Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, flew directly from Israel to Sudan on Tuesday, raising the possibility that Khartoum could be persuaded to recognise Israel in return for a breakthrough in relations with the US.
Sudan, which overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir last year, has been urging Washington to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which could open the way for investment in its battered economy.
The US is tying improved relations to concessions including the payment of compensation to victims of alleged Sudanese-sponsored terrorism and recognition of Israel, as well as backing for Washington’s position on a dam being built on the Nile by Ethiopia.
Washington helped broker a deal, announced this month, in which the United Arab Emirates recognised Israel, only the third Arab state to establish full diplomatic ties after Egypt and Jordan.
President Donald Trump, who has hinted that other Arab nations may follow UAE’s lead, is hoping to polish his credentials as a dealmaker in the Middle East in the run-up to US elections in November.
Mr Pompeo, the first US secretary of state to visit Khartoum in 15 years, on Tuesday posted on Twitter: “Happy to announce that we are on the FIRST official NONSTOP flight from Israel to Sudan!”
In Khartoum, Mr Pompeo was due to meet Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister, and Abdel Fattah Burhan, sovereign council chair, to discuss “US support for the civilian-led transitional government and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”, according to a statement from the US state department.
The US had hoped Sudan would recognise Israel but “Hamdok and others are a little hesitant”, said one person in contact with US and Sudanese officials.
In February, Gen Burhan, head of Sudan’s hybrid military-civilian transitional government, met Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, during a secret trip to Uganda in what was seen as a move towards normalisation of ties.
However, last week, a Sudanese spokesman who said Khartoum was looking forward to making a peace deal with Israel was abruptly fired.
“Sudan has been pretty isolated for a long time. It is very keen to get off this [terror] list. This is the carrot,” said Jonas Horner, a Sudan specialist at Crisis Group. “Sudan is desperate to be normalised as a member of the community of nations, though it is not clear it can do this politically,” he said, referring to recognition of Israel.
Mr Bashir was ousted last year after months of street protests triggered by a rise in food and fuel prices, but the new government has struggled to stabilise the badly indebted economy. Without US backing, Sudan is unable to write off $60bn in past debts or access new multilateral lending.
Washington has told Khartoum it will not remove it from the terrorist list, a move that requires notification to Congress, until Sudan pays compensation of $300m to families of victims in 1998 explosions outside US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, according to one person familiar with talks.
In April, Sudan agreed to pay victims of the families of 17 US sailors killed on the USS Cole in a 2000 attack in Aden. In May, Sudan appointed its first ambassador to Washington in more than 20 years in a further sign of thawing relations.
The US has resisted removing Sudan from its terror list partly through concern over the role in the transitional government of Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, widely regarded as the most powerful member of the sovereign council. Lt Gen Hamdan, who once ran the notorious Janjaweed horseback militia, which carried out atrocities in Darfur, in western Sudan, helped lead last year’s coup against Mr Bashir.
Maintaining Khartoum on the terror list provided Washington with “leverage” to keep its democratic transition on track, in case “Hemeti tosses Hamdok into the Nile”, said one western official familiar with US-Sudan relations. The transitional council has promised free elections in 2022.
Mr Pompeo is also expected to raise the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In response to US pressure, Sudan has moved closer in recent months to the position of Washington’s ally Egypt, which regards the massive dam as an existential threat.
In a further sign of intense diplomatic activity in Khartoum, Mr Hamdok, met his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed, on Tuesday.