South Sudan’s challenge: Avoiding a ‘clash of civilizations’

As South Sudan continues to build itself after less than a year of independence, Israeli businessmen are looking to profit both economically and ideologically from the potential Christian ally. Will the nascent country become a pawn in the clash between Islam and the West?

By Christiane Marie Abu-Sarah

Alongside the creation of the new Republic of South Sudan has come a flurry of excitement among political pundits, who see the nascent state as a perfect ally for Israel. As the reasoning goes, the Christian-majority South Sudan, which has long been embroiled in an internecine conflict with the Arab-Muslim population of the north, should make a bosom friend for Israel, itself buffeted by a sea of Arab hostility. But is South Sudan really the next battleground in a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West?

Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes has been one of the more vocal proponents of this apocalyptic vision. In January, Pipes published an article in the Washington Times, in which he lauded South Sudan as having the potential to become a “regional power and a stalwart ally not just of Israel but of the West.” His viewpoint is seemingly corroborated by reports that Hamas has been cozying up to Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist regime in north Sudan.

Many Israeli businessmen and politicians have similarly interpreted South Sudan’s statehood as a boon for Israeli interests, both political and economic. Meir Greiver is one such businessman, who recommended in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that Israeli firms take advantage of raw materials and low wages in South Sudan. Samuel Shay, founder of the Republic of South Sudan Development organization (RSSD), has proposed similar investment projects. Shay’s organization is particularly notable for its mixture of ideological and economic appeals– as his company website proclaims, “Israel is facing a radical Islamic Arab threat, so it would benefit from having an ally against many enemies, in this strategic part of the globe.”

The prevailing sense that South Sudan will soon become a bastion of Western political and economic interests in the region is not unique to American and Israeli policymakers: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states have expressed concern about the state’s future as well. The Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh aired its unease in January, arguing that South Sudanese independence represented the fragmentation of an Arab country and is part of an Israeli strategy to play a larger role in the Nile Basin. Khartoum and Cairo are also concerned about Israel making inroads in the region. Recently, Egyptian media even carried an appeal from Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti for an increased Arab and Egyptian presence in the South Sudan, so as to “monitor and weaken Israel’s role in the south.”

South Sudan steering clear of either side

Despite these signs that battle lines are being drawn in regards to South Sudan, the government in Juba has indicated that it is a mistake to envision North Sudan and the Arabs states as aligned against South Sudan and Israel/”the West.” Instead, the South Sudanese government seems to recognize that such polarities do not necessarily serve Sudanese interests, as both the Arab states and the “West” are guilty of exercising patronizing foreign policy positions toward the region. Particularly, foreign-owned raw material extraction enterprises and low-wage jobs, such as those proposed by Greiver, are unlikely to set South Sudan on the road to development. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “When asked about suspicions that Israeli businessmen and other westerners are eagerly waiting to come in and exploit one of the world’s poorest corners, [Greiver] said “Look, I don’t only want to do this for the sake of some higher purpose, I also want to make money.”

As a result, South Sudan has been trying to steer clear of a “clash of civilizations” paradigm and pursue an independent course by building Arab, American, and Israeli contacts, in addition to exploring alliances in Asia and Europe. Articulating this stance, South Sudan Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial has dismissed speculation that the country is forming an alliance with Israel “in anticipation of Islamist regimes” in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. In an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm a few weeks ago, Deng assured the paper that even if an Islamist government comes to power in Cairo and forges a partnership with Khartoum, South Sudan will maintain a “strong relationship with Egypt.”

South Sudan’s commitment to maintaining contacts in the Arab world may be important in the coming weeks. Today, a South Sudanese delegation arrived in Khartoum ahead of talks scheduled to start April 3rd. These talks will reopen negotiations over oil rights along the border, and American analysts fear the failure of the summit could lead to war between the two states. Arab states in the region do not appear to be lining up behind Khartoum, however. As a three-day investment summit currently underway in Juba has revealed, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are instead busily investing in agricultural production in South Sudan. The timing of the conference further emphasizes South Sudan’s message that any coming conflict with its northern neighbor will be about material rights and interests, not a clash of civilizations.

Talk of conflict between north and south also obfuscates the fact that neither nation represents monolithic political interests. Instead, South Sudan has been rent by ethnic strife, most recently between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes in Jonglei state. Khartoum, for its part, is facing multiple rebellions in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile state. Consequently, any renewal of fighting between Khartoum and Juba will undoubtedly be complicated by internal divisions in both nations. For South Sudan, diversifying her foreign alliances and developing her economic capacities are thus part of a strategy of shoring up support in the face of both external and internal challenges.

Juba has made it clear that while it may be easy for Arabs and Israelis alike to envision the Christian South Sudan as a ready ally for Israel, such thinking will do nothing to help the Sudanese people. Instead, it is likely to exacerbate conflict in the region, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that casts South Sudan as a pawn in a larger geopolitical game while ignoring internal divisions. As a result, South Sudan has charted an independent course, and other world powers would be wise to do the same. Arab states in the region should continue reaching out to the new state as a regional partner, while Israel and United States should continue working on improving their diplomatic ties with both the north and the south. More importantly, South Sudan’s efforts to maintain an independent foreign policy should be seen as a commendable example for those who would reduce the new state to a Western client, for it is only by challenging the “Islam vs. the West” paradigm that South Sudan can hope to confront her own internal challenges.

Christiane Marie Abu Sarah is a historian and research associate at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.

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