Evacuees from Sudan receive roses from the Saudi Arabian navy when arriving in Jeddah. (Photo: Amer Hilabi, AFP/NTB

Saudi Arabia is seemingly taking a leading role in the global response to the outbreak of war in Sudan. But is it all for show?

Images of evacuees being welcomed to port and airfields in Jeddah have made world news, and the Saudi efforts to provide humanitarian aid, and offering to host talks between the warring fractions have put the Kingdom center stage in the attempts to resolve the multiple crises facing Sudan and the Sudanese people. It is still too soon to say anything conclusive about the Saudi response to the Sudanese refugees, but the way in which the Kingdom has met other refugee populations may provide some pointers.

On the 22 of April 2023, a week after the war in Sudan broke out and in the middle of Eid, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Saudi Arabia started the evacuation of “Saudi citizens and several nationals of brotherly and friendly countries from the Republic of Sudan to the Kingdom”. In the following days hundreds of individuals would be evacuated to Jeddah every day, and pictures of members of the Saudi national guards handing out red roses to evacuees as they arrived in the Kingdom flourished in Saudi media and on social media. By May 11, Saudi Arabia had evacuated 8455 individuals from 111 nationalities, of which only 404 were Saudi and had in addition “also assisted brotherly and friendly countries in evacuating 11,184 of their nationals to the Kingdom before returning to their homeland, including more than 400 U.S citizens”. Saudi Arabia contributes significantly to humanitarian operations worldwide, in fact it was ranked as the 4th humanitarian donor in 2021 in terms of financial contributions. But the country, a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and with no domestic refugee law - is not usually considered a country open for those fleeing conflict and political unrest, rather the opposite.

A new form of refugee diplomacy?
In August 2021, when the US withdrew from Afghanistan and Taliban took over Kabul within days, Qatar was uniquely positioned to evacuate both third country nationals and Afghanis in the chaos that erupted. Qatar has acted as a mediator between USA and Taliban for years and had thus an open channel of communication to the Taliban leadership and the trust of both parties. By March 2022 as many as 75 000 were reported to have passed through Qatar where evacuees and refugees were airlifted to, awaiting processing before being sent on to a third country - primarily the US. While the evacuees to Saudi Arabia from Sudan - at least for now - seem to be mostly nationals of third countries heading to another final destination, the Afghanis evacuated to Doha was also not intended to stay in Qatar but to get asylum elsewhere. Qatar was just a stop along the way. UAE and Qatar also carried out similar operations to Saudi Arabia, though on a smaller scale, from Sudan. This way of contributing to evacuation from a crisis gives the states moral clout on the international stage, while avoiding long-term responsibility. It is timely to ask if we are witnessing a new form of refugee diplomacy by the wealthy Gulf states. While it is tempting to jump to this conclusion, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in general and Saudi Arabia in particular have pursued similar policies in the past.

This way of contributing to evacuation from a crisis gives the states moral clout on the international stage, while avoiding long-term responsibility.

The Saudi ‘guest’ policy
Despite not having any formal asylum policy, Saudi Arabia has dealt with refugee situations as they emerge, on a case-to-case basis. Historically, Saudi Arabia had a somewhat liberal attitude towards letting in members of the persecuted Rohingya-minority into the country, provided they carried travel documents from other countries. This has resulted in a significant Rohingya community in Saudi Arabia, with few to no possibilities of obtaining a permanent – or even temporary, legal – residency (including second and third generations born in Saudi Arabia). Saudi authorities have at several points in time launched campaigns to regularize the status of Rohingya in the country as well as integrating them in the labor market, through special programs on the side of the legal framework dealing with migrants. Similar arrangements have been put in place for Syrians and Yemenis following the civil wars that have broken out in the two countries after the Arab spring (of which Saudi Arabia is itself heavily involved in the Yemeni civil war).

For a period in the 1970s and early 1980s, Eritreans were subject to special regulations in Saudi Arabia. Through royal decree, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was able to facilitate visas to Saudi Arabia, in what has been understood as “indirect asylum policies”. The arrangements were short-lived, and abolished in 1981 as the attitude of the Saudi authorities towards Eritreans in the country shifted. During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991, Saudi Arabia not only opened its borders for Kuwaiti citizens, but also for third country citizens in Kuwait as the unexpected invasion happened. The operations to repatriate to their home countries, assisted by the Saudi government, was smooth for the most part. Some of those fleeing from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia were in a situation that they could not return to their country of origin out of fear of persecution, which caused concern with the UNHCR officer in Riyadh at the time. Most sensitive were the situation of Iraqis, of which many were considered for resettlement already before the launch of Operation Desert Storm, and the liberation of Kuwait.[1] After Saddam Hussein's brutal crackdown on the uprisings of 1991 that followed the Gulf war, Saudi Arabia agreed to take in about 33 000 Iraqi refugees, who were hosted in two refugee camps. It is thus clear that Saudi Arabia has reacted to crisis situations as they occur through ad-hoc temporary measures, at multiple points in history. Saudi Arabia has however (with the exception of the Iraqi refugees arriving in 1991) avoided speaking of “refugees” inside Saudi Arabia but rather labeled them as “brothers”, “guests” and “visitors”. This has changed drastically in the last years, as Saudi Arabia has changed its policy of not advertising its humanitarian efforts, to now claiming that 5% of the total population are refugees. This all comes to show how Saudi Arabia has a history of finding strictly temporary, pragmatic solutions. What is fairly new however is the outward claim of hosting large numbers of refugees. 

It is thus clear that Saudi Arabia has reacted to crisis situations as they occur through ad-hoc temporary measures, at multiple points in history.

Geopolitics in the shape of humanitarianism
While humanitarianism can be motivated by a plethora of factors it is also affected by broader political strategies and priorities. Saudi Arabia has its own geopolitical interest which is playing into how it envisions an ideal solution in Sudan. Having been an integral actor in the political landscape in Sudan also before the outbreak of hot conflict, Saudi Arabia, along with neighboring UAE have been strong supporters of RSF and their leader, Hemetti economically and symbolically. Sudanese soldiers have also been involved in the war in Yemen, hiring out as mercenaries paid for by Saudi Arabia and UAE. After the ouster of al-Bashir, Saudi and the UAE have no interest in Sudan reverting to their former regional alignment with Muslim Brotherhood-friendly regimes like Turkey and Qatar; nor do they wish to see Sudan transition to civilian democratic leadership as that might undermine their own authoritarian regimes – however, continued instability and outright war is not in their interest either. As Saudi Arabia, along with neighboring states in the Gulf has significant investments in Sudan’s agricultural sector, as well as being a relatively close neighbor across the shallow and narrow Red Sea, the country has vested interest in a rapid resolution to the conflict. Saudi’s interest in playing a role in the resolution has been made clear through their offer to mediate, and hosting repeated talks between the warring fractions, which has resulted in agreements to, amongst other points, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and protect civilians; the effects have yet to be seen however, as the agreements of ceasefire keep being broken. The Kingdom has also provided extensive humanitarian aid and committed to financial aid. This approach - taking the role as a mediator and a humanitarian superpower in the case of Sudan - is similar to what Qatar has done in other conflicts and plays well with both a domestic and an international audience . Moreover, domestically, Saudi Arabia is pursuing ambitious economic development projects, including prestigious tourism plans for the Red Sea coast for which regional stability is crucial. There is also a significant Sudanese presence already in Saudi Arabia. Official census data claims there are 819 600 Sudanese migrants in the kingdom, making up 6,1 % of the migrant population (which makes up 41,6% of the total population). There is also a high, but unknown number of irregular migrants in Saudi Arabia - including Sudanese. The long history of Sudanese migration to the Gulf states is visible in the many roles Sudanese residents play, not only in Saudi Arabia but also the neighboring countries, in the bureaucracy, education, medicine, and many other fields. As such, there may be some leveraging power for the Sudanese population within the Kingdom. 

Saudi Arabia has its own geopolitical interest which is playing into how it envisions an ideal solution in Sudan.

However, as Saudi Arabia is currently seeking to curtail the number of so-called “low-skilled” migrants, it can be assumed that Saudi Arabia neither foresees nor desires to be a destination for large numbers of refugees whose timelines and futures are unresolved. As mentioned, it is pointedly observed that those evacuees so far broadcast as arriving in Saudi, most are either third country nationals, or hold residencies elsewhere. This underlines the point that Saudi will engage in “refugee diplomacy” in order to gain political and moral ground, but it is highly unlikely to result in the settlement of Sudanese refugees. It also underlines the Saudi interest in a rapid solution to the war, as the conflict poses a threat to Saudi interests abroad and domestically. 

The kingdom of pragmatic solutions
Saudi Arabia’s evacuation of civilians from Sudan helps legitimize The Kingdom’s position as a broker between the parties in Sudan. This is only one of several very recent examples pointing to how Saudi Arabia has sought a more diplomacy-oriented foreign policy in recent months; Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of welcoming Syria back into the Arab League and rehabilitate relations with Bashar al-Assad and has also sought to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran. Indeed, Iranians were among those evacuated from Sudan and were welcomed in Saudi Arabia as “brothers” with assurance that “this is their country”. The high-profile evacuation process is also in line with Saudi Arabia’s new policy since 2016 of speaking more loudly of its humanitarian efforts - including of “refugees” within the state's borders. In these senses, the evacuation efforts are part of a new tendency in Saudi policy. At the same time, it follows the same approach that Saudi Arabia has traditionally adapted - in finding pragmatic solutions to situations where civilians are fleeing conflict in places geographically or diplomatically close to Saudi Arabia, while ensuring the solutions are as temporary as possible. 



This Sudan blog post is written by Mari Norbakk and Charlotte Lysa. Norbakk is a post doctoral researcher at CMI. She is a social anthropologist focusing on the Middle East, specifically Egypt and Qatar as well as migrant communities in Norway. Lysa is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Criminology and Sociology at the University of Oslo. Her research interests include politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arab Gulf monarchies in particular.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SNAC project or CMI. 



[1] The information regarding refugees in Saudi Arabia during and after operation desert storm comes from Archival material from the UNHCR archives in Geneve, gathered as part of an ongoing research project on refugees in Saudi Arabia, see https://www.janmyr.org/refarab/refarab-team/refarab-lysa




Mari Norbakk

Post Doctoral Researcher

Charlotte Lysa

University of Oslo