When US President Donald Trump announced on 24 October that Sudan had agreed to normalise ties with Israel he surprised few observers in the region. In February, Sudan’s transitional leader, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, met secretly with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in the home of the Ugandan president in Entebbe. That was the first step in normalisation, no matter how much it was denied at the time.
In that meeting, Netanyahu wanted one thing and he got it; Sudan’s agreement to open its airspace for use by commercial flights from Israel to South America. That move helped the airlines reduce costs and flight time from Tel Aviv to most destinations across the continent. Khartoum got nothing in return. Instead it is being asked to give even more.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got the message that Sudan was almost ready to give in to normalisation if the right incentive was provided by Washington. That turned out to be removal from America’s list of alleged State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST). This is a US foreign policy tool for carrot and stick diplomacy. It brings together different US sanction laws designed to pressure foreign governments if and when the US is not happy with them for whatever reason. Created in the late 1970s, the SST became synonymous with war. Countries like Syria, Iran and Cuba have been on it for decades.
Once a country is listed — the stick — it automatically becomes a target for all sorts of US sanctions, particularly economic boycotts and asset freezes. America has been doing this for decades with total disregard for international law. De-listing any country — the carrot — is a process requiring it to give in to US demands even when they serve little or no US national interest. The case of Sudan is a very clear example.
Pompeo visited Khartoum in August, where he met Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and dangled the prospect of de-listing in exchange for establishing ties with Israel. He was rebuffed at first, as Hamdok tried to distance himself from the idea. Faced with local and regional negativity and a media frenzy he said that normalisation with Israel will need a “deep debate” in Sudan. That debate did not happen, but normalisation is now a reality.
However, Hamdok does not have the final say in his country’s foreign relations, despite being the prime minister. The military-civilian power sharing structure that took over following the ousting of President Omar Al-Bashir rests such decisions with the generals. It was thus General Al-Burhan who decided that normalisation with Israel was right for Sudan.
When the Trump-Netanyahu-Hamdok phone call announced the normalisation deal from the Oval Office, an enthusiastic Sudanese Prime Minister tweeted and expressed his hope that “de-listing” Khartoum would be forthcoming. The process is not complete yet, though, and awaits Congress approval, which might not come without a price.
Like Bahrain before it, Sudan was announced to be the latest Arab country to be joining the “Abraham Accords” as the normalisations are being called. Nothing was negotiated, almost as if Sudan is a minor and the UAE is its guardian who knows what is best for the country and its people.For all sorts of practical reasons Sudan should have let negotiations with the US and Israel run their course before taking such a step. The UAE might have signed up to “peace” with Israel to show off and send a message to Iran, but Sudan needed more than bragging rights.
In fact, it was already committed to paying $335 million to compensate victims and their families of attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 for which responsibility was claimed by Al-Qaeda. Some might think this is a separate issue and Sudan is liable. It may well be, but the settlement of outstanding issues in international relations requires a holistic approach and negotiations tend to be comprehensive to ensure that all files are closed. This is particularly so when, as in Sudan’s case, not a single Sudanese citizen was implicated in the attacks and Khartoum’s only role was to be hosting Osama Bin Laden at the time.
If that somehow makes Sudan complicit in the attacks and thus liable to pay compensation, then it is worth remembering that Bin Laden was backed by the CIA when he was fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Unlike Washington, we haven’t forgotten that. And despite everything that he was accused of, the US did not request Interpol to issue a “red notice” for Bin Laden until 1998.
Al-Burhan’s close ties to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Zayed certainly played a decisive part in Sudan’s normalisation deal, if not by example then at least by promising funds. Cairo wanted to demonstrate its decades-old normalisation with Israel, while Abu Dhabi wanted more supporters in the endeavour.
The Sudanese authorities should have, at the very least, demanded the right price for such a sell-out. Instead, they are repeating what former President Jaafar Nimiery did in the 1980s, when he allowed the smuggling to Israel of the Ethiopian Falashas through Khartoum in return for cash. “Operation Moses”, as the smuggling of thousands of Ethiopian Jews was called, was also a plan hatched and supported by Washington as a favour to Israel in which the US had no real national interest whatsoever.
Sudan’s economy is in a dire situation, and the Covid-19 pandemic and recent floods have made things even worse. The country suffers from high unemployment, widespread poverty and economic mismanagement. Removing it from the notorious SST list is crucial if it is to access international financial institutions controlled in all but name by the US. Skilful negotiators could have turned Sudan’s difficulties into strengths, but the Khartoum junta didn’t want to know.
Since 1967, Khartoum has symbolised the Palestinian and Arab resistance against Israel’s occupation. That’s when the Arab heads of state concluded their summit in the city by declaring the Three Noes: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Sudan was weak then and is probably weaker now, but that does not justify what has been done. It has exchanged the cherished Noes for one big “Yes” for absolutely nothing in return, and the ill-informed Khartoum junta is to blame for such a strategic blunder.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.