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Sudan's key Red Sea ports coveted by regional powers

By Abdelmoneim Abu Idris Ali
Sudan Suakin is one of many Red Sea islands held by Sudan which analysts see as 'integral to the country's national security'.  By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP)
OCT 20, 2021 LISTEN
Suakin is one of many Red Sea islands held by Sudan which analysts see as 'integral to the country's national security'. By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP)

From Washington to Moscow, Tehran to Ankara, Sudan's strategic Red Sea ports, blockaded for a month by protesters, have long been eyed by global powers far beyond Africa's borders.

Blessed with natural resources such as gold and rich in maritime biodiversity, the picturesque region of white sands and mangroves stretches some 714 kilometres (444 miles) -- from Sudan's borders with Egypt in the north to Eritrea in the south.

"Sudan's Red Sea ports are a trade hub for neighbouring landlocked countries like Chad, Ethiopia and central Africa," Ahmed Mahgoub, head of Port Sudan's southern terminal, told AFP.

But traffic through Sudan's main maritime nerve centre Port Sudan has been paralysed since anti-government protests broke out in mid-September amid disenchantment with the region's political and economic marginalisation.

So since October much of the trade has been re-routed via other regional ports, mostly in Egypt.

Members of the Beja ethnic group of eastern Sudan wave the flag of the Beja Congress political group as they demonstrate outside the Osman Digna port.  By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File) Members of the Beja ethnic group of eastern Sudan wave the flag of the Beja Congress political group as they demonstrate outside the Osman Digna port. By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File)

The protests are just the latest chapter in decades of intense tribal and factional infighting driven in part by Sudan's shifting political alliances under ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

He was deposed in April 2019 after mass protests against his three-decade iron-fisted rule.

Demonstrators say they oppose an October 2020 peace deal between Sudan's post-Bashir transitional government and rebel groups as "it does not represent" them.

Militarily strategic

The protests in the east have also triggered unrest in the capital Khartoum, where pro-military demonstrations erupted on Saturday demanding the dissolution of the embattled transitional government.

But for foreign powers who covet Sudan's Red Sea coast, the region has strategic military dimensions.

A man carries coral on the island of Suakin in eastern Sudan.  By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP) A man carries coral on the island of Suakin in eastern Sudan. By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP)

It hosted Iranian fleets for decades under Bashir, to the dismay of Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, whose Red Sea port of Jeddah lies opposite Port Sudan on the other side of the waterway.

And in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bashir negotiated the building of a naval base in Port Sudan, to be staffed by up to 300 military and civilian personnel and to include nuclear-powered vessels.

That same year Bashir also signed a 99-year lease for the island of Suakin with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a move that angered Egypt and other rival Sunni Muslim powerhouses worried about Ankara's spreading regional influence.

The deal provides for building maintenance, docks for ships and renovating Ottoman-era edifices on the island.

Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II is said to have dubbed Suakin the "white city" as it is home to spectacular buildings made of porous coralline limestone quarried from coral reef.

Sudan's Red Sea islands could be used as observation outposts or for conducting military manoeuvres, one expert said.  By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP) Sudan's Red Sea islands could be used as observation outposts or for conducting military manoeuvres, one expert said. By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP)

Suakin is one of many Red Sea islands held by Sudan which analysts see as "integral to the country's national security".

The islands cover a total area of 23,100 square kilometres (8,9100 square miles), equivalent to the size of Djibouti, said Shaimaa Abdelsameea, a professor at the Red Sea University.

'Race for control'

These islands could be used as observation outposts or for conducting military manoeuvres, she noted.

"They are however all uninhabited, making them vulnerable to illicit activities including smuggling," said Ahmed Abdelaziz, a professor at Port Sudan University.

Ahmed Abdelaziz, professor at Port Sudan University, said Sudan's Red Sea islands were 'vulnerable to illicit activities'.  By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP) Ahmed Abdelaziz, professor at Port Sudan University, said Sudan's Red Sea islands were 'vulnerable to illicit activities'. By Ashraf SHAZLY (AFP)

Sudan had sought to cement its ties with Russia under Bashir to offset the crippling sanctions imposed by Washington against his autocratic regime.

And last year, Moscow announced the signing of a 25-year agreement with Khartoum to build and operate the base in Port Sudan.

However in June, Sudan said it was still "reviewing" the deal after it found that some clauses were "somewhat harmful".

The move came as Khartoum pushed to solidify ties with the United States following Bashir's ouster.

In December, Washington removed Khartoum from its crippling State Sponsors of Terrorism list, a designation that had long strangled Sudan's economy.

The lifting of sanctions took place after a meeting between former US president Donald Trump and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Senior US military officials have since visited Sudan.

"The Red Sea is a key waterway for the movement of American fleets," according to Abdelsameea.

"It links the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Fifth in the Arabian Gulf," she said.

"So the race for control over Sudanese ports is very natural."

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