Despite embargo, Sudan builds a booming economy based on oil
|The New York Times, 24 Octobre 2006|
KHARTOUM, Sudan: To understand Sudan's standoffishness toward the world, especially the Western world, consider the Ozone café.
Here young, rich Sudanese, wearing ripped jeans and fancy gym shoes, sit outside with scoops of ice cream as an outdoor air-conditioning system sprays a cooling veil of mist. Around the corner is a new BMW dealership unloading $165,000 cars. "Tell people you only live this life once," said Nada Gerais, a saleswoman. While one of the world's worst humanitarian crises continues in Darfur, all across Khartoum bridges are being built, office towers are popping up, supermarkets are opening and flatbed trucks are hauling plasma screen televisions through thickening traffic.
Despite the image of Sudan as a land of cracked earth and starving people, the economy is booming, with little help from the West. Oil has turned Sudan's economy into one of the fastest- growing in Africa - if not the world - emboldening the nation's already belligerent government and giving it the wherewithal to resist Western demands to end the conflict in Darfur.
American sanctions have kept many companies from Europe and the United States out of Sudan, but companies from China, Malaysia, India, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are racing in. Foreign direct investment has shot up from $128 million in 2000 to $2.3 billion this year - despite an American trade embargo. "Khartoum is hot - in all ways," said Hashim Wahir, chairman of Petronas Sudan, a Malaysian oil company.
As long as Asian countries are eager to trade with Sudan, despite its human rights record, the American embargo seems to have minimal effect. The Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al- Bashir, continues to demonstrate his disdain for the West by refusing to allow UN peacekeepers into Darfur, despite continued bloodshed and intensifying pressure from the United States. [The chief UN envoy, Jan Pronk, left Khartoum on Monday after Bashir's government, intensifying diplomatic hostilities, called him an enemy of Sudan and ordered him to leave, Reuters reported.]
"The government knows it doesn't need America," said Abda Yahia el- Mahdi, a former finance minister who is now a private consultant. "The only people who are being hurt by the sanctions are the Americans, who are missing out on this huge boom." The wealth is hardly evenly shared, and much of Sudan, like Darfur, remains desperately poor. But overall the country's gross domestic product grew 8 percent in 2005, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is predicted to increase by 12 percent this year, largely because Sudan has substantially increased its crude oil production to 512,000 barrels a day - just a drop compared with Saudi Arabia or Iran, but enough to bring billions of dollars to a country that until recently was one of the poorest on earth. The boom is also strengthening the government's hand at home.
Bashir has been on an infrastructure binge, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into roads, bridges, power plants, hospitals and schools, projects that tend to boost any government's popularity. (Bashir seems to need it, with many people across the country, not just in Darfur, openly rebelling against his rule). Bashir, an army general, seized power in 1989 through a military coup, and some of the biggest beneficiaries of these boom times have been his troops. Mahdi said that more than 70 percent of the government's share of oil profits is spent on defense.
A government priority is to manufacture guns and ammunition domestically, in case an arms embargo is ever imposed. Despite the new materialism, Sudan still marches to a martial tune. Army officers enjoy special status, foreign visitors must register with the police and schoolchildren are required to wear camouflage uniforms to class. But the boom is changing society, from the careers people pursue, to the music they listen to, even to what they eat. The traditional meal of ful, a bean stew eaten for breakfast and lunch, is giving way to kebabs, yogurt, hamburgers and hot dogs.
"We even have Pringles," said Mohammed Abdelwahab Salih, a 26-year- old entrepreneur who recently started a business designing Web sites, referring to the brand of potato chips. Salih remembers the days, not so long ago, when he used to have to wait in line for hours for a single loaf of bread. "And it wasn't even good bread," he said. "When we got home, we'd had to pick out the flies."
For years, the Sudanese economy was beset with triple-digit inflation, moribund industries and war. Ever since independence in 1956, Christian and animist tribes in the south have rebelled against Muslim rulers in the north. Though oil was discovered by Chevron in the 1970s, the oil fields straddled the north-south divide and were essentially unworkable while fighting continued. The American government imposed a trade embargo in 1997, freezing Sudanese government assets in the United States and cutting off its exports to and imports from Sudan, with a few exceptions.
The reason: human rights abuses connected to the north-south war and Sudan's links to terrorists. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum in the 1990s. But by 1999, when the first trickle of oil began to flow out of Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, Sudan's economy was turning around. A small cadre of Western- educated technocrats had followed the IMF's reform programs to the letter - cutting spending, privatizing state- owned businesses, lowering inflation and pushing infrastructure.
"It was classic, conservative economic policies," said Safwat Fanous, chairman of the political science department at the University of Khartoum. "And it worked."