Donald Trump's decision to delay for another three months the lifting of sanctions imposed on Sudan was, by all accounts, greeted in Khartoum with "complete shock". Sudanese officials were caught off guard, especially as the US had given "firm" assurances that the sanctions would be lifted following intelligence reports that Khartoum's actions had been "extremely positive".
The announcement last Tuesday evening was too late for Sudan's national daily newspapers to echo the verdict in their early morning editions, but by the following morning most dailies reflected President Omar Al-Bashir's robust official response that Sudan had suspended talks with Washington over sanctions relief. However, it appears that the message was for local consumption only, because the Foreign Ministry, when pressed, confirmed that Sudan would continue to cooperate and hold a dialogue with the United States "as usual".
In the immediate aftermath, questions about the real reasons behind the delay have begun to emerge. Few within the Sudanese government give credence to Washington's official explanation as reflected by President Trump: "I have decided more time is needed for this review to establish that the government of Sudan has demonstrated sufficient positive action across all of those areas."
After all, the US attaché in Khartoum has visited the Darfur conflict area, the United Nations was scaling back the peacekeeping force in the area and the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in Darfur was again renewed by Khartoum weeks before the expected lifting of sanctions. Sudanese officials took every opportunity to declare that the conditions under the 5-point plan had all been met satisfactorily and Washington has made no attempt to contradict their assurances.
However, there were credible reports in some media outlets, including Britain's Guardian newspaper, suggesting that the delay was due to the failure of the Trump administration to provide staff to review the decision. According to Cameron Hudson, a former senior State Department and White House official, "The administration is still getting up to speed. There are no political appointees managing the Africa portfolio; they just don't have the team in place to make that informed decision."
The cross-party intervention by 53 US Senators is also understood to have tipped the scales away from the decision that Sudan was looking for. In a collective letter to the president, the senators argued that the administration should use a more expansive set of criteria and review Sudan's human rights record too. "Should the US allow sanctions relief to become permanent in July," they warned, "we are deeply concerned that Sudan will continue to expand its financial and logistical support to illegal armed groups on the African Continent – something that certainly represents a threat to our national security and interests on that continent."
Speaking to MEMO, a diplomatic source said that Sudan's human rights record and the treatment of Christian minorities did not outweigh the "central decision" to extend the sanctions deadline which he believed was more to do with the new Trump era and putting America first. "By lifting the sanctions without trade and business deals favourable to the United States, the administration would be lifting the embargo for other countries to benefit; the US did not want to commit to a 'something for nothing' policy," the source explained.
The same source pointed to the fact that the US is backing Sudan's bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and has approved its inclusion in the international credit guarantee system, but that there were no agreements that would see the US re-establish itself as a major player in the region. Last week, Sudan's delegation dealing with its efforts to join the WTO held meetings in Geneva within the framework of the fourth round of the Negotiating Working Group (11-14 July).
The United States used to have a large stake in the burgeoning Sudanese oil industry and American shipping companies dominated trade in Sudan's Red Sea territorial waters. Sanctions have pushed US companies to the margins, though, and Washington has been forced to watch the Chinese, Malaysians and now the Gulf countries make billion-dollar investments in agriculture, major infrastructure projects and military procurements.
MEMO's diplomatic source said that he believes that Washington will also make the way clear for Sudan to be removed from the list of states sponsoring terror so that sanctions that included arms embargos can be removed. "The aim is to make Sudan more compliant to the strategic policies of the United States and that's why the reference to cutting ties with North Korea has also been made conditional to lifting the embargo."
Sudan has allegedly done weapons deals with North Korea, but late last year Khartoum confirmed that it had severed all military ties with the Kim Jong-un government.
Sudan's diplomatic approach in the forthcoming weeks could be crucial in paving the way for sanctions relief or taking the nation back to its days of isolation from the international community. In the face of declining share prices and the fall of the US dollar — which reached a record low of 20 Sudanese pounds on the streets of Khartoum — the speaker of the Sudanese Parliament, Ibrahim Ahmed Omar, warned against escalating unfavourable rhetoric against the US. The parliament in Khartoum, he said, should "keep away from reactionary politics" when dealing with the issue.
Share prices of Sudanese companies listed on the UAE capital markets fell sharply during trading last Wednesday in the wake of the US decision. According to Turkey's Anadolu Agency, the share price of the Sudanese Al-Salam Bank listed on the Dubai Financial Market (DFM) has declined by 3.85 per cent, topping the list of the losing stocks; the share price of the Sudatel Telecom Group (STG) listed on Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX), meanwhile, has dropped by 3.64 per cent.
A week after Washington dashed Khartoum's hopes of a return to the world's international financial community, the feeling in Sudan is that things could have been worse, but the frustrations continue as the economic conditions in the country decline and the "climate of doubt" continues to loom over the beleaguered nation. The future is uncertain, but it is clear that Khartoum will have to jump through a few more American hoops to get sanctions lifted permanently.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.