,000 barrels per day via a pipeline through its northern neighbor. Analysts say neither side in Sudan’s conflict has an interest in disrupting those flows, but South Sudan’s government said this week that fighting had already hampered logistics and transport links between the oilfields and Port Sudan.
Skirmishes periodically flare along disputed parts of Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. Analysts say either side could take advantage of Sudan’s unrest to press their objectives. Ethiopia will also be watching developments given tensions over its $4bn Blue Nile dam, which Sudan says could present a threat to its own Nile dams and its citizens.
Many Eritrean refugees living in northern Ethiopia fled from their camps during the Tigray war from 2020 to 2022. Eritrean refugees in Sudan could face a similar plight if any conflict beyond Khartoum escalates.
Russia has long sought warm water ports for its navy and secured one in a deal with al-Bashir. In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the creation of a Russian naval facility in Sudan capable of mooring nuclear-powered surface vessels. Western diplomats in Khartoum said in 2022 that Russia’s Wagner Group was involved in illicit gold mining in Sudan and was spreading disinformation. In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met officials in Sudan during an African tour seeking to expand Moscow’s influence.
The United States, like other Western powers, was happy to be rid of al-Bashir, who was charged with genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court over the Darfur conflict. But critics say Washington was slow to swing behind a transition towards elections. Sudanese hopes for democracy were shattered when al-Burhan and Hemedti staged a coup in 2021. The latest fighting is expected to derail any swift return to civilian rule because neither of the two opponents in Khartoum is showing any readiness for compromise.