Warming US-Sudan ties are about more than just politics

Strengthening Khartoum's ties with Washington is crucial for the Arab nation's economic development

Sudan's Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok gestures the victory sign during the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir, at the Friendship Hall in Khartoum, Sudan December 25, 2019. Picture taken December 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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Sudan has made yet another historic step forward in the past few days. On Saturday, the government approved a draft law to criminilise female genital mutilation and on Monday, Khartoum officially appointed its first ambassador to the United States in a quarter of a century. Sudan’s choice is Noureddine Sati, a well-known diplomat. His appointment comes after an ongoing strengthening of ties with Washington, culminating in the decision by both countries in December to exchange ambassadors. The US is yet to nominate its own chief diplomat in Khartoum.

American relations with Sudan are warming after decades of tensions under the rule of former dictator Omar Al Bashir. In 1993, Sudan was added to the US government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism as a result of Al Bashir’s support for extremist militant groups.

Al Bashir’s regime had gone so far as providing a safe harbour for Al Qaeda’s late leader Osama Bin Laden. The designation made it impossible for Khartoum to apply for much-needed financial assistance from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World bank. The terror listing also came with a host of economic sanctions, which were strengthened in 2006 after Al Bashir and his allies led an ethnic cleansing campaign in Sudan’s Darfur region.

In addition to international sanctions, incompetent governance and widespread corruption took a toll on the formerly oil-rich country’s economy. Under Al Bashir, Sudan was  largely a one-man regime where every aspect of life, including the economy, was monopolised by the former leader and his entourage. This left no room for an independent banking sector to flourish or for ordinary Sudanese businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed. According to a report published by The Sentry, a watchdog for financial wrongdoing and war crimes in Africa, Al Bashir’s adopted son ran a complex scheme that allowed him to fund his own business operations using bank loans intended for the central government. The scam left Khartoum with crippling debt.

Sudan’s economic woes led to Al Bashir’s toppling last April. In December 2018, protests erupted in the capital against a sudden hike in the price of bread, fuel and other basic necessities, as well as a corresponding deterioration in living conditions. The protests quickly turned into a full-scale uprising.

In addition to international sanctions, incompetent governance and corruption took a toll on the economy

Today, Khartoum is working towards finding solutions to these pressing issues. Weeding out corruption and preventing pro-Al Bashir networks from reviving their grip on the economy are pivotal steps to building a better future for Sudan. As is opening up the country to the rest of the world, including the restoration of diplomatic ties with the US.

In the meantime, Sudan is in need of financial and humanitarian assistance, especially in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Gulf countries have been major supporters of Khartoum’s political and economic transition, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone pledging $3 billion in aid to the country.

Since Omar Al Bashir’s fall from power one year ago, Sudan has become a beacon for good governance and opportunity. After three decades of ruthless dictatorship, Khartoum cannot turn the page on its dark past overnight, but with its recent efforts the nation may be set to rise from its ashes and inspire the world.