For more than five years the British government have been waiting for the right moment to reengage commercially with Sudan, its former colony. The hope, in the corridors of the Foreign and Commonwealth office (FCO), was that the lifting of US economic sanctions, which took place officially on 12th October 2017, would allow the British to position themselves "first in the cue" to capitalise on investment opportunities and perhaps to wield political and economic influence in Sudan.
The UK Ambassador to Sudan, Michael Aroun, who took up his appointment in 2015, prior to the lifting of sanctions was reported to be going out his way to meet and engage with Sudanese government and opposition leaders to smooth the way forward for British businesses to reestablish a foothold in Sudan.
Media reports also claimed the British Embassy has sent out e-mails to ask for Sudanese businesses to pitch projects for British government and private business funding once the sanctions had been lifted. Reports also said that there was a keenness by Sudan to strike deals that would protect Sudanese sovereignty like the oil deals struck with major investors that allowed infrastructural projects to operate on a "Buy, Operate and Transfer (BOT)" basis: agreements that allow for rights of investment and a time-linked payback of debt and provide maintenance and training contract that would allow Sudan to operate and own its investments on a long-term basis.
Despite Sudanese concerns, Aroun appears to be following a directive of the British government that, in 2010 expressed a willingness to become "candid friends" with Sudan to boost trade and business ties. This, despite Sudan's international reputation, tarnished by the protracted civil war in Darfur, its continued inclusion in the US state sponsor of terror list and the arrest warrant issued by the ICC for Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir, the UK government said it continues to believe that there is "no contradiction" between supporting the ICC, advocating for peace in Darfur and its desire for "commercial rapprochement" with Khartoum.
Last year, Britain's enthusiasm to kick start the trade relationship with countries outside Europe, was given renewed impetus when the UK voted by 52% on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union. A few months later in October 2016, as part of the Sudan-UK Strategic Dialogue initiative, a Sudanese delegation visited the UK and in January 2017, UK FCO's Undersecretary Sir Simon McDonald visited Sudan's capital Khartoum and the Darfur conflict area. In the latest round of events post the lifting of US sanctions, the first global UK-Sudan Trade and Investment Forum was held on 12 December 2017 in London. Although the event was privately organized, Sudanese ministers for Foreign Affairs, Mining and Agriculture and members of the UK government were at hand at the forum to exchange information on Sudan's latest developments and investment opportunities.
On the same day, Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Minister held private talks with his Sudanese counterpart, Ibrahim Ghandour, the first such direct meeting between the two men since Johnson took office. The usual post meeting statement quoting improving bilateral relations was released by Sudan but the UK foreign minister's twitter account referred to a "Constructive meeting (that), raised ongoing UK concerns over human rights and political & economic reforms which Sudan so desperately needs." However, sources close to the Sudanese government told MEMO that the meeting was successful and that there was a lingering confidence that several signed agreements for trade cooperation would be signed on or before the next joint strategic meeting in the new year, but obstacles such as rules obstructing trading with countries that have a high debt burden ratio had to be overcome.
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The forum and Ghandour's visit drew a great deal of interest in the UK House of Lords with many peers expressing enthusiasm and others' reservations about the prospect of trade with Sudan. Conservative Peer, Lord Sheikh, who chairs the All-Parliamentary Group of Sudan, tabled a question to the government in which he said in the light of Brexit and the removal of US sanctions he hoped Sudan would be considered as a "valuable trade" partner.
However, the forum also attracted sharp criticism from the leader of Britain's Green Party, Caroline Lucas, who described the event as a reversal of government policy. In a letter addressed to the UK Foreign Secretary, published in the Guardian newspaper, Lucas wrote, "Previously the government has made it clear that it doesn't pursue pro-active trade opportunities with Sudan (but)… looking at the agenda it appears to have left that policy behind. This sends out really dangerous signals in terms of giving the impression Sudan has reformed itself and is a partner in negotiations."
UK domestic opposition to Britain's strengthening trade ties with Sudan seems to have gained momentum since Britain's opposition Labour Party rejected the applications of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Sudan to attend its annual National Conference last September. Labour leader Corbyn's ban on Sudan's participation was in keeping with his long-time campaigning against human rights violations and his party's stance over the war in Sudan's Western region of Darfur. In previous conferences activists, including the murdered MP Jo Cox, had strongly condemned the alleged human rights abuses in Sudan. The rejection resulted in the Arab League rescinding its participation in the party conference.
Attempts to avoid criticism of Britain's links with Sudan does not appear to have stopped London's or Khartoum's desire to forge ahead with plans to set up major trade deals in the new year. It appears that the UK takes the view that working with, rather than isolating, Sudan is a more constructive strategy to achieving improvements in human rights and religious freedom. It also seems that Sudan takes the view that encouraging billions of pounds in trade investment should not lead to swathes of Sudanese territory or its economy being unduly influence or dominated by an outside power.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.