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Sudan takes center stage in US regional strategy

Khartoum gets a boost this week from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as US Sudan envoy tours the region; the latest Nile dam talks kick off in Kinshasa, Congo, on Saturday.
Egyptian and Sudanese military officials

US-Sudan relations are in full turnaround from where they were two years ago. The transition is still fragile, but on a fast track, especially after this week.

A decision by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gives Sudan’s 44 million people a chance to break the cycle of chronic poverty and fragility.

And the visit to the region this week by US Sudan envoy Donald Booth also signals the increasingly pivotal role Khartoum plays in the region — especially in the regional Nile dam talks and addressing the civil war in Tigray, which has spilled over into Sudan.

The flurry of diplomacy comes as the risk of escalation grows. The latest round of African Union-mediated talks among the foreign ministers of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia are slated to start in Kinshasa on Saturday.

“New chapter” in US-Sudan ties 

On March 31 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed a “new chapter” in US-Sudan relations after Khartoum paid $335 million to compensate victims of al-Qaeda terrorism in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed following popular demonstrations in April 2019, was implicated in al-Qaeda’s terrorist actions in Africa, including providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden in Sudan from 1994-1996. Sudan was designated by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The country’s payment and its recognition diplomatically of Israel is part of the deal to get Sudan off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which had blocked Sudan in terms of receiving international aid and assistance. Sudan’s delisting had been in the works for a while, but was accelerated by Sudan’s decision to join the Abraham Accords, as Jared Szuba reported at the time. 

Once in a generation” opportunity

With Sudan leaving the terrorist list in Washington, the IMF and the World Bank are now considering Sudan’s application for debt relief under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. 

On March 26, David Malpass, World Bank Group President, called the decision a "breakthrough," adding that the reform steps taken so far by Sudan’s government, "including arrears clearance and exchange-rate unification, will put Sudan on the path to substantial debt relief, economic revival and inclusive development."

An IMF report this month referred to Sudan as having a "once in a generation window of opportunity" to build on, and accelerate, structural reforms undertaken by the civilian-military transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The challenges remain daunting. Sudan faces chronic poverty and underdevelopment. As a primarily agricultural economy, Sudan is especially sensitive to climate variations and flooding. The incidence of extreme poverty (living below $1.90 per day) is high at 13.5%, but rises to 46.1% if the lower-to-middle-income country poverty standard is used ($3.20 per day). Sudan ranks near the bottom on the Human Development and Human Capital Indices.

Sudan’s economy, especially hard hit by COVID-19, shrank by an estimated at 3.6% in 2020. Unhappily for the country, it was the third straight year of negative growth. The IMF projects Sudan’s economy to grow this year by 0.9%. 

Unprecedented partnership with Egypt

The United States is not the only country that has opened a new chapter with Sudan. Egypt-Sudan ties over the past two years have also witnessed a dramatic turnaround, from the days of Bashir, who had an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ayah Aman writes, "There now seems to be an unprecedented strategic partnership between the two countries amid cooperation at all levels aimed at confronting regional threats."

The Ethiopian civil war in the Tigray region has led to a hot border dispute with Sudan. Sudan is hosting 70,000 refugees from Tigray, and the numbers are growing. Sudanese forces have skirmished with Ethiopian military and militias on the border. 

Blinken this month accused Ethiopia of "ethnic cleaning" in Tigray, a charge denied by Addis Ababa. Troops from neighboring Eritrea have also been implicated in the attacks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Prize in 2019 for making peace with longtime rival Eritrea. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea oppose the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which they blame for the conflict. 

The second issue is the stalled talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

On March 31, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said, "No one can take a drop of water from the waters of Egypt. Whoever wants to try, let him try. But this would destabilize the whole region. No one should dare question our capabilities but if they want to put us to the test, then so be it.”

Egypt's population of 100 million depends on the Nile for 95% of its water needs. Any interruption in the flow of Nile water because of the dam would be devastating. Egypt wants an internationally brokered plan for water management of the dam. For Ethiopia, the Nile is a sensitive nationalist issue. Talks mediated by the United States, the World Bank and the African Union have so far yielded little progress. And now Ethiopia is consumed by the fighting in Tigray.

Although Sudan would be less impacted by any potential disruption of Nile water flow, Khartoum is backing Cairo’s call for mediation, as its concerns with Ethiopia are increasingly affected by the fighting in Tigray.

The Nile dam dispute and the Tigray fighting have sparked an intensification of regional diplomacy. Egypt has been reaching out to Burundi, Djibouti and Somalia to counter Ethiopia’s regional network, as Muhammed Magdy reports.

The Egypt-Sudan partnership has meanwhile taken off diplomatically, economically and militarily. On March 31, Egyptian and Sudanese air forces launched joint training exercises. Mohamed Saied writes that even "bilateral economic projects such as the railway project, an electrical connection project and others in the fields of transportation, agriculture and irrigation cannot be analyzed in isolation from the [dam] dispute."

Congo, African Union take up next round of Nile dam talks

In his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said the United States would be "fully engaged" in the Horn of Africa, and warned that the Nile dam talks could "boil over."

US President Joe Biden has already sent a close ally, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, to the region to convey US concerns about the situation in Ethiopia, and reportedly may appoint former senior US/UN diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as envoy. 

US special envoy for Sudan Donald Booth was in the region last week, seeking to find ways to jumpstart the dam talks and de-escalate tensions in Tigray, as Muhammed Magdy reports.

Egypt and Sudan are invested in a diplomatic outcome in both Tigray and the dam talks. Neither wants nor is served by escalation or conflict. Sudan has backed a proposal, supported by Egypt, to involve the United States, the European Union and the UN, as well as the African Union, in mediating the dam talks, but Ethiopia rejected the offer.

Following Booth’s tour, Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, the incoming head of the African Union, announced a new round of Nile dam talks starting in Kinshasa on April 3.

There have been other bids for mediation. Sudan welcomed an offer by the United Arab Emirates to help broker a solution to the stalled dam talks, as Khalid Hassan reports. Egypt, however, has held back on the offer, as Hassan and Ayah Aman explain.

Abu Dhabi has good relations with Abiy and substantial investments in Ethiopia. As Sam Ramani explains, "The UAE is reorienting its Red Sea strategy away from direct military intervention and toward a synthesis of economic investment and remote power projection."

Saudi Arabia has also deepened its ties with Sudan. Last month, Hamdok, in a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), praised the kingdom for its mediation in the Sudanese peace process. Just this week, MBS called the chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, to discuss the Saudi "Middle East Green" initiative. In February, the kingdom offered to mediate on the Nile dam talks, as Ayah Aman reported in February.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation all weighed in this week in support of Egypt and Sudan in the Nile talks.

Eyes on Sudan

As we wrote here in October 2019, the popular demonstrations that began in Sudan in December 2018 and that eventually deposed Bashir, a war criminal and dictator, foreshadowed a kind of sequel to the Arab Spring, which also occurred in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Sudan’s role in the region is increasingly impactful. And its people, which in the past have suffered from chronic poverty, abusive and corrupt governance, and, in Darfur, genocide, deserve this opportunity for a new direction and social contract with their rulers.

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