A month after Sudan became the third Arab-majority country to begin the process of building diplomatic relations with Israel, an Israeli delegation reportedly visited the East African country to discuss potential economic and humanitarian co-operation. Discussions focussed primarily on agriculture, food security, water supplies and health care. The Sudanese Government denies that the delegation visited Sudan, but that could be because recognition of Israel remains contentious and the transitional government does not want to derail the democratisation process.
Khartoum was the site of a 1967 declaration against diplomatic recognition of Israel. The declaration stated that there would be ‘no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it’. Unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (which have also recently sought to normalise relations with Israel) Sudanese forces fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Six-Day War in 1967. A fragile transition to democracy in Sudan, led by a transitional civilian-military council, has resulted in a more pragmatic approach.
The move to recognise Israel was brokered by the United States. President Trump promises to remove Sudan from the US state sponsors of terrorism list as part of the deal. That makes it possible for Sudan to apply for international loans and aid, which it needs to repair its damaged economy and assist with its political transition. Annual inflation surpassed 200 per cent in October and shortages of essential goods have resulted in higher food insecurity. The US and Israel have ‘committed to working with their partners to support the people of Sudan in strengthening their democracy, improving food security, countering terrorism and extremism, and tapping into their economic potential.’ Economic and trade relations will begin with a focus on agriculture and agricultural technology. Two days after the announcement of the deal, Israel sent US$5 million ($6.8 million) worth of wheat to Sudan.
The United Nations classes 9.6 million people in Sudan as “severely food insecure” and as refugees cross the border from Ethiopia, due to conflict in the Tigray region, that number is likely to increase. Israeli investment and food aid would help to improve Sudanese food security. Israel developed innovative irrigation systems to build its agricultural industry and is a world leader in desalination technology. Sudan could become a new, albeit small, market for those industries.
Sudan is also caught in the middle of a diplomatic stoush over water rights between Egypt and Ethiopia. The Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdullah Hamdok, stated that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, must not be operated until an agreement is reached. It boycotted the most recent tripartite meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and called for the African Union to play a greater role in water sharing negotiations. Washington has indicated that it is growing tired of the diplomatic deadlock and has cut aid to Ethiopia as a result. The Sudanese boycott could be linked to the improvement in relations with the US and could be another example of increased US pressure on the parties to sign an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
The difficult economic situation in Sudan leaves it with little option but establish diplomatic relations with Israel. By doing so it will be in a better position to access international finance and assistance. Food and water security is likely to remain tenuous for the foreseeable future, but support from external sources will improve the situation.