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Lengthy war in Sudan could jeopardise Gulf food security 

Mussa Adam Bakr (R), 48, who farms a plot of land next to a mud brick factory, collects eggplants with his workers on his field on Tuti Island, Khartoum, Sudan, February 14, 2020. Reuters
Sudan's vegetable exports are one of many that position it as a major agricultural centre in Africa

Sudan’s now-protracted conflict could have ongoing and unforeseen consequences, not only for the war-ravaged African state, but for its trade connections, including the GCC

As Sudan’s warring militaries – the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – battle for supremacy, catastrophic damage is being wrought on the nation’s already rundown infrastructure and utility networks, while Sudanese, GCC and foreign nationals are being evacuated en masse amid a temporary ceasefire.

If unresolved, the conflict could escalate into a prolonged civil war, destabilising the region. This would cause significant disruptions to production and supply chains from Central and East Africa, leading to severe consequences for the food security of the GCC.

A shortage of skilled personnel to manage agricultural operations is likely to be the first impact of the conflict.

Sudan is home to a wealth of natural resources. As Africa’s third largest nation, the country has copious supplies of high grade gold, crude oil and freshwater . Its thriving livestock sector makes it a big supplier of fresh and frozen meat.

In addition, this African-Arab country exports significant amounts of sugar (ranked 33rd globally) and is the third largest global exporter of groundnuts.

The country also exports substantial quantities of wheat, sorghum, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, animal fodder, sheep, and slaughtered meat through Port Sudan. The port is located a short ferry ride from Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Port.

Sudan’s proximity and vast resources make it a natural partner for the Gulf countries, which have limited arable land and water resources and are forced to import approximately 85 percent of their food. 

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are the GCC countries most dependent on Sudan for food security, and have invested heavily in the country since the 1970s.

Examples of active investments include the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development, a joint initiative between Arab states, which has invested 64 percent of total investments into Sudan.

It is followed by Egypt at 7 percent, Oman at 6 percent, UAE at 5 percent, Iraq at 4 percent and Saudi Arabia at 3 percent. 

Al-Rajhi International for Investment has invested in a significant agricultural project spanning more than 130,000 acres to support Saudi Arabia’s food security. The project in Sudan concentrates on growing wheat, corn, and animal fodder.

In addition, National Agricultural Development Co, listed on Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul, produces animal fodder in North Kordofan, Sudan, as part of a larger initiative to cover 62,000 acres.

In 2020, IHC Food Holding, a subsidiary of International Holdings Company of the UAE, invested $225 million in partnership with Sudan’s DAL Group to develop and cultivate over 100,000 acres of farmland in Sudan. Amtaar Investment, a joint venture between Jenaan of Abu Dhabi and the Sudanese government, operates an irrigation farm at Al Dabbah in the Sahara desert. It uses an innovative irrigation system to produce Rhodes grass, Sudan grass, alfalfa, and corn on 15,000 acres of land. Amtaar exports 230,000 tonnes of dry forage annually to the UAE via Port Sudan.

Hassad Food, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, has also acquired significant land in Sudan for agricultural production. At the same time, the Kuwait Investment Authority has a stake in Kenana Sugar Company, one of the world’s largest integrated sugar companies, in Sudan.

Mounting destruction

But as the Sudanese conflict continues, transportation of goods within the country will be disrupted due to evacuations and opportunistic crime, hindering roads, railway lines, and flights through Khartoum International Airport.

In April the fighting forces bombed and ransacked the airport, a crucial route for exporting sheep and slaughtered meat to the GCC, and it is still closed.

The transportation of essential food supplies across Sudan, which is about half the size of Western Europe, will be severely impacted due to the country’s limited, fragile and insecure infrastructure.

Moreover, the ongoing electricity and water shortages due to the conflict are already jeopardising the ability to cultivate the extensive agricultural projects serving the GCC.

Sudanese farmers are now redirecting their food exports to the domestic market to address their needs rather than exporting out of the country.

But despite these harrowing challenges, Sudan remains a crucial strategic investment destination, as instability in the country could directly impact the security of its GCC neighbour Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the GCC governments — Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular — are now desperately negotiating with the SAF and RSF to establish a long-term ceasefire and a civilian-led government. 

However, even if the parties stop fighting, it is unlikely that either the SAF’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan or RSF leader Hemedti will be accepted as president by the Sudanese people or the international community.

Only an effective and ethical Sudanese civilian government that is empowered to rebuild the country’s infrastructure (physical, financial and legislative) and create a secure and stable system of governance will be accepted. 

The Sudanese people unanimously want to see their country fulfil its economic potential and be a force for good in the world.

The world must fully support this vision by empowering the formation of a peaceful, stable and legitimate Sudanese government that can manage the country effectively and protect global trade.

Only then will Sudan be able to take its rightful place as an agricultural power.

Tuta Hussein Ali is a business and politics analyst specialising in the Middle East and Africa. 

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