Sudan is on the cusp of ending its long status as a pariah in Washington, and the African nation is bolstering its stable of lobbyists to ensure that it happens soon.
The government of President Umar al-Bashir—which is listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism—has hired Washington law firm Squire Patton Boggs LLP at a cost of $40,000 a month to lobby on its behalf as part of its accelerating campaign to ensure that President Donald Trump permanently lifts sanctions against the country ahead of a deadline next month, according to a filing with the Justice Department.
Under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in January, a temporary easing of sanctions against Sudan would be made permanent after six months if Khartoum sustains progress in five key areas, including helping the U.S. in the fight against terror, allowing humanitarian access and easing conflict throughout the country. That would allow fresh investment into an oil-exporting nation that remains one of the world’s poorest.
“That would open a door to heaven between the two countries,” Maowia Osman Khalid, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. “I can assure you too that many major U.S. companies are knocking on the door right now. They are just waiting for the report in July.”
Avoiding ‘Snap Back’
According to a letter included with a required filing on June 1 under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, Squire Patton Boggs will help Sudan “avoid ‘snap back’ of U.S. sanctions” and help improve the the $84 billion economy’s investment climate.
As part of the deal, the lobbying firm will help Sudan “with its economic development agenda” and “identify and implement strategies to improve Sudan’s investment climate,” according to the filing. Squire Patton Boggs spokesman Angelo Kakolyris didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the contract.
The contract with Squire Patton Boggs isn’t Sudan’s first with a Washington firm this year. In February, Sudan hired Cooke Robotham LLC under the terms of the January sanctions waiver to help advise it as it restructures its debt. The contract was signed at a fixed fee of $300,000.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s formal recommendation to Trump on the sanctions, which must be made by July 12, requires weighing a host of political considerations.
For starters, Sudan is one of the six countries on Trump’s “travel ban” list of nations facing restrictions on entry to the U.S., an initiative that has been held up by the courts. And Bashir continues to be sought by the International Criminal Court on allegations of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity related to the unresolved conflict in the country’s Darfur region.
At the same time, Sudan has shared intelligence with the U.S. and is a strategically placed ally in the fight against terrorist groups even as it remains one of three countries listed as state sponsors of terror. The other two are Syria and Iran. Sudan was placed on the list in part for sheltering al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
While Tillerson hasn’t made a final decision, the recommendation from key aides involved in the process is that he support the lifting of sanctions, according to a person familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified because it isn’t public yet. Tillerson and the State Department must also weigh the likelihood of blowback if it goes ahead with plans to improve ties with Sudan while also proceeding with plans—expected to be announced Friday—to scale back new business links with Cuba because of human rights concerns.
The U.S. Agency for International Development says Sudan has made progress in humanitarian access—allowing in humanitarian organizations and the aid they provide—but the potential change is questioned by human rights groups. They argue that the U.S. may let Sudan off the hook because it’s seen as too important in counterterrorism efforts to risk reimposing sanctions and jeopardizing the burgeoning relationship.
“The notion that humanitarian access is at acceptable levels is simply perverse, and completely expedient as an assessment,” said Eric Reeves, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. “Nobody who actually works in the humanitarian world in Sudan believe that access is at acceptable levels.”
Khalid, Sudan’s ambassador, said the decision to include Sudan on the travel ban list was “understandable” and the government is “exerting extreme effort” to meet its requirements. “We are doing good in this regard,” he said.
Other signs that the two sides are warming to each other have emerged recently. Sudanese newspapers reported in March that the head of the country’s intelligence service visited Washington on the invitation of Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, meeting with him and then-FBI director James Comey. The CIA declined to comment when asked to confirm the visit.
Trump and Tillerson shook hands with General Taha al-Hussein—a top aide to Bashir who has since been removed from his post, according to the Sudan Tribune—during Trump’s visit with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia last month. In past administrations, staff would have ensured that such an encounter never took place. Because of the charges he faces, Bashir was dissuaded from coming to the event.
Asked about the handshake, a State Department official said there had been no scheduled meeting between Tillerson and al-Hussein, and the interaction was “entirely spontaneous in the context of the summit.” Sudanese officials later circulated photographs of the two handshakes in an apparent effort to demonstrate how ties were improving.
It will take more than an easing of U.S. sanctions to provide a big boost to Sudan’s economy. The country was ranked 168th of 190 nations surveyed on the ease of doing business in the World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” report, lagging behind countries including Zimbabwe and Madagascar.