Stuck on US terror list, Sudan turns to wealthy Gulf for aid

CAIRO (AP) — Sudan's new prime minister has repeatedly urged the West to end his country's international pariah status. He says it's the only way to save the nation's fragile democratic transition from a plunging economy.

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In September, Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok said he was expecting a "big breakthrough" that would lead to removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and unlocking desperately needed foreign aid.

But so far, nothing has changed — except that Hamdok is now turning to two wealthy Gulf Arab monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to secure the funds to keep his government afloat. Both countries are known for bankrolling military rulers in Egypt, Libya and, previously, Sudan.

The U.S. named Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993, and the designation stuck throughout President Omar al-Bashir's rule. The U.S. began a formal process to de-list Sudan in January 2017, but this was put on hold when Sudan's mass protests erupted last year. The uprising toppled al-Bashir and eventually forced the military into a power-sharing agreement with civilians.

Sudanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk to reporters, are warning the slow response and "empty promises" from Western governments could weaken Sudan's new civilian leaders, only three months after they were appointed.

"The West has not taken any concrete steps to help the Sudanese," said one official, a government minister. "What we see now are words but no actions. They are demanding things that might take years to address."

The officials said American and European officials have set conditions that include reaching a peace agreement with the country's rebel groups, as well as addressing the role of Sudan's security forces in the transition.

The last is a key sticking point in talks. In a visit by a Sudanese delegation to Berlin last week, a top German official urged clearly defining the role of Sudan's security agencies — especially the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

The powerful unit grew out of the feared Janjaweed militias unleashed during the Darfur conflict in the 2000s. It's led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo and has supplied ground forces to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen's civil war.

A Sudanese official who attended the meeting said Stefan Oswald, director of Sub-Saharan Africa in Germany's economic cooperation and development ministry, told the delegation it was important to "build trust" about how foreign aid would be spent, and "address the black holes," referring to the influence of the security forces that served al-Bashir's regime for decades.

The German ministry refused to comment on the meeting.

Hamdok has counted on Washington lifting Sudan's terror designation, which would clear the way for loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A widely respected economist, he says Sudan needs up to $8 billion in foreign aid in the next two years and another $2 billion deposited as reserves to shore up the local currency.

Instead, Sudanese Assistant Undersecretary Elham Ahmed found herself repeating the same demand in an October meeting with Brian Shukan, the new U.S. chargé d'affaires to Khartoum, asking for a U.S. plan to end the designation. Shukan told Sudanese Foreign Minister Asma Abdalla on Sunday that there are attempts to remove Sudan from the U.S. list but that this "requires some time."

However, the challenges facing Sudan are so daunting, it may no longer be able to wait for a change in Western policy. Battered by decades of U.S. sanctions and mismanagement under al-Bashir, Sudan suffers from high inflation, an enormous foreign debt at close to $60 billion, and widespread shortages of essential goods, including fuel, bread and medicine.

Hamdok and Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the sovereign council overseeing Sudan's transition, visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier this month, directly after the prime minister returned from the U.N. General Assembly and France.

Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi vowed to provide $3 billion in aid following the Sudanese military's overthrow of al-Bashir in April. At the time, many Sudanese protesters saw it as a bid to shore up military rule and stifle their pro-democracy movement.

The two monarchies have already delivered half of the $3 billion. The remaining half is expected to be delivered by the end of next year, said Sudan's Finance Minister Ibrahim Elbadawi.

Germany and France's foreign ministers visited Sudan in September and vowed to step up European efforts to readmit the country into the international economy, and lobby Washington to remove it from the U.S. terror list.

The U.S. says that is has reached out to Sudanese authorities about possibly lifting the terrorism designation, according to a statement from a meeting of the Friends of Sudan held in Washington in late October. The meeting was chaired by a top U.S. diplomat, David Hale, and Tibor Nagy, U.S. assistant secretary for African affairs.

The White House announced last week that "actions and policies" that led Washington to impose sanctions on Sudan "have not been resolved" and "continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

Sudan's Finance Minister Ibrahim Elbadawi told reporters in Khartoum last week that Hamdok would travel to the U.S. "soon" to meet with Congress leaders and other U.S. officials in efforts to end the designation.

"I'm afraid the window of opportunity for the civilian (government) in Sudan to succeed is closing, and largely so because the West isn't helping Sudan out of its financial hole," said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at Tufts University.

Osman Mirghani, editor of the Sudanese newspaper al-Tayar, attended the October meeting with German officials. He said the West views the current government in Sudan as "weak, fragile and unstable" — one that's failed to take the required measures regarding political freedoms, women's and human rights.

"In fact, nothing has changed except the overthrow of the regime's head, Omar al-Bashir," he said.