US and Sudan to appoint ambassadors, ending a 23-year diplomatic absence

The move comes as the new prime minister visits Washington on an effort to end status as a state sponsor of terrorism

Sudan and the United States agreed to upgrade their diplomatic relations by appointing ambassadors for the first time in 23 years, as America seeks to support Khartoum’s transition to democratic rule.

The move is a significant step towards Sudan’s return to the international fold after years out in the cold under Omar Al Bashir. But the country’s biggest and most sought-after foreign policy prize – the US removing it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism – remains elusive.

The announcement late on Wednesday that ambassadors would return to the capitals of the two countries came as Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a longtime UN economist, visited Washington for the first time since his appointment in August.

He is there enlisting support for the country’s transition to democratic rule after the removal in April of Mr Al Bashir’s 29-year authoritarian regime.

“This decision is a meaningful step forward in strengthening the US-Sudan relationship, particularly as the civilian-led transitional government works to implement the vast reforms under the political agreement and constitutional declaration,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Sudan and the United States first established diplomatic relations in 1956, the year the vast Afro-Arab nation won its independence from Egyptian-British rule. Sudan severed diplomatic ties with Washington in 1967 to protest against US support for Israel during the Arab-Israeli war. Relations were restored five years later, but Washington closed its embassy in 1996 in response to terrorist threats. It was reopened in 2002, but has since been led by a charge d’affaires, not an ambassador.

Washington designated the country as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 because of its ties to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan for years.

Mr Hamdok has been tirelessly emphasising the point that Sudan would not qualify for desperately needed support by international economic agencies while its terrorism-sponsoring designation remains.

US administration officials said Sudan was making progress in meeting the criteria for removal but had not met all conditions, according to The Associated Press.

In comments made in Washington, Mr Hamdok said removing Sudan’s name from the list of state sponsors of terrorism was the key to resolving a host of other issues.

“We have inherited a total foreign debt of about $60 billion (Dh220.38bn) and we cannot restructure that debt before we are delisted first,” he said.

Mohamed Salem of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs said: “Sudan’s transitional government needs to settle several carry-over issues and bring about accountability for past actions.” He alluded to crimes against civilians by security forces and allied militiamen during operations in the 2000s against rebels in the western Darfur region.

Mr Al Bashir and several aides were indicted nearly a decade ago by the International Criminal Court for its actions in Darfur, where the conflict killed 300,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

In a recently published paper, Atlantic Council Sudan expert Cameron Hudson wrote that while Sudan is no longer sponsoring terrorism, the ongoing presence of militants within the ranks of the country’s main security agency was one of the issues that still needed to be resolved.

He also cited the presence of foreign terrorist and rebel groups from neighbouring countries as well as activity on Sudanese territory by arms smugglers and human traffickers, as well as Khartoum’s links to Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

“Returning with the Trump administration’s confidence and a clear understanding of what the Sudanese government needs to do to unwind the web of sanctions that is choking Sudan’s economy would be a big win,” Mr Hudson wrote on Tuesday.