BILATERAL RELATIONS

BILATERAL RELATIONS >>>

- The promise of development and partnership-

By Dr Hasan Abdin, Sudan Ambassador to the UK

By Dr Hasan Abdin, Sudan Ambassador to the UK Sudan is an African subcontinent. It is the largest in area (2.6 million square kilometres, approximately) and one of the richest in natural resources. The Nile, the second-longest river worldwide, runs for two-thirds of its length across the country. The area of arable land is estimated at 80 million hectares, of which only about 17 per cent is currently under cultivation.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit in its last country report on the Sudan (August 2000): "GDP growth is projected at 6.7 per cent and 5.8 per cent in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Inflation will continue to fall, declining to under 10 per cent by 2001. Increased foreign exchange earnings from exports should take the pressure off the dinar, which will remain stable over the forecast period." Needless to say, the new oil sector will boost this economic growth. Since August 1999 when Sudan began exporting oil for the first time, production has increased to 185,000 barrels per day and is expected to exceed 350,000 barrels per day by the end of 2001.

The attraction of foreign investors is crucial in order to sustain this growth, both in the agro-industrial and oil sectors. The prevailing investment environment in the country is certainly encouraging in terms of political stability, economic and fiscal policies based on a free-market economy, and on liberal investment legislation. Sudan has often been described as the breadbasket of the Arab World because of its great potential to produce and export meat, wheat, oil seeds, fruits, vegetables and cane sugar. Indeed, the Kenana Sugar Factory, which currently produces 397,000 tonnes of white sugar a year, is a good example of a successful marriage or partnership between Sudan and foreign and Arab investors, (Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian investors hold shares in Kenana).

The example of Kenana can indeed be reproduced with even greater success in many other areas of food production for local consumption and export. Sudan, because of debt arrears to the International Monetary Fund, has been denied financial support from the Fund for the past few years. However, as a result of the great progress that has been made since 1997 in economic restructuring and fiscal policies (in collaboration with the IMF itself), Sudan is restoring its voting rights as of last August. This will certainly reintroduce the country to international and regional monetary institutions and creditors, as well as to individual investors. Today, Sudan enjoys warm relations with almost all of its Arab and African neighbours. Only last November, Khartoum hosted the mini African Summit of IGAD (Inter-Governmental Agency for Development) which was attended by Sudan's six East African neighbours.

Khartoum hosted the mini African summit of IGAD

The focus of the conference was on peace and economic integration in the region. Earlier, in December 1999, Khartoum was also host to the pan-African ministerial conference on one of the most pressing problems of the continent - namely, refugees and displaced people. The conference, co-sponsored by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and attended by more than 42 African states, re-emphasised the urgency of addressing the root causes of the problem - which are civil war and inter-African conflict - for which resolution and peace-making is the ultimate and most effective remedy. Internationally, Sudan has made substantial progress with its efforts to normalise relations with the EU, which have been strained during the first half of the last decade.

Diplomatic relations with the UK were restored last year to ambassadorial level. Sudan's foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, paid an official visit to London last July, which created new momentum and opened a new page in Anglo-Sudanese understanding and mutual co-operation. It is perhaps significant and encouraging that British companies will participate, for the first time in 10 years, in the Khartoum International Fair, which is due to open early this February.

Mending fences and building bridges for the future

Anglo-Sudanese relations were distinctly chequered during much of the 1990s, with serious political difficulties between London and Khartoum. But the past few months have seen marked improvements. Last July, foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail came to Britain, signalling a new atmosphere of goodwill and co-operation. According to Sudan's ambassador in London, Hasan Abdin, the benefits of his visit should be bilateral, as Britain can play a positive role in improving his country's relations with both the EU and the US.

Britain can play a positive role in improving relations with the EU and US

The British ambassador to Khartoum, Richard Makepeace, has said that the UK is continuing dialogue with the American administration with a view to improving US/Sudanese relations. "Our first priority is that we want to play a role in the peace initiative and it is our strong desire to participate in the efforts to solve the Sudanese problem," he says. Traditionally, UK/Sudan links have been strong.

Long after independence, Sudan continued to send many of its brightest young men to the UK to study. British companies remained active in the Sudanese economy, and their products had a reputation for quality and reliability. Much of the country's infrastructure was built by British companies. But in recent years, the UK has lost ground to competitors from other parts of the world, not least the Far East. Yet it still remains Sudan's second-largest trading partner and opportunities for British investors are considerable.

"Here in Sudan, we prefer British industry and products," president Omar Hassan al-Bashir declares. "But with the absence of British products from the Sudanese market, others have taken their place. There needs to be a lot of effort on the part of British companies to come back and take their normal place in the Sudanese market." A number of UK companies have already signed up to take part in the tenth Khartoum International Fair, which is due to be held next February.

Others have been in contact with the Sudanese government on specific deals. For example, Rolls-Royce has been holding talks with the Ministry of Energy and Mining about a proposed 200MW power station. According to the minister for industry and investment, Abdel Halim Ismail al-Mutaafi: "Others are working with the seaport corporation, supplying spare parts. We would like to see British companies working with our railways. Some are working in agricultural equipment, like Massey Ferguson. We are looking for more participation in core sectors."

The consultant and former minister Tagelsir Abdelsalam, who led a trade mission to the UK two years ago, believes the British can still operate with great advantage in Sudan. "They are far better than anyone else because they know the people as well as the country. Even when people come to the embassy here, often they have already been here for some time, maybe when their fathers were working in Sudan."