Could Emirati-Israeli normalization and pressing security threats lead to productive ties ?
After decades of overtly aggressive foreign policy and simmering geopolitical hostility, Israel and Sudan have taken their first step towards negotiating a peace deal. In order to understand the magnitude of this development, it’s important to recognize the deeply rooted historical context underpinning the mutual animosity between Israel and Sudan.
The bitter divide between Israel and Sudan can be traced back to the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1948. Following the issuance of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May 1948, Sudan was among the coalition of Arab nations that went to war with Israel in the conflict now known as the Arab-Israeli War.
Several years later, Sudan would go on to mobilize a contingent of troops to assist Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces during the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel. After repelling Sudan’s military aggressions, Israel retaliated by funding and equipping anti-government Christian militias during the First Sudanese Civil War in 1955 and the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983.
While outright military provocations have since been avoided, diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan have remained strained to say the least. This all changed when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Entebbe in Uganda for an unannounced meeting with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a high-ranking Sudanese politician and the Chairman of the Transitional Military Council.
From behind closed doors, Netanyahu and al-Burhan agreed to formally normalize ties between Israel and Sudan, an incremental restoration of bilateral relations that echoes the ostensibly successful diplomatic pact between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With Netanyahu purportedly planning to meet with several other Arab state leaders, there is a very real possibility of a broader normalization of political ties in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In addition to paving the way for a more interconnected MENA, renewed relations between Israel and Sudan could also shore up maritime security in the Red Sea.
Since the opening of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea has become a focal point for trade between MENA, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific. Extraordinarily, despite functioning as one of the world’s most valuable shipping routes, the Red Sea continues to be plagued by endemic piracy, brazen human trafficking, and high-volume irregular migration.
Thanks to a deterioration in local security conditions, the Red Sea has also been the site of numerous state-sponsored terrorist operations. These operations include the infamous interception of the KLOS-C, a cargo ship caught transporting several dozen Syrian-made ballistic missiles to Hamas affiliates in Palestine.
Since the KLOS-C incident, Iran has continued to weaponize the Red Sea, hiding weapons caches in merchant ships and arming Houthi rebels with surface-to-ship missiles. In response to the worrying surge of terrorist activity in the Red Sea, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States have been forced to deploy sizable fleet elements around the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the Suez Canal, and the Gulf of Aden.
While there’s little doubt that the Red Sea is a difficult area to police, a significant portion of the region’s reliance on international security elements can be traced back to a relatively simple cause: the inadequate intelligence monitoring and ineffective policing efforts of the MENA states bordering the Red Sea.
The only countries with coastal access to the Red Sea are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan. Of these six countries, only two possess the military infrastructure and state capacity needed to comprehensively securitize the Red Sea.
Unfortunately, pressing political preoccupations have kept these countries from taking the lead in Red Sea security. Saudi Arabia’s security establishment is engaged in a protracted intervention against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and Egypt is still dealing with the ramifications of years of political uncertainty and near-constant governmental turnover.
While it’s too early to make any concrete claims, there is hope that a sustained Sudan-Israel rapprochement could lead to Israel taking a more active role in security consultation and policing operations in the Red Sea and broader MENA region.
Make no mistake, prior to the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, such an idea would be dismissed out of hand. Now, with both the UAE and Sudan poised to reap the benefits of détente, the idea of leveraging Israeli security expertise to delegitimize and dismantle groups like al-Qaeda and Hamas is suddenly a lot more palatable.