The Growing Military Ties between Sudan and Saudi Arabia

Following the conclusion of the Saudi-Sudanese "Blue Shield 1" joint exercise earlier this month, Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay considers the cooperation between the two countries and discusses their pivotal role in the Middle East

Sudanese and Saudi air forces announced the successful conclusion of "Blue Shield 1" joint military drill recently. The plan to hold the exercise was proposed by Saudi Arabia, and it took about one year to prepare it.

The 12-day military exercise took place at the Martyr General Captain Awadh Khalafallah air base in the Sudanese city of Marawe, some 300 km north of the capital Khartoum.

The Sudanese Air Force participated in the "Blue Shield 1" exercise with a total of 29 fighter planes including MiG-29 Fulcrum, Su-25 Frogfoot, and Su-24 Fencer jets, as well as Mi-17 Hip helicopters. Saudi Arabia sent F-15 fighter jets, as well as Eurofighter Typhoons and Hawk jets. Participating troops amounted to 450 Sudanese soldiers and 250 Saudi army men. A group of Saudi fighter pilots staged an air show in Khartoum from April 10-12.

President Omar Al-Bashir said during a ceremony at the Marawe air base that "The air force drill showed that relations between Sudan and Saudi Arabia are progressing." Al-Bashir said the Sudanese military was playing a "key role" in improving Khartoum’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. "As Sudanese security is connected with that of countries across the region, we are building military and security cooperation with our neighboring countries," said Al-Bashir.

Maj. Gen. Pilot Staff Mohammed Saleh al-Otaibi, Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, and Ali bin Hasan Jaafar, Saudi ambassador to Sudan, a number of RSAF senior officers and a number of senior Sudanese figures attended the event.

Bashir awarded the Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force with Al-Nilain Medal Class I and a number of Saudi officers Al-Jadarah (merit) medal in recognition of their participation and performance in the event.

Sudan-Saudi Arabia Relations

For years, Khartoum’s Islamist regime maintained close relations with Tehran. But as sectarian divisions in the region escalated with the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, Khartoum allied with Riyadh. In 2015, Sudan moved away from its longstanding alliance with Iran and joined the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Yemen’s Shia Houthi militia group.

The Navies of Saudi Arabia and Sudan held a joined exercise in January 2017, named "Falak 2", at King Faisal Naval Base, of the Saudi Western Fleet. The Royal Saudi Western Fleet Commander, Admiral Saeed Al-Zahrani, was the commanding officer of the exercise.

The drills included storming and inspecting a ship to make sure that it does not smuggle weapons and landing on one of the islands carried out by speedboats with the participation of Royal Saudi Navy aircraft. The naval forces stormed a speedboat to prevent it from smuggling arms and ammunition in a mock drill. On the 5th day of the exercise, the units conducted live fire.

In February 2016, Sudanese troops participated in the "North Thunder" (Raad al-Shamal) military maneuvers in Saudi Arabia among 20 other Arab and Islamic nations.

Sudan and the War in Yemen

Sudan contributes about 850-2000 troops to the Saudi-led "Decisive Storm" coalition against the Iranian-allied Houthi militants in Yemen. Sudan also deployed at least two Su-24M strike aircraft to Saudi Arabia's King Khalid Air Base. The Sudanese Air Force acquired 12 Su-24M aircraft from Belarus in 2013.

In October 2015, Sudanese Defense Minister Awad bin Auf said, "There are 6,000 fighters from special forces, ground forces, and elite troops ready to participate when requested by the leadership of the coalition. […] Even if more troops and military contribution is needed, we are ready for any developments."

In October and November 2015, Assab port in Eritrea served as the logistics hub for the deployment of three Sudanese mechanized battalions to Aden. The two Sudanese battalions undertook a lengthy route movement from Kassala on the Sudan-Eritrea border to Assab port and were shuttled across to Aden by UAE vessels.

The Sudanese battalions arrived in Aden on October 17, 2015, equipped with BTR-70 armored personnel carriers. The Sudanese units assumed responsibility for security in Aden as UAE forces pulled back to their bases. 

Aden became the seat of the Yemeni government earlier this year after the Shiite Houthis, based in northern Yemen, seized the capital Sanaa, and forced President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to the south.

The commander of the Fourth Military Region in the Hadi-allied Yemeni forces, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saif Muharrami, along with other army officers, were seen greeting the Sudanese forces upon their arrival.

"The vanguards of our ground troops have arrived in Aden to participate with the forces of the Arab alliance in the Decisive Storm operation. The participation of the Sudanese ground troops in the Saudi-led operation comes as part of the political commitment to the conventions and decisions of the Arab League to restore the legitimacy in Yemen," said the Sudanese army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Khalifa El Shami.

A third battalion made up of 400 officers and soldiers arrived on November 7, 2015, to provide security at al-Anad Air Base, bringing the country's Sudanese presence to a full two-thousand-man brigade.

On December 1, 2015, the Yemeni army began a large-scale military battle in order to reclaim al-Sharija area in the province of Lahij south of the country with the participation of units of the Sudanese army. In this battle, units of the Sudanese army are participating [for the first time] with members of the Popular Resistance with an air cover from the [Arab] alliance against Houthi militias and the forces of [former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh.

In January 2016, a Sudanese colonel was killed while fighting alongside the Saudi troops and pro-Hadi militias in the region of al-Waze'iya in the coastal province of Ta'iz.


"Blue Shield 1," the first-ever joint Saudi-Sudanese air exercise was intended to boost the two air forces’ operational capacities and promote cooperation. It represents an interesting opportunity for the RSAF pilots to train flying with and against Russian “hardware.” Interestingly, the RSAF hasn’t deployed any twin seaters to Sudan, which will not give the Sudanese any chance for orientation rides aboard the Saudi “western” aircraft.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud seeks to unite the Sunni Arab world behind the kingdom to counter Iranian influence, Riyadh sees Sudan as an actor in this foreign policy strategy. Indeed, Sudan – an Arab League and African Union member situated along the strategically-prized Red Sea – plays a unique role in the Middle East’s geopolitical order, a factor often overlooked by analysts.

Regime survival is a concern for Bashir as Khartoum reaches out to the Gulf Arab states to mitigate the risks associated with the country’s worsening economic crisis. The price Sudan pays for this financial lifeline is participation in Yemen’s escalating civil war.

Ties between Khartoum and Riyadh have strengthened after Sudan joined in 2015, the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen that is fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The Sudanese military participation in the military campaign in Yemen and the Islamic alliance reconciled Omer al-Bashir’s regime with the Saudi government and marked the divorce with Iran.

Sudan is the only country outside the Gulf region directly participating in the ground campaign against Houthi rebels. Khartoum’s army has a lot of experience fighting unconventional foes during which it earned a special reputation for brutality.

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