On Tuesday US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first high ranking US official to visit Khartoum in three decades. The visit comes against the backdrop of what Sudanese and American officials have recently qualified as serious progress towards removing Sudan from the US list of countries harbouring terrorism, a major foreign policy goal of the transitional government that last year took over from the military-Islamist regime of Omar Al-Bashir.
“Great to be in Khartoum for meetings with the civilian-led transitional government,” Pompeo tweeted after arriving in Sudan. “The democratic transition underway is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the people of Sudan. Looking forward to discussing how to deepen the US-Sudan relationship.”
In Khartoum Pompeo met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the Chair of the Sudan Transitional Council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan.
In the words of one Sudanese diplomat, Pompeo’s visit is the clearest indication yet that Sudan is being welcomed back into the international fold. He added that the US is pressing
Khartoum to move towards normalising relations with Israel as part of a package that would see it taken off the terrorism list.
In a press statement issued following the talks between Pompeo and Hamdok, an official government spokesman said Hamdok had told the US top diplomat that such a decision could not be taken by a transitional government. According to a Khartoum-based political source, it is also likely that Hamdok told the US secretary of state that any decision to normalise relations with Israel would place him in a difficult position with a number of political forces, not least the Freedom and Change Movement.
“It will happen sooner or later. The entire Arab world is, after all, inching towards normalisation with Israel. But the situation in Sudan is complex, and the decision has to be taken at the right moment if it is to serve our interests,” says the Sudanese diplomat.
Two weeks ago the US administration hailed the announcement of normalising relations between Israel and the UAE. Top US officials, including President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner, insisted at the time that other Arab states were poised to do the same within a matter of weeks.
The Sudanese diplomat said Khartoum is aware that Trump wants to score as many political victories for Israel as possible to secure maximum support from the Jewish lobby in the US ahead of the presidential elections in November.
According to a Washington-based diplomatic source, Khartoum, like a number of other Arab capitals that remain hesitant about going public with their normalisation plans, has agreed in principle to attend the meeting US and Bahrain are working on holding next month, possibly in Manama, so Israeli and Arab officials can explore different avenues towards normalisation.
This meeting, “if it finally happens, will be attended by at least 10 Arab states,” including Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, the three Arab countries that currently have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Attendance may well be the most Khartoum can offer at the moment, according to the Sudanese diplomat.
Earlier this week the spokesman for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry lost his job after saying normalisation with Israel was around the corner. He added that Sudan was the most important country in the Arab world for Israel to have diplomatic relations with, “even more important than Egypt, despite Egypt’s obvious significance.”
Egypt, according to officials, is “all for” encouraging Sudan to move towards normalising ties with Israel. They say that over the last 12 months several senior Egyptian officials have raised the matter with their Sudanese counterparts. Cairo, according to the same sources, likes to take credit, along with Israel and the US, for having helped persuade Sudan to allow Israeli flights to use its airspace.
“Egypt is actually hoping to create a strategic partnership with Sudan that has a bilateral element but also allows for wider avenues for cooperation with other countries, including Nile Basin states,” one Egyptian official said. He added that Sudan had “shown interest but has still to commit”.
Cairo has worked hard to secure closer coordination with Sudan on managing negotiations with Ethiopia over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile. It is still working to consolidate the coordination, with varied degrees of success.
According to a Cairo-based European diplomat, Egypt is not always notified by Khartoum about its communications with Addis Ababa. Speaking on Tuesday, the diplomat said Cairo was still waiting to hear from Hamdok about the outcome of his talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who visited the Sudanese capital earlier the same day to discuss the stalled three-way negotiations on GERD that are being sponsored by South Africa, the current chair of the African Union.
According to another Egyptian official, Cairo understands that Sudan is unwilling to close the door on any potential regional or international partner that can help it make progress after the economic devastation wreaked over the decades by Al-Bashir.
Earlier this month, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli visited Khartoum with a large ministerial delegation in a bid to explore avenues for bilateral cooperation, and the Egyptian ministries of health, higher education and transport are engaged in talks with their Sudanese counterparts to cement agreements mooted in the Madbouli-Hamdok talks.
Some are proving elusive. It is taking longer than expected to finalise details of the planned reopening of the Khartoum branch of Cairo University. Established in the mid-1950s, the branch closed 25 years ago following political tensions between Cairo and Khartoum.
Egyptian officials say they understand the reasons behind the hesitation of the Sudanese, and it is only to be expected that the different components of Sudan’s transitional government should differ over the details of foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Egypt has been working on consolidating its relations with South Sudan. Cairo, officials say, is exploring the possibility of establishing a strategic partnership with Juba as well as Khartoum. This, they insist, is not an attempt to pressure Khartoum to keep on the same page as Cairo when it comes to key Egyptian interests, but an effort to manage those interests in the incredibly sensitive south.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.