Yes, I Do (I Really Don’t)
Do you promise to love her and honour her, for better or worse, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?
Don’t you just love arranged marriage novels and movies?* The plot is one most readers and movie watchers have encountered at least once and it just never gets old. Also, if not especially, in international politics. The arranged marriage trope is designed by a third party generally for financial or political reasons. With or without their consent, it aims to bring together a hero and a heroine who otherwise would have not even deigned each other of a look while passing on the street. Marriage-dodging tactics, hard-fought dowry negotiations, and jealous enemies-to-lovers ensue as a result.
This is precisely what has just happened to Sudan and Israel.
This is the chronicle of just another arranged marriage.
Sudan has been on the US list of States Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) since 1993 for harbouring transnational terrorist groups. This kind of designation generally incorporates a series of heavy sanctions that include restrictions on US foreign assistance, bans and/or limitations on defence and dual-use item exports, and other financial constraints.
Among the criteria to meet for the delisting are:
• a fundamental change in the leadership
• proof it no longer supports acts of international terrorism
• assurances that it will not support such acts in the future
As I argue in my doctoral research, Sudan deserved to be removed from the SST in the early 2000s, after ousting al-Turabi from government in 1999 and offering support to the CIA for 9/11 counter-terrorism intelligence. “On [the latter] basis, Sudan should have been removed from the state sponsors of terror list” claimed indeed Alex de Waal in a recent piece. Also the very US State Department in May 2004 “certified to the Congress that five countries are not cooperating fully with US antiterrorism efforts: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria”. For the first time since 1993, then, Sudan was no longer deemed non-cooperative in US antiterrorism efforts and thus has since been excluded from the group of non-cooperative countries.
But despite meeting the criteria for the delisting, in 2004 Sudan’s SST listing stayed in place. And trouble ensued. Disappointed with Washington, in 2007 Sudan began talks on military cooperation with Iran. A year later, contrary to what the US had wished for, Khartoum and Tehran, both SST-listed, would sign a full-fledged agreement on the issue.
This missed opportunity had dire consequences on Sudan’s international relations, but also on the very legitimacy of the sanctions instrument. While US non-SST-related comprehensive sanctions against Sudan were eventually removed in 2017, in the ending years of al-Bashir’s era (1989–2019), the SST-related ones remained, compromising their credibility. After the ousting of al-Bashir, the intensification of high-level discussions on the topic have pushed many to think Sudan’s SST delisting would be achieved soon. Sudan had already accepted to pay compensation for the 2000 USS Cole attack and, after some time, also the for the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, for which it was considered co-responsible. But disagreements about the amount of the latter compensation, as well as about possible future lawsuits linked to Sudan’s (unsubstantiated) 9/11 involvement, eventually protracted the negotiations, further compounding the SST delisting’s credibility problem.
So, a few couples of weeks before the long-awaited US presidential elections, Washington came up with this idea: conditioning the SST delisting on the normalization of ties with Israel.
A long courtship, sort of
How normal is it to talk about Sudan-Israel normalization?
Validating the symbolism originating from having been the city where in 1967 the Arab League issued the resolution affirming “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it” (with some caveats about the actual level of Arab intransigence, though), Khartoum has long been one of the staunchest foes of Israel. This has especially been so after the rise to power of the Islamists, under the al-Bashir administration.
The disdain was mutual. And so strong that, after Sudan in 2008 decided to embrace another SST-designated country –Iran–, a jealous Israel started wooing Khartoum in a distinctively Israeli way: by bombing Sudan.
Timeline of major events (denied by Israel)
• 2009, January and February: alleged Israeli raids against weapons-loaded trucks near Port Sudan and an Iranian ship in the Red Sea
• 2011, April: alleged Israeli attack against Hamas-linked car in Port Sudan
• 2012, October: alleged Israeli airstrike against the Yarmouk weapons complex outside Khartoum
• 2014, March: alleged Israeli hijack of a Panama-flagged civilian ship in Port Sudan
• 2014, July: alleged Israeli airstrike against an ammunition warehouse near Khartoum
Years of courting finally had some effect on al-Bashir himself who —already seeking new sources of money after losing the most lucrative one, oil, in 2011 — first, in 2014–2016, rejected its partner of that time, Iran, and then, in 2017–2019, eventually gave in and began texting Israel:
• 2014: closure of Iran’s cultural centre in Khartoum
• 2015: decision to join the Saudi-led anti-Houthis campaign in Yemen
• 2016: closure of Iran’s embassy in Khartoum
• 2017: a secret Sudan-Israel meeting in Istanbul and praises for Israel
• 2018: (denied) claims of Netanyahu’s visit to Khartoum
• 2019: Bashir admits normalisation option
The change of the regime in April 2019, with the fall of al-Bashir and the rise to power of a half-civilian half-military transnational government, created mixed feelings on the matter. On the one hand, the new HoSG Gen. Burhan has been eager to come out and disclose the so-far secret love affair. On the other hand, Sudan’s other half, represented by Prime Minister Hamdok, has been less enthusiastic about it, worried about long-term implications.
But, throughout 2020, the Promessi Sposi finally managed to secretly meet twice, in Uganda in February (Burhan and Netanyahu meeting in person, at last) and in the UAE in September, to discuss about the details of their marriage. In June, Sudan even granted Israeli airliners the use of its airspace.
The feeling was that, thanks to third-party intervention in favour of it (UAE and US), the gap between each party’s requirements for the marriage to take place had never been so narrow.
With the SST delisting finally being agreed upon, on an October Friday night — precisely the very same night, October 23, in which eight years before Israel bombed the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of the Sudanese capital — eventually Sudan said yes.
Marriage, at Last
The director: Donald J. Trump
The scriptwriter: Brig. Gen. Miguel Correa, senior director for Gulf and Middle Eastern (sic) Affairs, National Security Council
The producers: Mike Pompeo (US), Benjamin Netanyahu (Isr.), Mohammed Bin Zayed (UAE)
The main characters
• The bride: Israel
• The groom: Sudan (which, as I have already explained here, is now a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character)
• The bride’s family: Mrs. White House and Mr. Abu Dhabi
• The spoilers: US Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez; Sudan’s Prime Minister Hamdok
• The club of broken hearts: The Palestinians, the Iranians, the Sudanese,…
• The dowry (the fee generally paid by the bride’s family to the groom to seal their daughter’s wedding): The US, the UAE, and Israel have offered Khartoum SST delisting, which would help Khartoum get relief for some of its $60 billion external debt — hence partly addressing Sudan’s request of billions of dollars needed to overcome the ongoing economic crisis; better terms in the related legal peace legislation (restoring sovereignty immunity which can protect Sudan from future lawsuits related to its past terror activities); a still undisclosed package of cooperation agreements and investments
• Wedding costs (the marriage licence and wedding rings the groom is traditionally expected to pay): deposit of $335 million to victims of al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (funds already transferred into an escrow account but to be released only if the US Congress passes the legal peace legislation) and $72 million to victims of al-Qaeda’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole (already paid)
…And They Lived Happily Ever After. Or not? Divorce Foretold
• the bride (Israel): apart from Netanyahu’s political win, also the possibility to expel the thousands of Sudanese who sought asylum in Israel during the Bashir era, and have since been detained
• the bride’s family (US): just another political win before the elections for Trump, perhaps helping him secure Jewish votes in swing states
• the groom (Sudan): apart from Israel’s announced trade and investments, which can benefit the agricultural and military sector and little more, here’s the much-awaited SST delisting — which could potentially ensure Sudan’s full reintegration in the global financial circuits and economic recovery
The problem with the groom’s alleged gains is that the removal from the terror list is far from being a panacea to Sudan’s economic crisis (more reforms are needed, as detailed by The Sentry here) and, equally importantly, anticipates social tensions and political fractures. SST delisting should have been done years ago, on its own terms and not by linking it to an unrelated issue. Doing otherwise just contributes to wearing out the very legitimacy of the instrument of sanctions itself (and of sanctions removal) — already damaged by the reckless use made by the Trump Administration in the past four years — and threatens the stability of the Sudanese transition underway, already in trouble for many other reasons. The major concerns shared by many Sudan observers are related precisely to the fact that this decision is feared to polarise even more the political elite (perhaps even fracturing the coalition supporting the transitional government), weaken the credibility of the transitional government itself, and alienate the population. Regarding the former, political parties and components of the leadership have indeed taken quite different stances on the issue (revealing a quite marked but not surprising distance between the military and the civilians):
While, regarding the latter, as per the latest surveys (Arab Barometer Wave 5 2018–2019 and Arab Opinion Index 2019–2020), most of the Sudanese population are clearly still opposed to diplomatic recognition of Israel as well as to foreign policy coordination with Israel:
Curious to see how things develop in the coming weeks.
Beginning with, say, the need for Sudan’s “soon”-to-be-established legislative assembly to approve the marriage…
*No, I really don’t.