Understandably, the Trump administration’s decision to ease off the sanctions that have been imposed upon Sudan for the last twenty years was met with elation in Khartoum. The announcement has rejuvenated a wave of optimism amongst the Sudanese populace, who have long been told by their government that the sanctions were responsible for the country’s crippled economy. But is this newfound renewal of hope misguided?

Since sanctions were imposed by the Clinton Administration in 1993, the Al-Bashir regime has gone to great lengths to improve its bilateral relations with America. The sanctions began primarily because of allegations that Sudan was harbouring and supporting terrorist cells. In particular, their association with Al-Qaeda and its founder Osama Bin Laden proved to be a deciding factor in the US State Department’s decision to label the Islamic nation as a “state sponsor of terror”. In the aftermath of the Darfur Genocide and the International Criminal Court’s indictment of President Omar Al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, the sanctions were extended further in 2007.

It was only at the end of Obama’s presidency that relations between the US and Khartoum improved, and Sudan’s efforts to curb internal conflicts and terrorism were recognised. In his last days in office Obama signed an executive order to ease the sanctions temporarily, with a view to being reviewed by the next administration. Trump has gone further, formally lifting a number of sanctions against Sudan, and, incidentally, removed the country from his ‘travel ban’. This is despite Sudan still being listed as a state sponsor of terror – probably due to its continued affiliation with Hamas who are considered a terrorist group by the US State Department.

In recent years, Sudan has shown a willingness to cooperate with the US, participating in several counterterrorism missions and working together against terrorism with the Gulf States. Since March 2015, Sudan has deployed thousands of its military forces to join the Arab Gulf military coalition in Yemen and joined the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism later that year. This level of cooperation has also extended into another part of Sudan’s foreign policy – its relationship with Iran. In 2016 Sudan severed ties with Tehran. The two states grew politically close over the past 25 years, but after the execution of Sheik Nimr al Nimr two years ago, Sudan chose to switch its allegiances to Saudi Arabia.

The most pressing reason for its decision to part ways with Iran was the financial support the Saudis were willing to provide. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Sudan’s infrastructure; in 2015 a deposit of $1 billion was transferred to Sudan’s central bank. Saudi Arabia has also secured trade deals that focus on financing the construction of dams on the river Nile to bolster Sudan’s energy sector. In contrast, Iran offered no financial assistance to Sudan’s ailing economy, and its reputation as a rogue state posed greater complications to Khartoum’s foreign agenda. Iran had become a friend with few benefits.

Inconvenient timing

Sudan’s political manoeuvring and attempts to bridge the gap between itself and the United States implies that the sanctions had a destabilising impact on the country’s economy. This in conjunction with the secession of South Sudan, which deprived Sudan of its oil revenue and a considerable chunk of its territory, rendering Sudan unable to depend on the export of oil to generate revenue. Sudan became economically vulnerable and while many in the higher echelons of political power managed to overcome the effects of the sanctions, this was not the case for ordinary Sudanese citizens.

Living under US sanctions created conditions in which access to life saving medical treatment was extremely difficult. In a country where 39% of the population live on less than $3.10 a day, the difference of getting access to medical treatment meant life and death. The hope has been that with the lift of sanctions Sudan’s economy will recover and alleviate the extensive poverty conditions that have plagued Sudanese society. But some economists have challenged this notion claiming that Sudan’s weak economy was instead due to economic mismanagement, corruption and incoherent economic policies.

Speaking to Radio Dabanga, economist professor Hamid Eltigani Ali claimed that the lifting of sanctions will have more of a psychological affect: “The lifting of the sanctions opens the door for Sudan to free trade and investment, but the problem is that Khartoum is bankrupt and has nothing to sell. Almost all industries have become inoperable in Sudan.”

It appears that the Trump Administration has adopted a “realpolitik” approach in their reasoning for lifting the sanctions. But some human rights groups have also criticised the US decision to lift the majority of Sudan’s sanctions, claiming that humanitarian situations in Darfur, Southern Korodfan and Blue Nile have not improved, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have committed violations with complete impunity. According to Amnesty International, who released a 2016 report on Sudan, the Sudanese government forces have used chemical weapons in the region of Darfur resulting in the deaths of more than 200 civilians.

The on-going documentation of human rights violations are in direct contrast to the Trump Administration’s justification for lifting the sanctions, which cited an improvement in Sudan’s human rights record. It therefore seems more likely there is another reason for the US attempt to rebuild relations, perhaps as a means of exerting greater influence in the region and using Sudan as an ally in the fight against terrorism – regardless of the fact that the country’s leader is widely acknowledged as a perpetrator of mass genocide.