The signing of a $4 billion partnership deal with Qatar last week to build and manage the Red Sea port of Suakin puts the country’s strategic location under spot and could be considered the first serious attempt to tap this resource that has been neglected for quite long time.
The Sudanese-Qatari joint venture that will take three years to materialize is envisioning spending $500 million in the first phase and then expand eventually so as to enable the new port handle the expected surge in volume of trade.
According to Sudanese officials the idea of improving the facilities at Suakin has been mooted for more than five years. They added that this project stems from the fact that the main port at Port Sudan is about to reach its limit due to the expansion of the city, which pushed them to look into alternatives. One of the options was deepening the Suakin harbor by some 700 meters and enable it handle sizeable freight.
Another project is already in the pipeline to overhaul Port Sudan main port. If that is to materialize as well, Sudan will be in a good position to operate as a regional hub to at least four land-locked neighboring countries, namely: Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad and Central Africa Republic. Delegations from these countries have been visiting Port Sudan and holding talks with their Sudanese counterparts on the potential use of the sea port.
However, such ambitious project needs huge investment in another vital area that is the railway, which has deteriorated over the past decades. The last expansion and improvement in the railway in Sudan was carried out between 1956-1962, where rail lines were extended to west and south of the country along 1372 km that represented at the time almost 30 percent of the rail lines in the country. But because of negligence the rail ability to carry and transport freight was reduced by more than 90 percent bringing it almost to standstill.
Given the fact that the rail represents a cheap way of transportation overhauling it should be taken as a priority to provide the chance to fully utilize the ports at the Red Sea on one hand and to have a competitive edge over other ports in the region on the other hand. That is a huge investment which needs a more disciplined approach encompassing many aspects from politics to economy and security and probably regional or international lending in one way or another.
Marketing Sudan as a regional hub for land-locked countries fits well with the newly signed African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Kigali, Rwanda late last month. The new bloc will be one of the largest free trade areas in the world that facilitates the movement of goods and services in the continent’s 55 states with a combined population of more than one billion people.
However, Sudan needs not to limit its role only as a regional hub where goods are transported in and out. Rather, it has to be an active player where it has something to sell as well. The country’s rich resources are yet to be tapped and the constant complaints about smuggling of some commodities produced locally shows that there are markets in the neighboring countries willing to receive Sudanese products.
The US think tank the Atlantic Council in its recent reports has highlighted these aspects of Sudan’s strategic location between Africa and the Middle East and that the US administration needs to engage positively with Sudan, otherwise it can find comfort allying with countries like Russia, China or Turkey that not on friendly terms with Washington.
Yet given the country’s experience over six decades since it became an independent state, it is clear that the way to realize Sudan’s great potential and make use of its strategic location it needs to focus its attention on the domestic front first and foremost to achieve a degree of socio, politico and economic stability that is necessary for any take off. But unfortunately that seems hard to reach yet. The recent announcement by both the government and the rebels on extending unilateral ceasefire, which has been going on now for almost three years, shows clearly that there is a lack of political will to translate that unilateral announcement into formal ceasefire, a situation that will keep delaying putting the country on the road to stability.
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