Arabs and South Sudan

Dr. Ahmad Youssef Ahmad : Arabs and South Sudan

  • 30 July 2011

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan was officially declared an independent state after its people voted for separation from the north as per their right to self determination under 2005 accord between the two sides. Arabs should pay attention to this new state which emerged in south of Sudan in order to know its orientation toward foreign countries, particularly toward Arab states. Arabs should also be aware of the nature of non- Arab foreign influences on this new state, particularly in view of the fact that some of these influences are connected directly to Arab national security.

I recently attended an Arab meeting which aimed to study the mechanisms for delivering Arab technical support to African countries, and realized that the agenda for the meeting did not include any help for the State of South Sudan. The normal procedure, as I noticed, for an African country to obtain such support is to submit a bid which would be studied and for which priorities would be set as per available resources. I thought it would be better if Arabs would add another complementary tool by identifying African states that are of crucial importance to them and offer them help even if such countries do not ask for it. At the meeting, I proposed South Sudan as an example of an African state, which was not among the countries that asked for help.

South Sudan separated from the North as per a democratic mechanism agreed upon between the two sides. While we hope some sort of unity will be achieved between the two sides in future, particularly after they realize that living together might be a better option, sound Arab political planning should be based on the fact that separation will likely continue in the short or even the medium term. Moreover, there is no guarantee that relation between North and South Sudan would necessarily be of collaborative nature given the many unresolved issues between the two sides. There have so far been no guarantees that such issues would be resolved peacefully or at least within a collaborative framework. Such an environment would entail foreign interferences, particularly from Israel, in view of the fact that there is full coordination between the United States and Israel on the issue of South Sudan. Based on this, Arabs should play their role in South Sudan in the hope that this role might help in improving relations between North and South Sudan, preventing the South from adopting hostile policies against Arabs and containing South Sudan within the Arab system.  In this context, the Arab side, with its limited resources compared to superpowers, can identify the needs of South Sudan through scientific studies and in turn provide it with genuine and specialized help.

My idea won the approval of almost all the attendees of the meeting and the most prominent attitude was expressed by the Egyptian representative, who said that Egypt endorsed such an idea and had implemented it even before the separation took place. Egypt, according to him, has been providing the South with all kinds of possible technical support. Another Arab participant highly valued the idea and elaborated on the general trends which should control technical support for South Sudan based on its real needs and priorities. However, one participant expressed his reservations on all of what we discussed and demanded postponement of the implementation of the idea as the situation in South Sudan remains uncertain. According to him, the South is a non- Arab country that has been separated from a brotherly part of the Arab world. This argument appeared strange as it looked like the arguments which justify Arab initiative of help for South Sudan. The uncertainty of the situation in south Sudan offers a suitable ground for providing help for South Sudan as it will enable Arabs to play an influential role in South Sudan that would be developed in future to serve their interests. However, to say South Sudan is not an Arab country is more astonishing as the study was limited to Africa-Arab relations and the influence of Arabs on these relations serve their national interests.

Another participant came up with a unique perspective on the issue as he focused on specific matters. He focused on Israeli threat in particular, referring to apparent Israeli role in separating the South and to the announcement of the present South Sudanese president before separation that "nothing could hamper relations between Israel and the State of South Sudan as such relations would have no problems like the Palestinian problem".  The participant added that Israel is now building its embassy in the capital of the South and that a day before the meeting a high level Israeli business delegation was visiting the South to study investment prospects that would meet the South's day-to-day needs. Discussions stopped at this point and it was decided to adopt the point of view supporting the Arab initiative to help South Sudan.

The author said that study of the development of the Arab stance on the problem of the South reveals that almost all Arab nations had ignored the problem since the beginning of the struggle and before separation. Perhaps, any intervention by an Arab country to solve the problem away from North Sudan's official stance could have been interpreted by the North as hostile action, or at least an unacceptable intervention in Sudan’s internal affairs. Thus, most Arab countries left the issue with leaders of the North and the rest of them supported Sudan's wrong policy, which was based on military resolution and which at one stage involved ‘religious dimension’. Under such circumstances, it was a normal thing for Arab countries to refrain from any attempts at settlement of this dispute. Half a century later, Arab nations including Sudan realized that military resolution for the struggle is impossible. In addition, the involvement of regional players and superpowers in seeking a peaceful and political solution became evident.

When both sides forged 2005 agreement which included the basis for a peaceful settlement under which people in the south were given the right to self determination, Arab countries welcomed this agreement after six years without any attempts to make  the "unity option" a tempting one for the people of the South. When the date of referendum neared, and signs of separation loomed, many Arab countries expressed their concerns about the consequences of this separation in the Arab world.

Arabs are now facing a specific challenge particularly after the separation became a fact of life. There is no doubt that the danger currently threatens Arab interests due to regional influences, particularly from Israel, and the influences of the superpowers on developing countries. There is a compelling need for an Arab strategy to counter this situation, which the Arab world is facing for the first time. Perhaps, the first action that may be taken is to accept the State of South Sudan as a member of the Arab League, the fact that will make the South part of the legal framework of interactions in the Arab system. However, if this happens, it might harm the Arab system as Arab countries might face a new member that adopts completely different policies, even anti Arab policies.  Being a non-Arab country, many Arabs oppose to the possibility of South Sudan to join the Arab league. This is correct but it does not differ much from the status of Comoros, Djibouti or even Somalia. Moreover, South Sudan has actual links with the Arab system that are stronger than those of the aforementioned countries with the Arab world.

On the other hand, Arab countries should set a coordinated plan to help South Sudan in order to avoid duplication or inconsistency and they should provide aid collectively and not at state level. However, the Arab system might not be able to face regional and international influences on the State of South Sudan due to limited resources at the disposal of the Arab World for this purpose. But with proper selection of the areas where the Arab aid could be directed, Arabs can demonstrate a reasonable presence that would recompense the past neglect of the South problem. While the call for an Arab "policy of waiting" might be a mistake, Arab presence in the State of South Sudan  might be appealing to some powers in the South that do not want to break with the Arabs.