The prospects for improved relations between the United States and Sudan took a major step forward with this week’s announcement that the transitional government in Khartoum has named veteran diplomat Noureldin Sati to serve as its ambassador in Washington.
The appointment, which reportedly has been approved by the United States, ends more than 20 years of top-level diplomatic estrangement between the two countries, and reflects steadily warming relations since the overthrow of Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, last year.
The Sudanese Embassy remains temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and offers only a telephone line for consular affairs. However, foreign affairs analysts in the U.S. capital welcomed the announcement and predicted progress on key issues, most notably Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST).
“Sudan's appointment is another marker on the path toward rapprochement between Khartoum and Washington. It is both symbolic and practical, enabling the two countries to address outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to joining CSIS, he served as the U.S. intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018.
“The ambassador's marching orders will include the removal of the state sponsor of terror designation, as well as securing U.S. financial and political support for Sudan's transition,” Devermont said.
The removal of that designation is among Sudan’s “primary — if not THE primary — foreign policy goals,” said Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Meservey thinks the SST designation could be lifted within six months, “but of course there is no telling for sure.”
Meservey told VOA in a written interview that “Sudan has, apparently, met all the technical requirements for having SST lifted.” What remains to be negotiated, he said, is “hashing out the details of a settlement for the victims of terror attacks in which Sudan played a role.”
These include an al-Qaida terror attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors in 2000, and the twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which killed more than 200 people in 1998.
Meservey said the new Sudanese government has agreed to accept some responsibility, and his understanding is that there is a tentative agreement for compensation.
“Decades of bad blood between the two countries can’t be undone in a few months, but so far relations have been steadily improving,” he said.
'He knows the ropes'
Sati is not well-known in Washington, but Meservey described him as “a long-serving diplomat” whose earlier appointments have included an ambassadorship to France and experience at the United Nations. “So he knows the ropes and hopefully will be a skillful, steady hand.”
Other analysts, including CSIS’s Devermont, said the appointment will increase pressure on the United States to reciprocate by naming its own envoy to Khartoum.
“While it is unclear when Washington will fulfill its pledge to upgrade its representation to Khartoum, the U.S.-Sudanese relationship is a top priority for the Trump administration,” Devermont said in a written interview.
He added that U.S. senior officials “are eager to turn the page after three decades of contentious ties, welcoming Sudan back to the international community.”
Washington regards Sudan as a key country at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, he said. “If Sudan restores civilian rule and refrains from sowing discord at home and abroad, it could be a game-changer for the region.”
Meservey agrees that the transition underway in Sudan affords “an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. to encourage the creation of a friendly, viable, non-Islamist government in a country that has been a thorn in the side of U.S. policy in that region for decades.”
Sudan, he noted, has rich farmland and sits at a strategic location on the Red Sea.
“Its industries are a shambles because of the ruinous economic mismanagement of the former regime, but that also means there are opportunities there for intrepid investors,” he said, “though only the hardiest will jump in while the country remains on SST, and in the midst of the pandemic and the general economic crisis there.”
As Sudan undergoes dramatic socioeconomic changes, an important asset it possesses, right now, is that the West, including the United States, “has great goodwill for the civilian component of the government,” he said.