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Sudan - Foreign Relations

During the 1990s, as Sudan sought to steer a nonaligned course, courting Western aid and seeking rapprochement with Arab states, its relations with the US grew increasingly strained. Sudanís ties with countries like North Korea and Libya and its support for regional insurgencies such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Eritrean Islamic Jihad, Ethiopian Islamic Jihad, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Lordís Resistance Army generated great concern about its contribution to regional instability. Allegations of the governmentís complicity in the assassination attempt against the Egyptian President in Ethiopia in 1995 led to UNSC sanctions against Sudan. By the late 1990s, Sudan experienced strained or broken diplomatic relations with most of its neighboring countries. However, since 2000, Sudan actively sought regional rapprochement that rehabilitated most of these relations.

The 1989 coup accelerated the trend in Sudan's foreign policy of turning away from traditional allies, such as Egypt and the United States. This trend had begun following the overthrow of Nimeiri's government in 1985. As prime minister, one of Sadiq al Mahdi's foreign policy objectives was to ease the strain that had characterized relations with Ethiopia, Libya, and the Soviet Union during the latter years of Nimeiri's rule. Nevertheless, the country's need for foreign economic assistance to deal with the consequences of drought and civil war generally curtailed the extent to which foreign relations could be realigned.

The Persian Gulf crisis and subsequent war in 1991 caught Sudan in an awkward position. Although Khartoum's officially stated position was one of neutrality, the unofficial government position was one of sympathy for Iraq, stemming largely from a sense of appreciation for the military assistance Baghdad had provided since 1989. Sudan's failure to join the anti-Iraq coalition infuriated Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by suspending much-needed economic assistance, and Egypt, which responded by providing aid to opponents of the Bashir regime. After the RCC-NS sent the deputy leader of the NIF to the Islamic Conference in Baghdad that Iraqi President Saddam Husayn organized in January 1991, Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Khartoum. The RCC-NS's efforts to maintain close relations with Iraq resulted in Sudan's regional isolation.

Solidarity with other Arab countries has been a feature of Sudanís foreign policy. When the Arab-Israeli war began in June 1967, Sudan declared war on Israel. However, in the early 1970s, Sudan gradually shifted its stance and was supportive of the Camp David Accords.

Sudan's Arab relationships underwent a metamorphosis since the military coup of June 1989. Most Arab states reacted warmly to the ouster of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Since then, this warmth has dissipated as an unenlightened Government of Sudan drifted toward Libya for sustenance. The Government of Sudan has tried to gloss over its peculiar integration plan with Libya by depicting it as a step toward Arab unity. While Southern Sudanese blamed Arab influence for their troubles, Sudan's Arab impulses reflect expediency more than conviction. Other than historical, multifaceted linkages with Egypt, Sudan's Arab ties are largely driven by prospects of jobs and aid, especially donation of key commodities (wheat and oil) and military material.

The relationships tend to be one-sided - Sudan was a willing recipient with little, except rhetoric and its sovereignty in the case of Libya, to offer. Among Arabs, Egypt was most mindful of Sudan with concerns for water resources and stability. Sudanese are drawn to Egypt - as many as a million may live there - and rely on its beneficience but are quick to bridle at perceived meddling. Prime targets for Government of Sudan solicitations were Libya (once receptive), Iraq (once receptive) and Saudi Arabia (disenchanted). Meanwhile large Sudanese communities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE remain key sources for private income and badly needed but declining investment.

Sudan, with its ethnic amalgam stretching South of the Sahara prior to the 2011 independence of South Sudan, did not fit comfortably into the Arab world. To be sure, Arab culture - language, media, the arts, history, manners - permeated Northern Sudanese thinking and behavior, and its influence was evident even among Southerners prone to resist it. Moreover, Sudan's political and military institutions were dominated by members of riverine, eastern and western tribes conventionally classified as Arab. As politics go, however, this Arabist link, introduced by the Egyptians, was in many ways an artificial conception. Sudanese, embroiled in their own national and personal problems, were not emotionally driven by "Arab issues" like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian threat, except as they bear a more direct relationship, e.g. Israel's Ethiopian ties and its alleged links with the SPLA. Religious and racial factors - the historic stain of the Arab slave trade, instances of discrimination, and perceptions of Islamic nonconformity - also distanced Sudanese somewhat from the Arab mainstream.

Notwithstanding ambivalent emotional attachment to the official pronouncements, participates in the innumerable Arab gatherings and highlights its Arab credentials whenever possible to the extent of undertaking airy unity projects. The reason was plainly self-interest. Sudan embraced Arabism because it literally paid to do so. Suffering from an interminable war and economic devastation, Sudan needed the job and aid opportunities that Arab countries could and sometimes did provide.

While Northern Sudanese tended to accept their Arab status as useful, Southerners perceived Arabs as the problem. To Southerners, "Arab" was a pejorative term representing unjust and oppressive behavior. Passing over Sudan's ethnic diversity, traditional rivalries and ideological divisions, they were fond of blaming the Arabs for misrule and inequity. A frequent Southern refrain was that Arabs constituted only a minority, though a plurality, in Sudan, which was probably true. Based on this assumption, prior to independence Southerners argued that their uniting with non-Arab Northerners - such as the Nuba, the Fur, and the Nubians - could resolve Sudan's divisive problems. The improbability of this thesis only underscored its fallacy. Religious, ideological and traditional tribal divisions outweighed the issue of Arab ties. The Fur of Darfur, for example, were more at ease with Arab Muslims than with Southern Christians.

The Arab world, for the most part, looked on Sudan as chronically wayward with self-induced problems. Sudanese were viewed as personable, respectful of authority, and dependable workers abroad but, at home, hopelessly incapable of managing themselves. Exasperation and paternalism were standard Arab responses. Brooding about burdensome and unsafe (the UAE ambassador was nearly assassinated in 1988) living conditions, Arab diplomats in Khartoum uniformly craved early reassignments. Their avoidance of the Western diplomatic circuit was not necessarily indicative of their industry, though some were noticeably uninformed and unproductive - the Egyptians were the most numberous, active, visible and best informed of Arab diplomats. Diplomats from wealthier Arab states also socialized regularly with government officials. However, they were usually asked for more assistance than advice.

Two axioms well defined the state of Sudan's Arab relations before 2011. First, a sense of deja vu prevailed. Irresolute decisionmaking and zigzaging policies characterizing Sadiq al-Mahdi's governments also plagued their military successor pushing Sudan toward international isolation and irrelevance. Sadiq's ouster in June 1989 was welcomed heartily by most Arabs. The former prime minister's incompetent rule, tactless conduct and flirtations with the national Islamic front (NIF) and Iran managed to antagonize practically all Arabs save Libya. These early cheers soured however as the RCC rapidly revealed their own brand of economic mismanagement, inability to compromise for peace and a political agenda which was attractive to Islamic fundamentalists. The regime which began by cold shouldering the Libyans and making overtures to moderate Arabs gradually reverted, because of necessity, to where Sudan's warmest public relationship was again that with Libya.

Second, Sudan's Arab relationships, largely unilateral in terms of tangible economic and military benefits, clearly were more important to Sudan than to its partners. A hierarchy existed among these relationships. On the periphery, with minimal ties to Sudan, were the Mahgreb states (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), peoples of the Levant (Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians) and other non-donor African countries (Somalia, Djibouti, Mauritania). Of greater importance are the small Arabian peninsular states where many Sudanese work. More vital were Saudi Arabia, Gaddafi's Libya and Iraq which were prime targets for aid and employment. Finally, Egypt was in a category of its own.

Since 1983, Sudan's relations with its other African neighbors, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zaire, had been affected by the civil war in the south. These five countries hosted thousands of Sudanese refugees who had fled the fighting and provided various forms of assistance and/or sanctuary to the SPLM and SPLA. As of mid-1991, most of the border area with Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, and Zaire was under SPLM control. The governments of Kenya and Uganda openly supported the SPLM's humanitarian organizations and facilitated the movement of international relief personnel and supplies into southern Sudan. The SPLM's most important foreign supporter, however, was the government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. The Mengistu regime had provided military assistance, including facilities for training, to the SPLA and extensive political backing to the SPLM. In retaliation, Khartoum had allowed Ethiopian rebels to maintain facilities in Sudan, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front at Port Sudan, and the Tigray People's Liberation Front at Al Qadarif.

Sudan delighted in trumpeting its role as a bridge between Africa and the Arab countries. This commendable though unattained ideal overlooks a fundamental problem - Sudan's bridges to both Arabs and Africans are in disrepair. Ironically while Arab relations with the RCC have gradually worsened until they have returned to, or even become worse than, their pre-coup status, general omar has managed, despite continuing conflict with the SPLA and allegations of nif influence, to repair relations with some of his African neighbors including kenya, zaire, and the c.a.r., Damaged by sadiq.

While the specter of pan-Arabism which looms in any discussion of an Arab consensus was reviled by Southern Sudanese, broad Arab collaboration today, interestingly enough, was not inimical to Southern interests or to those of the u.s. With the regrettable exception of Libya, Arab nations with connections to Sudan want peace, stability and economic reform in Sudan. They recognize the necessity of, and their leaders have encouraged, compromise on sharia, adjustment of policies to broaden Government of Sudan political appeal, and cooperation with the imf for real economic reform. Mending its Arab bridges may well prove a key to improving Sudan's fortunes.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 17:57:48 ZULU