The Sudanese-Italian Economic Forum in Rome this October was just the latest in a series of multilateral and bilateral trade and investment conferences held between a delegation of Sudanese officials and businesses with a number of different European countries.
Apart from Rome, the delegation led by Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Ahmed Karti has visited Vienna, Berlin and Madrid in the past year, in an attempt to strengthen diplomatic links as well as business ties with their European counterparts.
This is all part of the new focus by the Sudanese Government to attract greater foreign investment from the EU states.
While collectively the EU is already the African country’s third largest trading partner, being an Afro-Arab state means that Sudan has traditionally experienced the large majority of its foreign investment from within Africa, across the Red Sea in the Middle East or even farther afield from China – the African continent’s (and Sudan’s) single largest investor.
Today however, Sudan is hoping to enhance its international partnerships by pulling in increased amounts of capital and expertise from a larger number of individual countries from the West.
Exactly in line with this premise, missions from all over Europe (17 countries in all) as well as organisations from Africa and the Middle East came to attend the ‘Sudan & Europe – Prospects of Cooperation for Regional Peace and Development’ in Vienna last year, in what was the first of Sudan’s recent run of economic forums on the European continent.
The roundtable events have been considered a real breakthrough in the country’s international relations, with the bilateral meetings that have accompanied proceedings allowing for the host nations of Austria, Germany, Spain and Italy to voice their full support for the peace process between Sudan and South Sudan; identifying the stimulation of business in both countries as the crux to solving their problems together. Indeed, one of the major outcomes of the summit in Vienna was the formation of the strategic ‘European Network for Regional Peace and Development in Sudan’.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers from each of the hosting nations have all personally inaugurated their respective conferences over the past 12 months and encouraged their own country’s businesses to further explore opportunities in Sudan.
On the back of this, perhaps the most notable achievement of the forums has been the heavy economic and investment push from companies in Germany and Spain, which has led to the formation of a Sudanese, Spanish and Gulf region consortium in the field of industry, targeting the markets of Sudan, the Gulf and COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa).
Likewise in Italy last month – where Sudan and Africa as a whole have traditionally received high investment – yet another trilateral treaty (also including the Gulf) was signed among the countries, including a further Italian pledge of 20 million euros to help in the development of health projects.
With such major partnerships having arisen from the forums, the Sudanese Government and private sector are now looking to take their delegation elsewhere in Europe, as well as invite prospective investors to witness what Sudan has to offer in person, starting with the Sudan-Europe conference in Khartoum this coming March.
And yet, while the renewed Sudanese investment push is already bearing considerable fruit in terms of propelling cooperation both diplomatically and economically with the country, efforts towards attracting investment are certainly not a new thing.
Sudan’s Minister at the Higher Council for Investment, Dr Mustafa Osman Ismail, remarked in Rome last month that Sudan has in fact attracted more than £18.5 billion from across the world as part of its drive to boost foreign investment since the year 2000.
This being said, the actual injection of European specific cash would certainly be much higher if the instability caused by decades of conflict had not severely hampered confidence in the country’s business environment in years gone by, including the effect of a US trade embargo that remains in force.
But with Sudan now realising that increased diplomacy is essential for its full integration into international business circles, Khartoum is eagerly implementing the measures that are required to win back the confidence of investors from the West by further easing the process of doing business.
“Investment has become a top priority all over the world, especially in terms of foreign direct investment. Not only for third world countries but for well developed countries too,” says Sudan’s Minister of Investment, Dr Ismail.
“We in Sudan are trying very hard in order to create a good environment to compete with all the other countries, especially amongst those who are in our region.
“We have developed our rules and institutions to such an extent that between the year 2000 and 2010, Sudan was the number two destination in the region for attracting foreign direct investment [behind Saudi Arabia].”
It was indeed down to this investment drive of the past decade – coinciding with exportation of oil and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – which saw confidence flowing in the country for the first ever time.
However when South Sudan officially separated in 2011 and took two thirds of oil production with it, Sudan’s economy and business climate were hit badly. As Minister Ismail explains, this has now led to the refreshed efforts of the government to draw investment back once again.
“This is why the government last year took a very important decision to work hard in order to regain our position, not only as number two, but as the primary destination for FDI in the region,” he declares.
As a result of this decision – alongside the series of economic forums that the Minister of Investment and the rest of the Sudanese business delegation have embarked upon across Europe in the last 12 months – 2013 saw the upgrading of a landmark ‘Investment Encouragement Act’.
The new law, which includes additional exemptions brought about as a result of abolishing VAT on commodities, is the first big step in the ongoing process of helping Sudan to become a more efficient place to do business, as the Government also promises to crack down on incidences of corruption that have also deterred investors to set up in the country in the past.