Deal or No Deal? An Appraisal of UK Engagement in Sudan

Read Full Report(PDF 1MB)

Adobe Stock/Argus

This paper sets out research findings on the UK’s development, defence and diplomacy engagements in Sudan from 2015 to the present. The paper also tests common assertions around the effects of Brexit, reductions in the UK aid budget, and the merger of two government departments, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Since 2016, successive British governments have sought to emphasise that a post-Brexit UK would be outward looking, collaborative and influential. A series of speeches and policy statements emphasised that the UK would pursue future prosperity through overseas engagements built upon investments in diplomacy, trade, defence and development aid. In March 2021, the UK government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The document reiterated these themes and referenced Eastern Africa as a part of the world where the UK would increase its engagement.

Against this backdrop, a RUSI research team set out to examine how the UK has deployed its development, defence and diplomacy toolkit in four countries in Eastern Africa since 2015. The project, entitled ‘Furthering Global Britain? Reviewing the Foreign Policy Effect of UK Engagement in East Africa’, seeks to identify the factors that have helped or hindered the UK in pursuing a ‘Global Britain’ agenda in four countries in the region: Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. The research tested some common assertions around the effects of Brexit, reductions in the UK aid budget, and the merger of two government departments: the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

This paper sets out findings on the UK’s relevant engagements in one of the four focus countries, Sudan, from 2015 to the present. It finds that, despite a chequered past, the UK has had significant leverage at key moments, building on a long history of engagement. There have been some successes in recent years. Examples include careful use of diplomacy and development aid in support of conflict resolution and humanitarian relief. The UK has also worked to support inclusion of civilians in government and to help Sudan manage economic and political crises from 2019 to the present. While the Sudanese may be disappointed by the record of Sudan’s hybrid civilian–military government of 2019–20, the UK is still well regarded overall.

Regarding an ‘integrated approach’ to UK foreign policy, Sudan has provided few opportunities to pursue defence engagement or promote trade since 2016. Use of development aid and diplomacy have, however, become more integrated over the period, as envisaged by UK government policy. The unplanned merger of DFID and the FCO, though time-consuming and frustrating, has also offered benefits.

UK relationships in Sudan have weathered Brexit well. The UK enjoys substantial depth and quality of partnerships both in Sudan and with regional actors. Its ability to operate in multiple forums, from New York to Khartoum and the immediate region, via a combination of envoys, ambassadors, political and aid specialists and multilateral bodies, is significant. The UK has been particularly effective in two groupings: the UK–US–Norwegian ‘Troika’ and the ‘Quad’ (the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – also at times referred to as ‘the Quartet’). Astute UK involvement here has helped to compensate for a post-Brexit loss of influence over EU policy and expenditure. Linked to Brexit, however, the paralysis that characterised British politics during 2019–20 has been detrimental. It drew the attention of ministers and senior decision-makers away from Sudan at a critical moment in Sudan’s history and contributed to perceptions of declining UK influence in Sudan.

Sudan has not been prioritised as the 2021 Integrated Review suggested it would be. The lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic response, Brexit, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all diverted the UK’s attention and resources. After a brief increase linked to a 2019 political transition in Sudan, the UK aid budget has levelled off. Although aid agencies in receipt of UK aid have been alarmed, the real-world impact of this is hard to gauge, given the fragile state of Sudan’s economy. Reductions also coincided with an overall decline in humanitarian aid contributions from other donors. Nevertheless, a solid reputation and substantial influence that the UK has earned within the aid sector in Sudan is now seen as being at risk.

Overall, the research finds that commentators expect UK influence in Sudan to wane in the years ahead. Brexit has played a part in this, but aid cuts and the visible rise of competitors such as China are more salient factors. In the research for this paper, interviews revealed a general sense of frustration that the former colonial power would not commit further resources to Sudan, along with a feeling that the UK appears too willing to back a compromise with military actors amid a contested political ‘transition’. Interviews also show that many pro-democracy campaigners expect the UK and Western allies to play a conservative hand in future: that, despite clear evidence of the Sudanese military’s role in driving disorder, they will seek stability through a compromise.

Notwithstanding its many problems, Sudan represents what practitioners might call a ‘medium-sized’ challenge. If senior decision-makers were willing, the UK might help shape the country’s trajectory through technical leadership, financial assistance and support to political coalition-building. Alongside humanitarian relief and reform, other areas of traditional UK expertise, from stabilisation to governance and security sector reform to economic development, will be critical to Sudan’s future. The UK could plausibly convene others around these topics. It might also play a useful role facilitating much-needed dialogue among disparate pro-democracy groups. To maximise its effectiveness, the UK should, however, work alongside others to identify the lessons of recent years and to forge coalitions and strategies that might in time lead towards a fully democratised Sudan.


Simon Rynn

Senior Research Fellow, African Security

International Security

View profile

Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

View profile


Explore our related content