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New port plans for Sudan need wider consultation

The UAE's plan to invest $6bn in a second port in Sudan has been met with some resistance

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Port Sudan: the country already has a functioning modern container port which is the source of 90 percent of Sudan’s international trade

Since the time of the British Empire foreign powers have found it difficult to get a foothold in Sudan, the third largest country in Africa and the birthplace of what is popularly referred to as Ancient Egyptian civilisation. 

It is therefore no surprise to see that the UAE’s plan to invest $6 billion in building a second port in the country was rebuffed by Sudanese political parties and by the general public at large.

Abu Dhabi Ports Company has been forced to issue a clarification that no official agreement has yet been signed and only preliminary discussions are taking place “with the relevant authorities in Sudan”.

On June 21, Reuters news agency published an article quoting well-known Sudanese businessman Osama Daoud Abdellatif, saying the UAE would be the first foreign country to invest in Sudan since the military took power in 2019. 

According to Abdellatif, the $6 billion investment package includes construction of a $4 billion port (200km from the country’s main seaport Port Sudan), a $1.6 billion expansion to Abu Dhabi’s existing agricultural project in the north Sudanese town of Abu Hamad, a $450 million, 500km toll road to connect the project to the new port and an imminent $300 million deposit to Sudan’s central bank. 

It’s good to see the UAE leading the charge for foreign investment into the struggling Sudanese economy, in contrast to Western donors who have suspended billions of dollars in aid and investment since the coup.

However, it’s important to note the country already has a functioning modern container port – Port Sudan – which is the source of 90 percent of Sudan’s international trade. 

Port Sudan was developed in 1905-09 under the administration of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to replace Suakin as the region’s chief port.

In 1977, an oil pipeline was also built connecting the port to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

The port has strong transportation links including Port Sudan New International Airport, a tarred road, railway connection to Khartoum and an international ferry from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, it is part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that runs from the coast of China via the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea with rail connections to Central and Eastern Europe.

If the country already has an established port in Port Sudan, which borders the Red Sea, why would the UAE invest in a second port a few hundred kilometres away?

The answer is the UAE has for a long time tried and failed to get a foothold in Port Sudan, to the extent that it ended up building a competing port in Egypt at Ain Sokhna. 

Port Sudan gives easy access to Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s bid to run Port Sudan was met with a backlash from the kingdom and resulted in Sudanese grassroots protests closing down the port altogether.

According to Sudanese political dissidents, Abu Dhabi’s proposed new port, 200km north of Port Sudan, would be in direct competition.

Port Sudan is the main economic driver for Sudan’s third largest city and approximately 500,000 people are highly dependent on the functionality of the port. The new port will most likely be built and run by foreign workers, depriving local Sudanese of job opportunities and a chance to benefit from the project.

Furthermore, there has been insufficient study of the environmental impact of the 400,000 acres of farming investment in Abu Hamad and how much water it would draw from the river Nile and the surrounding ecosystem.

With such large-scale projects, there is bound to be an impact on both the environment and the people living nearby. It is also not clear if the 400,000 acres would be under full Sudanese sovereignty or UAE sovereignty.

The lack of transparency and vital assessment of the economic and environmental impact of the deal has provoked the public outcry. 

Sudanese political dissidents say this type of deal cannot be authorised unless an elected government is in power and unless it has been studied and approved by the Sudanese parliament, even if the outline of the deal has already been agreed by the current Sudanese leader, General Abdelfattah Al Burhan.

Abu Dhabi should include the Sudanese public in such discussions going forward as it is ultimately their interests that are at stake.

Tahani Karrar is managing director of Sudal International, a Dubai-based Sudanese commodities advisory firm

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