Sudan is under pressure from Washington and Abu Dhabi to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for being removed from the US list of sponsors of terror that has hampered Khartoum’s ability to attract the economic investment and aid it desperately needs.
Many observers have condemned Washington’s approach and asserted that it hinders the current transitional process in Sudan brought about by the fall of long-time President Omar Al-Bashir. Moreover, critics suggest that Trump is compromising Sudan’s future for the sake of short-term electoral gains as he seeks to present the sudden rush of Arab normalization with Israel as an historic achievement that could only have been achieved by his “unique” administration.
However, the reality is that the focus on Trump has produced a simplistic narrative whereby the US is now perceived as the hinderance to a democratic transition in Sudan as opposed to the facilitator of change that US officials and Congress on both sides of the aisle believe to be the actual truth of the matter.
There are three conflicting narratives over what is taking place in Sudan.
There are three conflicting narratives over what is taking place in Sudan. Each present their own challenges and have their own wide-reaching implications over international policy towards the political, economic, and social changes taking place in Sudan.
The first narrative is that Omar Al-Bashir was brought down by a belated and revived Arab Spring movement and that Sudan is now undergoing the beginnings of a democratic transition. It is in this context that the US is being seen as the obstacle to democracy by imposing difficult conditions on Khartoum such as normalizing ties with Israel (a condition that the US has not forced other allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to do).
The second narrative is that Omar Al-Bashir fell by a coup orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia in liaison with Intelligence Chief Salah Gosh, who was disgruntled that Al-Bashir had squandered his plans for power by plotting to run again in elections despite promising to stand aside.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in the immediate aftermath lauded its own involvement, while the UAE became heavily involved in negotiations between the parties that resulted in the subsequent exclusion of the Islamists and a transitional Parliament dominated by opposition parties who collectively agreed not to hold immediate elections. It is in this context of being seen as the powerbroker that brought about the current government in Khartoum, that the UAE operates as agent between Sudan and Israel, and Sudan and Washington.
The third narrative is one that is prevalent amongst Washington officials both in the Republican and Democrat parties, which is that Omar Al-Bashir was brought down by US pressure in the form of sanctions and its listing as a state sponsor of terror that squeezed the economy and facilitated regime change.
Washington sees itself as the architect of the changes taking place in Khartoum and therefore believes itself entitled to dictate the conditions of Sudan’s “surrender.”
In other words, Washington sees itself as the architect of the changes taking place in Khartoum and therefore believes itself entitled to dictate the conditions of Sudan’s “surrender” to the terms of its reintegration into the international community. In this case, Trump is asserting normalization of ties with Israel while Congress insists the terms should be the payment of compensation to the US as an admission of being a state sponsor of terror.
The reality is that the truth lies more in a mix of the three narratives than in any one single and simplistic approach to Sudan’s complex landscape. However, what matters to Washington is not which narrative is correct, but the fact that the Sudanese events did not produce a cohesive government that might claim a popular mandate—as occurred in Tunisia or Egypt in the immediate aftermath of their revolution—that might leverage the power of the people in any negotiations over financial aid and assistance.
Instead, a negotiated government between the army and opposition created an unelected entity whose survival depends on bringing about an improvement in the dire economic conditions that drove people to the streets in the first place. In other words, Washington is well aware that popular support for the government is contingent on the state of the domestic economy which faith is firmly in the control of the US administration and Congress, and not Khartoum.
If the US does not remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, it will be the transitional government of Khartoum that will face the wrath of the people, and the next government that takes its place will still find itself in the same conundrum of having to face an angry populace frustrated with the entire political spectrum (opposition included) and therefore forced to re-negotiate with Washington for relief.
Khartoum’s problems are compounded in that Trump is imposing a new condition that threatens to overshadow any benefits that might come from its financial aid and assistance. The Palestine issue is considered sacred in Sudan which has supported the cause not only politically and diplomatically, but also logistically and militarily, with many Sudanese proudly arguing that this was one of the reasons why they were sanctioned in the first place. Where the government in Khartoum is seeking financial aid to shore up an economy to ease simmering public anger and discontent, the normalization of ties with Israel threatens to unleash that very public anger it is seeking to appease.
However, the government’s problems do not end there. Even if it accepts the condition of normalizing ties, there is still no guarantee that Sudan will be removed from the list of state sponsors of terror. Congress has expressed its dismay that Trump might set aside its condition for compensation, leading to fears in Sudan that the US President may well not be able to fulfil his end of the bargain while the government in Khartoum will end up being left in the cold, condemned domestically and by the wider Muslim World as having committed the ultimate betrayal.
The question that needs to be asked is why Sudan is unable to turn to alternatives.
The question that needs to be asked, however, is why Sudan is unable to turn to alternatives. As an ally of the UAE, why is Abdel Fattah Burhan unable to secure financial assistance from Abu Dhabi? Or lobby Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait? Why can he not go to Qatar?
The reality is that Sudan is in an awkward position whereby it has become a bargaining chip for wider UAE ambitions. Abu Dhabi is disinclined to offer the required finances while it can leverage Khartoum to win greater influence in the White House. Saudi Arabia is struggling with its own economy. Qatar does not want to sponsor what it sees as a UAE proxy, while Kuwait is wary not to irk an increasingly aggressive US administration that is exerting greater pressure in recent times on its allies to spend more resources in exchange for US protection.
Trump is able to impose his conditions on Sudan because he can. After all, what is taking place in Sudan, he believes, is the result of a patient US policy that has squeezed the country and brought down the Islamist regime. The Islamists are isolated, and measures are taking place to remove Islamic laws from the constitution and the state that originally led to Sudan’s gradual isolation in the first place in the 1980s under Numeiri and Suwar al-Dhahab after him.
Nevertheless, in Sudan, the new army-dominated administration fears a domestic population that, if offered elections, would vote for another Islamist or at least “Islam-leaning” government in a similar fashion to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt in the aftermath of their own popular uprisings. Not to mention that an elected administration would threaten the ability of the army to assert itself and lessen its control. Therefore, the military in the transitional government is disinclined to gamble on securing a popular mandate even if that might improve its leverage internationally.
In the meantime, Sudan’s economy continues to nosedive as conditions are now much worse than they were pre-uprising.
For Khartoum, the mood among officials is one of incredulous shock. They knew they would have to accept tough conditions and were prepared to do so. However, they did not anticipate the one Trump is now presenting to them, that threatens to ostracize Sudanese officials from their own people in a manner no economic assistance can reverse.