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Omar Al-Bashir: We cannot allow Shi’ite presence in Sudan

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat about Sudan's regional foreign policy
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir looks on during a meeting with former South African President and head of African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) Thabo Mbeki (unseen) in Khartoum on September 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Ashraf Shazly)

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir looks on during a meeting with former South African President and head of African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) Thabo Mbeki (unseen) in Khartoum on September 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Ashraf Shazly)

Medina, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir was at pains to highlight Khartoum’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf during his latest visit to the Kingdom, stressing that Sudan does not have any “strategic” ties to Iran.

He dubbed claims of Iranian-Sudanese cooperation and coordination as “false, fabricated and exaggerated,” warning that these allegations were being put forward by enemies of Sudan in order to harm Khartoum’s relations with the Arab Gulf.

In a broad-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat after performing Hajj, the Sudanese president discussed Khartoum’s ties with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as Sudan’s ties to Egypt and Libya. Bashir talked about the Sudanese Interior Ministry’s recent decision to shut down Iranian cultural centers—affiliated to the Iranian consulate in Khartoum—across the country, stressing that he completely rejects “Shiitization.”

Asharq Al-Awsat: There has recently been a lot of talk about the strained ties between Saudi Arabia and Sudan. What is the reality of the relations between Riyadh and Khartoum? How important are these ties to you?

Omar Al-Bashir: Sudanese-Saudi ties are entrenched and well-rooted in history on all levels. Ties between the two countries are based on historic links driven by a common destiny. Yes, we admit that our ties with Saudi Arabia were frosty but these were not strained because there is no reason for that. Relations would not have reached this stage were it not for false information being leaked about the situation in Sudan and the country’s foreign ties, particularly with Iran. This information was exaggerated. Thanks to our ongoing communication with the Saudi leadership, which we do not wish to suspend, we explained our firm positions, including our keen desire to strengthen our ties with the Kingdom.

Q: Did you clarify the truth behind this leaked information to the Saudi leadership, particularly regarding Khartoum’s alleged ties to Tehran?

Certainly, we explained our view and the true image of our ties with Tehran was clarified. All of the information that reached the Saudi leadership within this context was false, fabricated and exaggerated. This was clearly shown following the issuance of the recent decision stipulating the closure of Iranian culture centers [in Sudan]. This was a strategic step rather than a move to conceal the truth from Gulf States or gain their trust. There are Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, among others, [but] we cannot allow them to have a presence in Sudan.

Q: How do you respond to those who say that Sudan is adopting an approach of political dissimulation in its ties with Iran and the GCC; holding firm to its strategic ties with Tehran while at the same time denying this?

First of all, there are no strategic ties between [Sudan] and Iran. Our ties with Iran are very normal. As I said, some sides with particular agendas aim to pump exaggerated information. I can give you a simple example of this. You may recall the controversy that was raised over [Iranian] warships entering the regional waters of Port Sudan. The fact is that these two warships arrived in the Red Sea two months before and requested to access Port Sudan from the Sudanese Ministry of Defense. The defense ministry did not respond. The warships took our silence for rejection. However these same two warships [later] entered Saudi ports because the whole idea behind ports is to provide fuel services. On their next journey the two warships were granted access to Port Sudan.

This clearly explains the extent to which our ties with Iran have been exaggerated and amplified. Let me ask you this: What strategic aspects are there in our ties with Iran? I do not think that these ties include any “strategic” features. The bottom line is that any talk of Sudan having strategic ties with Iran is pure fabrication and cheap propaganda through which some sides are seeking to achieve their own goals at the expense of our ties with our brothers in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Q: And the closure of Iranian cultural centers across Sudan? This was not an attempt to contain the domestic and foreign outrage over what has been described as the “Shiitization” of Sudan?

We are first and foremost Sunnis, not Shi’ites, and so we are working toward strengthening the Sunni community which is already entrenched in Sudanese society and does not require any effort from us in this regard. We cannot have “strategic” ties with Iran at this time when everybody is familiar with the escalating tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Let me assure you that we already have enough problems in Sudan, whether factional or tribal, and therefore are not willing to create new and unnecessary crises. We are completely against Shiitization.

Therefore, when we started to hear the talk about Shiitization in Sudan with reports suggesting that there were as many as 12,000 Shi’ites in Sudan, we had no choice but to confront this and not remain silent about this danger. The fact that Iran has a cultural centre in Khartoum and that we have one in Tehran does not mean that either side is seeking to exploit Sunni-Shi’ite tensions. We do not intend to convert their Shi’ites into Sunnis. Therefore, we do not accept them converting our Sunnis into Shi’ites.

Q: Can Sudan have a role in bridging the rift in the Gulf region, particularly by mending fences between Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar on the other?
Absolutely, we are extremely keen to unite Gulf ranks since it represents the basic building block towards uniting Arab ranks. We have a strong desire to fortify our ties with the Gulf because at the end of the day we share the same destiny. And we are also currently seeking to deepen our ties with Saudi Arabia. Our main concern is to work together to push against the genuine threats to the region. At this point, I would like to issue general reminder that we should not let the fog of war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) blur our vision regarding what the Houthis are doing in Yemen.

Q: According to recent reports, you are set to visit Egypt in the near future. What is on your agenda for your meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi? How do you view Sudanese-Egyptian ties?

I have to emphasise that there are deep bilateral ties [between the two countries] without any sort of problems. These ties have been practically translated into a number of achievements on the ground including the establishment of road links between the two countries. These roads are open and so is trade between Egypt and Sudan.

Q: You have been accused by Libya and particularly by the government of Abdullah Al-Thinni, of supporting Islamist militias there. Can you tell us a little more about the circumstances behind these accusations? Is Khartoum in contact with the Thinni government in Tobruk?

How can Prime Minister Thinni make this accusation which is based on false information when he is the one who signed the agreement between Sudan and Libya stipulating the deployment of joint forces in Libya to secure the border? Under the agreement, we have trained 1,200 military students for the National Army, not the rebel army.

We emphasize that we are working towards supporting the Libyan government and have always said that neither Sudan nor any of Libya’s neighbors should be a party to the conflict that is going on there. We do not wish to be involved in the conflict in Libya, and insist that our role be limited to employing our ties for the purpose of uniting Libyan ranks rather than working on behalf of one side against another.

Q: What about claims that you supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Libyan revolution.

The Brotherhood did not have any presence in Libya when the revolution broke out. This is because Muammar Gaddafi had pursued, killed and imprisoned them. We supported the Brotherhood at the time because we knew they represented the Libyan people, not a certain side or political trend. We have supported all rebels by providing them with weapons and ammunition. This is why we have ties with all the rebel groups in Libya. Therefore, we can make use of these ties to mend fences and unite the ranks of all Libyan parties.

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