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Sudan Isolation Ends: US Sanctions Lifted, Relations with Saudi Arabia Normalized

sudan isolation Bashir al-Omar Marwa air base
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir greets soldiers during the joint Sudanese and Saudi air force drills at the Marwa air base, nearby Khartoum, Sudan, 9 April 2017. Photo Ebrahim Hamid

After nearly 20 years, President Barack Obama announced on 13 January 2017, days before leaving office, that the United States (US) government will lift trade sanctions against Sudan. Two months later, Sudan and Saudi Arabia held joint air force drills at Merowe Air Base in northern Sudan, the first such exercises since Sudan severed ties with Iran in 2015.

Sudan has been one of the most isolated and most violent countries in Africa since President Omar al-Bashir seized power in June 1989. In the years since, the United Nations (UN) has adopted scores of resolutions against the country, including a resolution by the International Criminal Court indicting President al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide and a number of his senior and junior aides for committing war crimes. An arrest warrant for al-Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009.

With the lifting of American sanctions, Sudan will, for the first time since the 1990s, be able to trade with the US, allowing it to buy much-needed equipment and spare parts and to attract investment to its collapsing economy. In return, Sudan has agreed to improve access for aid groups, stop supporting rebels in neighbouring South Sudan, cease the bombing of insurgent territory and cooperate with American intelligence agents.

Ongoing US Pressure

Sudanese-US relations worsened dramatically a year after al-Bashir took power, primarily because Khartoum supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Relations continued to deteriorate when Sudan adopted radical internal and external Islamist policies. The country was also accused of sponsoring international terrorism. In the mid-1990s, former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived in the capital Khartoum as a guest of Sudan’s government.

US sanctions were first imposed in November 1997, when former President George W. Bush froze Sudanese assets in the US, banned the export of technology to Sudan and prohibited American companies from investing there. In 1998, Bin Laden’s agents blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered American forces to bomb a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum that was allegedly used to make chemical weapons.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Khartoum felt the repercussions of showing hostility toward the US and consequently signed a cooperation agreement on combatting terrorism. However, America continued to pressure on Khartoum. In 2002, the US Congress passed the Sudan Peace Act to link US sanctions with the progress of negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). In 2006, the US Congress imposed additional sanctions against ‘Sudanese individuals responsible for committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity’. These sanctions are renewed annually.

Why did the US lift Sanctions?

The Sudanese government welcomed the US decision to lift trade sanctions, although other US political and economic sanctions remain in place. Neither does the decision remove Sudan from the American government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

However, the Obama administration was clearly trying to open a door to Sudan. US officials cited evidence of a new cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, including permission from the Sudanese government for American operatives to visit a restricted border area near Libya, as well as measures to reduce illegal immigration to Europe and the arrest of suspected human traffickers.

Since 2012, the Obama administration has judged that the sanctions ‘no longer serve US interests, that the Chinese expansion in Sudan is growing at the expense of the United States’ and its interests in the Horn of Africa. The US expressed concerns about Sudan’s growing reliance on China, which began to invest in Sudan and buy oil in the 1990s, especially after the US oil company Chevron withdrew. Since 75 per cent of oil production went to South Sudan after the country became independent in 2011, Sudan and China have sought other means of cooperation, including investment in agriculture, energy and mining.

Moreover, the unrest that followed the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq has harmed US strategic interests in the region and allowed for the growth of radical, fundamentalist and terrorist movements. The US realized that the fall of the regime in Khartoum could lead to chaos and instability across East Africa, and that it would be better to engage with the regime rather than punish it.

However, observers believe that there are other reasons why the sanctions were lifted. One is that sanctions have very limited political impact. In January 2016, the US was one of the United Nations Security Council member states that conducted studies and reviews of the applicable sanction systems, and concluded that imposing sanctions against 16 states over the past two decades had played only a small role in promoting international peace and security.

Historic Breakthrough

The renewed ties between Sudan and Saudi Arabia are equally significant. Saudi-Sudanese relations deteriorated for almost the same reasons that Sudanese-US relations soured: Sudan’s support for Iraq in the First Gulf War; radical policies that embraced moderate and hardline anti-Saudi Islamist movements; and close links with Iran, a country that Saudi Arabia views with suspicion, which included allowing Iranian cultural centres to open in Sudan, and sending students to study in Iran.

Relations between the two countries, which face each other across the Red Sea, hit a low on 4 August 2013, when Saudi authorities banned al-Bashir’s plane from using Saudi airspace to fly to Iran to attend the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani.

So, how did these troubled relations lead to with understanding, reconciliation and cooperation?

Local and Regional Transformations

Several local and regional circumstances have encouraged Sudan and Saudi Arabia to consider mending bridges. For Khartoum, growing economic difficulties prompted it to consider new options. The repercussions of the international embargo on Sudan were sharply felt, especially after the oil resources from South Sudan were cut off. Following the civil war in 2015, South Sudan stopped paying revenues to Khartoum in return for allowing oil to be exported through Sudan’s ports. The tensions between Sudan and Saudi Arabia also deprived the former of generous Saudi financial assistance and effectively cut off the rest of the Gulf region. Moreover, Saudi banks were the only avenues for Sudanese foreign trade, after US and European banks refused to deal with the country.

Saudi Arabia has also experienced changes in its political priorities since King Salman bin Abdulaziz assumed power on 23 January 2015. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has adopted a foreign policy that diverges considerably from that of his late uncle, former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. After overhauling the Saudi National Guard, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015, a military intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Sudan’s participation in the intervention led to a remarkable improvement in the relationship between Riyadh and Khartoum, whose first soldiers arrived in Aden, a Yemen port city, in October 2015.

The relationship has been further strengthened since Sudan severed ties with Tehran. Al-Bashir made an official visit to the Saudi capital on 23 January, ten days after the US trade sanctions were lifted, and met with the king and the deputy crown prince. Sudanese officials said that the Saudis had played a role in getting the sanctions lifted.

Military Cooperation

Improved diplomatic relations between the two countries have helped to alleviate the political and economic pressures facing Sudan. Large Saudi investments in the country have already started, and the Sudanese government has received significant financial assistance from Saudi Arabia. Relations with other rich Gulf states have improved as well.

The joint military exercises at the Merowe Airbase between 29 March and 14 April 2017 are a clear manifestation of improvement in bilateral ties. The exercises, which involved hundreds of air force personnel, are aimed at improving the operational capacities of the two air forces, exchanging military expertise and increasing efficiency and combat readiness, according to sources from the two countries.

Sudan participated with more than two dozen fighter planes, including MiG-29s and Sukhoi jets. Saudi Arabia deployed F-15s and Typhoon FGR4s. The two countries had previously conducted joint naval exercises codenamed ‘al-Falak’ in the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait on 19 January 2017. The aim on that occasion was to prepare for an offensive or terrorist act that could obstruct international shipping in the strait, which overlooks Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea.

Despite the internal challenges Sudan continues to face, including ongoing violence in Darfur, these recent events signal an end to the country’s long isolation and the prospect of stability in a region that is in constant flux.