Signs of a thaw in US-Sudan relations

Saturday September 5 2015

A Sudanese worker fills bags with pieces of gum

A Sudanese worker fills bags with pieces of gum Arabic at a factory 20 km north of Khartoum on June 24, 2008. Sudan is the world’s leading producer of the food ingredient. PHOTO | AFP 

By KEVIN J KELLEY, TEA Special Correspondent

The Obama administration appears to be seeking a thaw in the USA’s long-frozen relationship with Sudan.

Having normalised diplomatic relations with Cuba and struck a nuclear deal with Iran, the US president may be aiming to also ease tensions with an antagonist in East Africa prior to leaving the White House in 16 months.

A shift to more business-like dealings between Washington and Khartoum could have major repercussions inside Sudan. Not only would the country’s economy be likely to benefit from a phase-out of a nearly 20-year-long US trade embargo, internal conflicts may move closer to political resolution due to conditions the US would probably require Sudanese authorities to meet as part of a “reset” of relations.

A US special envoy’s recent round of meetings with senior officials in Khartoum seemed to signal closer bilateral engagement.

Donald Booth, the State Department’s point-man for Sudan and South Sudan, said a “full range of issues” had been discussed, including the need for an open national political dialogue to address the root causes of Sudan’s persistent internal conflicts.”

US sanctions, which Sudan has long urged be lifted, were also on the agenda of Mr Booth’s talks with Sudan’s foreign minister, finance minister and first vice-president.

“Ways of utilising the important sanctions exemptions that have been granted for the benefit of the Sudanese people were discussed as well,” the US special envoy said in a statement.

Sudan wants to take advantage of the provision in Washington’s regime that allows the sale of gum arabic. And the Obama administration appears eager to facilitate higher-volume imports of gum arabic from Sudan, the world’s leading producer.

Regulators in Washington cleared the way in 2013 for expanded use of the commodity by US food and beverage companies.

Some analysts see special significance in Mr Booth’s reference to “sanctions exemptions,” which they take as a sign of a more co-operative US approach.

Advocates of improved bilateral ties also point out that Mr Booth refrained from explicit criticism of Sudan’s policies and expressed his “hope to return to Sudan to advance our dialogue on issues of mutual interest and concern.”

The two sides further considered Sudan’s debt burden, regional security issues and the violence in South Sudan and Libya.

But progress toward normal relations will remain hard to achieve, however, due to Sudan President Omar al-Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, on charges of war crimes and genocide. And that obstacle to detente will become even more daunting if President Bashir seeks to travel to New York later this month to take part in the United Nations General Assembly debates.

A State Department spokesman recently implied that President Bashir will not be welcome on US soil.

“Warrants for his arrest remain outstanding, and we strongly support the ICC’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for those acts,” spokesman Mark Toner declared.

At the same time, however, the US is obliged by an agreement covering its status as UN host nation to permit all heads of state to travel to UN’s headquarters. Washington has never denied entry to any national leader seeking to speak at the UN.