Foreign policy and defense
Sudan is a nation in Northern Africa. Its capital city is Khartoum. Sudan’s choice of allies in the outside world has shifted since independence in 1956. From the beginning, the country was closely linked to the western world and was later drawn to the Soviet bloc to subsequently cooperate most with other Arab states. In the 2000s and 2010s, China was Sudan’s most important political support and largest trading partner. During the 2019 transition regime, the country has once again approached the west.
Sudan had good relations with the western world until the six-day war in the Middle East in 1967, when the country approached the Soviet bloc instead. After a coup attempt against President Gaafar al-Numeiri in 1971, Sudan turned west again, but when al-Numeiri introduced Muslim Sharia law throughout Sudan in 1983, it was condemned in the west. Sudan then strengthened its relations within the Muslim world, but when it refused to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it was isolated for a time from all moderate Arab states. Around the turn of the millennium, Sudan gently reopened to the outside world.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Sudan for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Americans have tended to take a stand against the Arab government in Khartoum and for the rebellious black groups in Darfur, as well as before for black, supposedly Christian South Sudanese. In Washington, it is recalled that Usama bin Ladin, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, found a refuge in Sudan from 1991 to 1996 and had training camps in the country. Sudan then ended up on the US list of countries that support terrorism. In 1997, the United States also imposed financial sanctions on Sudan.
Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Sudan expressed its support for the fight against international terrorism. The US mediated in the peace talks between Khartoum and southern Sudan, but the US reserved the right to further sanctions if Khartoum did not “show sufficient peace of mind”. New US sanctions were introduced in 2007, following the conflict in Darfur.
But despite the fact that the United States was a leading critic of Sudan’s warfare in Darfur, US policy remained contradictory. Obviously, Sudan continued to provide the United States with valuable information on Islamist terrorist movements. In the fall of 2017, most of the economic sanctions were lifted, but Sudan remains on the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
Following the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in the spring of 2019, the United States approached the new transitional government in Khartoum. In December of the same year, the two countries agreed to reestablish full diplomatic relations. For the first time in 23 years, they appointed ambassadors in each other’s countries the following year. The decision was made when the Interim Prime Minister Hamdok, the first Sudanese leader since 1985, visited Washington.
The fact that the United States has not removed Sudan from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism is justified by the fact that this requires a formal judicial process. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the Sudanese interim government for launching “comprehensive reforms” and “breaking with the old regime’s policies and methods”. The transitional government, for example, has initiated peace talks with armed resistance groups, appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the military and militia’s violent actions against protesters in the spring of 2019, and promised democratic elections within 39 months of its entry.
In March 2020, the United States lifted the sanctions against 157 Sudanese companies, which means they can make international transactions. US sanctions remained only against some individuals and entities with links to the conflict in Darfur.
Approaching to the EU
European countries kept their distance to Sudan during the 1990s. Relations improved after the turn of the millennium, but deteriorated again when the conflict in Darfur broke out in 2003. The following year, the EU imposed sanctions on Sudan. Among other things, it was forbidden to provide technical and financial support for military operations. The EU was involved in the peace process in southern Sudan. Representatives of the Union said the 2015 elections in Sudan “were not an expression of the will of the people”, which led to protests by the Sudanese government.
In connection with the spring 2019 military coup, the EU announced in April that it did not recognize the military council that only assumed power after al-Bashir’s overthrow. On the other hand, the EU provided financial support to the democratization of Sudan and cooperated with the civil-military transitional government from the autumn of that year.
Relations with China and Russia
When al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum was criticized in the West, it was of the utmost importance that it had the support of China and Russia, who are permanent members of the UN Security Council. China mines and buys Sudanese oil but also builds industries in the country. China benefited from Western oil companies withdrawing from Sudan in the 1990s, following protests from upset home opinion polls. Instead, Asian stakeholders, with China at the forefront, entered the oil exploration (see Natural Resources, Energy and Environment). From 2007, China also took a greater part in the political work of creating peace in Sudan, not least in order to secure access to the oil.
In 2007, Amnesty International accused China and Russia of violating the UN arms embargo on Sudan. (According to the embargo, states trading with Sudan should ensure that they do not militarily support any warring party in Darfur.) Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Belarus were also designated as weapons suppliers. Among the weapons suppliers were Iran.
Relationship with Israel and the Arab world
Sudan’s relations with Israel were long broken because of al-Bashir’s support for radical Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda, which are hostile to Israel. Sudan, for its part, has opposed Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sudan sympathized with Hamas in the Palestinian territories and was hostile to Israel, which the regime routinely accused of conspiring against Sudan in various contexts and carrying out military attacks in the country. The attacks were believed to have been aimed at gun smugglers.
After the regime change in 2019, a cautious approach to Israel could be discerned, possibly with pressure from the United States. In February 2020, Transitional Council leader al-Burhan met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Entebbe, Uganda. Al-Burhan said after the meeting that by talking to Netanyahu he wanted to “strengthen Sudan’s national security”. Netanyahu said that after al-Bashir’s fall, Sudan is heading in the right direction and that al-Burhan and he had agreed to start working together to normalize diplomatic relations between Sudan and Israel. However, the Sudanese Transitional Government stressed that the meeting was a “personal initiative” from al-Burhan and that the Transitional Council did not have the powers to re-establish relations with another country.
In 2015, Sudan decided to contribute soldiers to the Saudi-led military alliance that supported the government side in Yemen against Shiite insurgency militia in the country. As a thank-you for the effort, Saudi Arabia eased some trade and financial restrictions on Sudan (the restrictions had been adopted in line with the US embargo on Sudan) as well as pledged financial support, including agricultural development. The approach to Saudi Arabia has weakened relations with Iran, supporting the Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen. Following the collapse of al-Bashir in April 2019, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged $ 3 billion in financial assistance to Sudan’s new transitional government to help the country out of a difficult economic crisis.
Egypt, Ethiopia and the waters of the Nile
The relationship with Egypt is of central importance, not least because both countries are dependent on the Nile waters. Both Egypt and Sudan received special guarantees regarding colonial waters during the colonial era, and today they defend their rights against upstream countries that want to divert water, especially Ethiopia and Uganda.
Egypt first supported the coup in Sudan in 1989, but when the new regime’s Islamist policies were revealed, the relationship deteriorated. It improved again since al-Bashir in 1999 removed the Islamist al-Turabi from power. Sudan’s relations with Egypt deteriorated when Islamist President Muhammad Mursi, who was supported by al-Bashir, was deposed in Cairo in 2013. Tense relations continued under Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi from 2014.
Since the mid-2010s, the construction of a hydroelectric power plant with a giant dam (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) near the Nile source in Ethiopia has caused an infected conflict between Ethiopia on the one hand, Sudan and Egypt on the other. Ethiopia emphasizes that the power plant is needed to supply the country with electricity while the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan worry about the water supply for their populations as the huge dam begins to fill.
Contacts improved somewhat when the three countries entered into a cooperation agreement on the dam construction in 2015, but the cooperation has since risen considerably. From the end of the 2010s, tensions increased markedly as the United States in 2019 failed to mediate in the conflict.
Other regional relations
Relations with Libya have changed. Under President al-Numeiri in the 1980s, relations were directly hostile. However, Al-Bashir had good relations with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (1969–2011), who accused the Western world of wanting to use UN troops in Darfur to access Sudan’s oil.
In 2014, Sudan’s relations with the internationally recognized al-Thani government in Libya deteriorated, accusing Sudan of supporting a competing Islamist administration that also claimed government power. Tensions rose further when a Sudanese diplomat was arrested in the Libyan city of Benghazi in April 2015. The diplomat must have visited Sudanese interns in a military prison without first obtaining permission from recognized Libyan authorities. In September 2019, the newly-appointed Sudanese Transitional Government closed the borders to both Libya and the Central African Republic for security reasons.
Until 2005, the war in southern Khartoum was isolated from the black African states, which sympathized with southern Sudan. Relations with Uganda were tense during the 1990s. However, in a peace agreement in 1999, Sudan and Uganda promised to stop supporting each other’s rebels. Uganda’s army was given the right to persecute the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which terrorized northern Uganda, into Sudanese soil. After the 2011 split, Sudan no longer shares border with Uganda. In 2012, Uganda’s army chief said the country would support South Sudan if it was attacked by Sudan and accused Khartoum of backing the LRA. In 2015, the two countries signed a new agreement to work together to put an end to the activities of different rebel groups in each other’s countries.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have supported Sudanese opposition. At the end of the 1990s, however, the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia made both countries agree to stay well with Khartoum, and a number of agreements were concluded, including on refugees. Sudan accused Eritrea of training and arming East Sudanese rebels, but relations were normalized in 2006, after Eritrea mediated between the Sudanese government and the rebels. In 2008, Sudan banned all Eritrean resistance groups from operating on Sudanese land, and then the two countries have approached each other through, for example, joint infrastructure projects. Following Sudan’s split in 2011, Ethiopia sent a peacekeeping force to the troubled border area of Abyei.
Tight relationship with Chad
The relationship with Chad is complicated. Darfur borders Chad, and the same people live on both sides of the border. Chadian President Idriss Déby had Sudanese support when he seized power in 1990. But Déby belongs to the zagawa people who in Darfur participated in the rebellion against Khartoum.
Chad tried to mediate in the Darfur conflict until 2005, when over 200,000 Darfur refugees made their way to Chad. Various rebel groups have also moved across the border in both directions. After striking a rebel attack on its own capital, the Chad government in 2006 broke relations with Sudan. In a 2010 agreement, Sudan and Chad promised to normalize relations with each other. However, the countries have continued to accuse each other of supporting the other side’s rebels, but they have tried to avoid clashes between their armies. A number of peace agreements between the countries have not made any noticeable difference.
Sudan’s armed forces have strong political influence and have been part of the transition regime since the regime change in the spring of 2019. At the same time, the military is weakened by internal power struggles, widespread corruption and possibly ethnic contradictions. The military duty is two years and applies to men aged 18 to 30 years.
Parallel to the regular army, navy and air force, the semi-military militia operates the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). It was formed by al-Bashir’s regime. In the fight against rebellious, non-Arab ethnic groups, the armed forces have since the 1980s taken the help of Arab nomadic groups that join the militia. In the state of South Kurdufan, these nomadic warriors have been referred to as murahalin, in Darfur as janjawid, but these are not official designations but rather desert names.
Read more about the refugee streams in Sudan in Population and languages.
Read about South Sudan’s relations in Conflicts: Sudan-South Sudan.
Read about the cases in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Democracy and Rights.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 100,000 men (2017)
The air Force: 3,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 1,300 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 3.2 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 30.9 percent (2017)