Khartoum must learn from Tehran’s mistakes

Sudan is quite different from Iran but it ought to have learnt a couple of lessons from Tehran’s experiences.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Major challenges. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in Khartoum. (Reuters)
Major challenges. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in Khartoum. (Reuters)

Sudan is sparing no effort in dealing with its political, economic and security crises. It is pragmatically trying to adjust its policies and positions to the changing regional and international conditions by adopting the right approaches, favouring cooperation and coordination in development domains and shedding the old methods of creating polemics and manoeuvring.

All in all, Khartoum defused many of its external crises but the economic crisis still looms.

Khartoum announced a cabinet reshuffle late September 9. The new cabinet reflects the heavy weight of the economic concerns in the country. Motazz Moussa was appointed prime minister and former Prime Minister Bakri Hassan Saleh was made first vice-president of the republic.

It is obvious the political class in Sudan is convinced that the country is in dire need of competence in decision-making positions to get out of its economic quagmire.

The Sudanese government deciding to widen its austerity measures is an indication that the country’s economy is on the edge of collapsing. The number of ministers in the Sudanese government dropped from 31 to 21 ministers and the positions of state ministers were reduced by half. Before the reshuffle, several Sudanese embassies were shut down, leading to the crisis with former Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.

The stagnant economy in Sudan led to many social ills. The Sudanese currency dropped and the black market flourished. Unemployment is on the rise and basic commodities are becoming dangerously rare, causing long waiting queues to form in Khartoum and elsewhere.

Of course, the political opposition would not miss on such an opportunity to cash in on the difficult economic conditions and push people to revolt.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir might have been a maverick in restructuring the military, intelligence services and political parties in a way that ensures his full control of the mechanisms of the state but his magic proved inefficient against the economic crises.

Most of these crises have complex ties to developments in the international scene rather than internal causes. Al-Bashir has not grasped this simple conclusion and has focused his efforts on reducing public expenditures inside the country, a fruitless step under current circumstances.

To understand Sudan’s predicament, look back a decade or so. In 2011, Southern Sudan seceded and Sudan was deprived of 75% of its revenues. The Sudanese government had failed to take necessary precautions to compensate for this loss with initiating gigantic national projects.

Subsequent mismanagement and bad planning deprived the country of investment opportunities. Al-Bashir should have embarked on clear policies based on economic considerations rather than political ones to send reassuring messages to potential investors.

Instead, al-Bashir found nothing better to do than to get entangled in economic relations based on dubious security and political considerations with countries such as Qatar and Turkey. Obviously, the intentions behind these relations were out of sync with the regional context and its requirement of close cooperation free of ideological calculations. In fact, Tehran’s, Doha’s and Ankara’s actions in the regions were driven by ideological goals rather than genuine cooperation.

A policy reversal was needed in Khartoum. So, the government severed relations with Tehran and checked its enthusiasm for Doha and Ankara. Khartoum’s international image received a relative boost and Egypt became willing to play the good neighbour to Sudan. The United States eased its 20-year-old sanctions when Khartoum sided with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their conflicts with Qatar and the Houthis in Yemen.

Khartoum was under the impression that, once the sanctions were lifted, huge investment capital would flow to Sudan. The Sudanese authorities seem to have forgotten that further practical steps on the economic, political and security levels were needed before interested parties could come to Sudan’s rescue.

Al-Bashir and his team had a surface reading of political developments in the region. Up to now, the American initiative to lift the sanctions and even the US administration’s hinting at removing Sudan from its black list of terrorist organisations were fruitless. The world’s major financial institutions still have reservations about Khartoum. They especially fear that the US sanctions could easily be reinstalled.

It looks like Sudan is victim of the Iranian model. The sanctions against Iran were put back in place only five years after they had been lifted. Iran had tried to play a double-faced game. On the one hand, Tehran was keen on maintaining normal relations with the West but, on the other, it was multiplying its aggressive and meddling policies towards many Arab countries.

Iran failed to understand the international order. Naturally, many countries had to gang up on it to clip its claws in places where it thought it had absolute control such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Iran was bold enough to think that it could expand its influence into Africa’s Horn across the Red Sea from Yemen.

Sudan is quite different from Iran but it ought to have learnt a couple of lessons from Tehran’s experiences. Lifting US sanctions does not automatically signal the end of the crisis with the United States. Even the slow improvement in Khartoum’s relations with Arab and non-Arab countries could evaporate if Khartoum’s policies remain out of sync with the economic and political developments in its environment.

Fears of the return of sanctions against Sudan are in part fuelled by the sword dangling over al-Bashir’s head in the International Criminal Court. The tendency in international investments is to favour investment projects with a significant regional cooperation dimension. Investment capital requires stable conditions and huge advantages. Above all, they require functioning systems and innovative solutions.

All Sudan has to do is look at the example set by Somalia and Djibouti. Both countries joined the cooperation network in East Africa on the basis of programmes of mutual development. Sudan can join in this regional club but it must first read the signs and avoid repeating the mistakes made by others.

Al-Bashir has time to save his own skin and at the same time steer his country away from a fate a la Iran.