Dubai ports giant DP World has hired a former Israeli intelligence official to lobby the US government for support in its bid to operate Sudan’s largest port terminal.
The firm signed a $5 million contract — of which $1.5 million was paid up front — with Ari Ben-Menashe and his Montreal-based Dickens & Madson firm in November to lobby Sudan for a 20-year concession with the South Port Container Terminal in Port Sudan, according to newly disclosed lobbying filings. The contract also calls on Dickens & Madson to lobby the Donald Trump administration for a grant to help “maintain and develop” the port, which handles most Sudanese imports.
Ben-Menashe told Al-Monitor that he has developed deep connections with Sudanese officials thanks to a controversial lobbying deal with Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the country’s former de facto military ruler. That $6 million contract with the internationally sanctioned country, signed in May 2019, has triggered investigations by both Canada and the United Nations.
Sudan struck a $2.4 billion deal on Port Sudan with a Philippine port operator under then-President Omar al-Bashir. But the transitional military council led by Dagalo scrapped the agreement in April 2019 after deposing Bashir.
Ben-Menashe told Al-Monitor that DP World had already been eyeing the port during Bashir’s time. “Now we have probably deeper connections with the Sudanese than they do,” he said. He added that he still represents Sudanese interests but is now working for the civilian-military council that took over from the transitional military council last August.
He said the goal is to help create a “Sudanese Union” between Sudan and South Sudan by boosting energy exports, notably through the development of Port Sudan. “South Sudan has the oil,” Ben-Menashe said, “and it cannot be exported, only through Sudan going north.” The ultimate goal, he said, is to have “two sovereign countries with open borders, movement of goods across the borders and some sort of European Union-type arrangement.”
Ben-Menashe insisted he has seen “quite a bit of progress” in getting the US grant, adding that “we hope it will be done soon, very much so.” He declined to name any US officials he’s talked to, however.
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The lobbying push comes as DP World, which is mostly owned by the emirate of Dubai, this year made its first expansion into the oil and gas sector, acquiring Dubai-based Topaz Energy and Marine for more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has been deeply involved in Sudan’s transitional process and pledged to pump billions of dollars to stabilize the country after Bashir’s ouster.
Rohan Advani, a senior foreign policy associate at The Century Foundation who has written about DP World and its ties to Emirati ruling families, said the UAE has “made it clear that they're making a concerted effort to expand influence in that region.” The trouble with Sudan, he said, “is that it's under international sanctions. So, obviously, conducting business there is difficult.”
DP World is no stranger to US influence campaigns. In 2006, the firm was forced to drop out of a bid to operate six US ports — despite support from the George W. Bush administration — amid congressional backlash in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, has called the experience “essentially a wake-up call” for the country, which has since transformed itself into a lobbying powerhouse. DP World did not respond to a request for comment.
“They have expanded so much in the past 20 years that for sure their reputation has changed,” Advani said.
Ben-Menashe formerly represented eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter, and last year he signed a $1 million contract to help Tunisia presidential candidate Nabil Karoui win the election. The contract became a major scandal in Tunisia and contributed to Karoui’s defeat after Al-Monitor first reported its existence.