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US, Sudan Exchange Ambassadors for First Time in Over 2 Decades
US Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, October 2017. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)

US, Sudan Exchange Ambassadors for First Time in Over 2 Decades

Obstacles still ahead in establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries

The State Department announced December 4 that the US is enhancing diplomatic ties with Sudan by participating in an ambassador exchange for the first time in 23 years.

The announcement falls on the backdrop of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s inaugural visit to Washington the same day. Hamdok was sworn into office August 21 as the leading figure of Sudan’s transitional government, which will rule the country for the next three years.

Hamdok and his cabinet represent the only change in Sudan’s governance in 30 years, after the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in April. The leadership shakeup appears to be why the US has taken this additional diplomatic step.

“This decision is a meaningful step forward in strengthening the US-Sudan bilateral relationship, particularly as the civilian-led transitional government works to implement the vast reforms under the political agreement and constitutional declaration of August 17, 2019,” US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in the press statement.

Pompeo also praised Sudan’s premiere for making “key personnel changes to break with the policies and practices of the previous regime.”

Dr. Johan Brosché, associate professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, contends that improved relations have been a few years in the making, with the US eliminating certain sanctions in 2017.

“The US-Sudan relationship has improved in the last couple of years – starting before the protests for democratization and before al-Bashir was ousted,” he told The Media Line. “The changes that have happened during the last year in Sudan probably made this move easier.”

The exchange of ambassadors does not change Sudan’s status on the state sponsor of terrorism list.

In 1993, the US placed Sudan on the list for ties to known terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Three years later, the US suspended diplomatic efforts due to security concerns, on top of their aforementioned activities. During that same year in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which prohibited US citizens from participating in any economic exchange with government on that list.

For Sudan, closer ties with the US means they are one step closer to getting off the list.

“Exchanging ambassadors is a very significant step, especially for Sudan,” Ezaldeen Arbab, a journalist based in Sudan, told The Media Line. “It could indicate that the two countries may fully normalize bilateral relations so that Sudan is removed from the US terror list and related sanctions are removed.”

For the US, Brosché says that Washington is gaining more access to what could become a geopolitical advantageous ally close to the horn of Africa.

“For the US, Sudan is a big and important country, so it is both economically and strategically important to influence what is happening in Sudan,” Brosché said. “This will be easier with an ambassador in Khartoum.”

Professor Harry Verhoeven, author of Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building, does not believe that foreign powers, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with whom the former Sudanese government was closely aligned with.

“It’s highly unlikely that the US decision to return an ambassador to Khartoum was influenced by Egypt or Saudi Arabia in any direct way; while Washington obviously sees Sudan in part through a regional perspective, US-Sudan relations and negotiations have their own dynamic,” he told The Media Line. “Cairo and Riyadh have actually often been frustrated in the past by Washington’s Sudan policy and their inability to have much influence on it.”

Journalist Arbab believes that Saudi Arabia may have exerted some sway over President Trump. “The Trump administration knows well how Saudi Arabia influences Sudan,” he said. “There have been recent reports alleging US officials called the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud several times to discuss Sudan.”

With Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation still hanging over their head, improved relations in the future is still unknown.

“Of course [the exchange of ambassadors] is a positive step,” Brosché said. “However, with things still being extremely uncertain in Sudan, [as] the military still [remains] in powerful positions [and] no guarantee that a move to democratization will continue, it is difficult to guestimate what this means for the future relations between Sudan and the US.”

However, Verhoeven is more optimistic.

“The exchange of ambassadors between Sudan and the US is symbolically a hugely important step…” he said. “It also has very concrete positive consequences for Sudanese Americans and reflects the impressive progress achieved by the revolutionary forces in Sudan and the interim government, including its crackdown on the erstwhile ruling National Congress Party and its assets.”

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