* Sudan joins Bahrain, Djibouti in cutting ties with Tehran
* Move dramatises swing from Iranian ally to Saudi partner
* Saudi aid, investment critical to ailing economy
By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM, Jan 12 When Saudi Arabia executed a
leading Shi'ite cleric and protesters responded by torching the
Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sudan was one of only three countries
to sever ties with Iran in solidarity with Riyadh.
The Jan. 4 move cemented a dramatic political shift: in the
past two years, Sudan has turned its back on a quarter-century
alliance with Iran in favour of the Saudis, who have proved more
willing to provide the financial support it sorely needs.
Saudi Arabia has already invested more than any other
country in Sudan -- about $11 billion, mostly in agriculture.
In the past year, it has deposited $1 billion in Sudan's central
bank, signed deals to finance the construction of
power-generating dams on the Nile, and pledged even more
investment in farming.
Such largesse explains why Sudan, struggling with a
collapsing currency and soaring unemployment, has chosen to
favour economic ties with Saudi Arabia over a relationship with
Iran that was largely based on arms.
"The government decided to distance itself from the alliance
with Iran after it evaluated the relationship and found it
economically and politically damaging," said Al Tayeb
Zeinalaidine, politics professor at Khartoum University.
"Iran didn't offer any economic aid to Sudan and this left
the government thinking its relations... had become a burden".
The swing toward Riyadh marks a new tack for Sudanese
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has maintained power for
over 25 years in a volatile neighbourhood by navigating shifting
alliances. At different times he has drawn close to Osama bin
Laden, the United States and Tehran.
Last year he joined a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi
rebels in Yemen who are allied with Shi'ite Iran, showing Sunni
Gulf Arab powers that he could be an asset in their fight to
limit the influence of the Islamic Republic.
Sudan's defence ministry says it has deployed three military
jets as well as ground troops to secure facilities in the
southern port of Aden and elsewhere, though they have been
involved in little active combat so far. Sudan has also trained
thousands of Yemeni troops.
For much of the period since Bashir seized power in 1989,
ties with Saudi Arabia had been tense. Bashir backed Iraq's 1990
invasion of Kuwait, a Saudi neighbour, and protesters took to
the streets of Sudan to support Iraq's Saddam Hussein and
condemn the Saudi royals.
As recently as 2013, relations reached a nadir when Saudi
Arabia banned Bashir's plane from passing through its airspace
By contrast, Bashir fostered warm relations with Tehran,
crowned with the 1991 visit of then-president Hashemi
Rafsanjani. The two countries, both listed as state sponsors of
terrorism and subjected to U.S. sanctions, saw mutual benefit in
teaming up against Western attempts to isolate them.
Sudan helped Iran project its influence by serving as the
key entry point for Iranian weapons exports to Africa, according
to sources who monitor the arms trade. Khartoum denies taking
part in these activities.
In exchange, Sudan benefited from Iranian military
technology that has helped it become a major African weapons
But the calculus has shifted as Sudan's economic problems
have mounted - especially since it lost three-quarters of its
oil revenues when South Sudan seceded in 2011.
Military spokesman Ahmed al-Khalifa al-Shami said the army
backed the policy shift, and military cooperation with Iran had
been more limited than media reports would suggest.
"The army has not been harmed by the severing of relations
with Iran because all the military production is being done with
Sudanese labour and expertise," Shami said.
Sudan has said its support for the Yemen campaign was a
turning point in the Saudi relationship, but was not linked to
more investment. Nor did it cut ties with Iran in return for
Ali al-Sadeq, Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, said
Sudan saw much more in the new relationship.
"We are looking to a strategic partnership with Saudi
Arabia," he said. "We are neighbours on the Red Sea coast and
work together to secure these coastlines against challenges...
We expect in the coming period more progress in cooperation".
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)