By Suliman Baldo
As Sudan loses skilled professional workers, in Khartoum, a privileged minority grows richer, living in opulence and purchasing luxury goods with money from the state or income from remittances sent from abroad. This essay examines what has been gained and lost—and by whom—finding that the finances and quality of life have declined for an impoverished majority as the remnants of a former proud middle class slide into obscurity.
The tripartite capital of Khartoum, Khartoum North and Omdurman is a sprawling metropolis of more than 8 million inhabitants. Nearly one in five people in Sudan’s population of 40.6 million live in the Khartoum area, and it takes six hours to drive from one end of the city to the other.
Downtown Khartoum is like many other large cities: loud, crowded with people from different places and backgrounds, full of shoppers and restaurant patrons spending hard-earned cash at their favorite spots—including places that look and sound like American chains. Years of economic hardship and sanctions by the United States seem to have done little to dampen the appeal—for those who can afford it—of places like Kafory Fried Chicken and Starbox.
But patrons of places like these are part of a small, privileged minority. Most of the city’s residents are war and poverty migrants who live below the poverty line and cannot even afford three meals each day, much less the high cost of a fast food meal. These residents live on the outskirts of the city, and their communities reflect the ethnic and regional distribution of the country’s periphery. The vast majority Sudanese people who live on the edge of Khartoum are struggling to survive day by day.
Things weren’t always so difficult for so many. There were better times when many more people lived much more comfortably.
Khartoum yesterday: the former middle class
Until the late 1980s, Sudan had a thriving middle class. People socialized outside the family home and participated in dozens of social, sports, and professional clubs for engineers, doctors, teachers, lecturers, lawyers, and union workers. These diverse Sudanese professional associations existed alongside social clubs that brought together Sudanese people of diverse heritages, giving Khartoum the comfortable feeling of a cosmopolitan city that embraced its citizens of distant roots or temporary residents from afar. There were cultural clubs for people of Coptic, Catholic, Italian, German, American, Armenian, and Syrian heritage.
Much has changed in 30 years. The professional and cultural clubs that exist today are a shadow of their past—many of them are either run down or closed down. The people who were part of Sudan’s once-proud middle class have seen their financial means and quality of life decline. Many people are now reduced to two meals per day. And many have left Sudan altogether, for better work and better quality of life elsewhere.
The life of Khartoum’s “nouveau riche”
As Sudan’s former middle class struggles, in its stead Sudan has seen the rise of two types of heavy spenders that form a “nouveau riche” class: (1) consumers with money from the state and the regime’s business connections; and (2) consumers who would otherwise be impoverished but have newfound incomes from generous remittances sent from family members living and working abroad.
Sudan’s second category of “nouveau riche” spenders is unique in many ways. Most households in this category have between two and four family members who work as migrants in the Persian Gulf countries, North America, Australia, Europe, or Asia. Each migrant worker sends remittances to the household in Sudan, but without coordinating amongst themselves to adjust their contributions to the family’s essential needs. Generous contributions to the family income are a cultural value and a point of pride, and it is considered shameful to speak of reducing or consolidating the contributions. Often the family in Sudan receives a monthly income of several thousand dollars in remittances.
A Sudanese household supported with remittances can elevate its status and social standing in part by employing non-Sudanese migrant workers. These migrant workers within Sudan might include several housemaids, including, for instance, young Ethiopian women for cleaning and cooking and a person from any of Sudan’s war-affected regions for washing and ironing. Of late, large numbers of women from the Philippines could be seen working in Khartoum as nurses in private hospitals and child care-takers within households. Aside from the potential for labor exploitation and domestic servitude, these arrangements also do little to enhance economic productivity, growth, and employment levels within Sudan. Many foreign workers within Sudan send remittances to other countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Both the “nouveau riche” and other heavy spenders have a surplus of disposable cash to spend on material objects. They drive the latest luxury sedans and SUVs imported from abroad, not the vehicles assembled locally in Khartoum by the GIAD Motor company. Their spending habits may explain how a country experiencing economic difficulties of Sudan’s scale consumes an estimated $2 billion worth of foreign cosmetic products and imports a large amount of furniture from Turkey, Malaysia, and China, along with luxury housewares from Italy and elsewhere. Some of these goods are considered important status symbols for a new class of people who strive for the appearance of wealth, and who aspire to the heights of status achieved by those who have acquired their wealth from the state.
Nowhere is this extreme consumerism more apparent than with the emergence of an entire industry developed to satisfy the appetite for luxury of the nouveau riche class. This industry specializes in helping to plan extravagant displays of wealth, including elaborate weddings that last for weeks and involve several parties in “salas,” or special halls decorated for such events.
Beyond places of wealth: life outside on the edge
Pulling away from these scenes of opulence and distortion, one passes through wealthy neighbourhoods with high-end restaurants for the few who can afford them. On the way out of town one speeds past houses, fully stocked groceries, fast food joints, pharmacies, hardware stores, and other small businesses—structures built on the dreams of Sudanese migrants working abroad and investments from the remittances they send in hopes of bettering the lives of their families and someday returning home.
Outside Khartoum it is particularly striking to see the manifestations of poverty, neglect, and crippling economic decline that have accompanied the centralization of wealth and industry in Sudan’s capital city. The economic mainstay of many towns outside Khartoum has been destroyed. The suffocation of the railway industry, for example, spelled the death of Atbara—Sudan’s first real industrial city from the turn of the 20th century in northeast River Nile state. The destruction of the Gezira Scheme, one of the world’s largest projects to irrigate cash crops, has crippled the city of Wad Madani, to the southeast of Khartoum in Al Jazira state. The failure to resolve chronic deficiencies in the drinking water supply in El Obeid has contributed to the decline of the capital city of North Kordofan state, which had been the largest grain market in the country from the 1960s until the 1980s.
Nearly all Sudan’s wealth and assets are now located in Khartoum and Port Sudan, and these have been long since acquired by a narrow set of political elites, regime loyalists, and their business allies.
Infusions of cash from outside Sudan cannot address the choices and policies that have created Sudan’s economic crisis and led to an unsustainably lopsided concentration of wealth in one main area and one sector of society. The country ultimately needs its leaders to pursue economic policies that promote a far more equitable distribution of wealth across the country and sectors of the population. Sudan’s well-established, well-educated, and highly skilled workers have been respected for centuries throughout the continent and the broader Middle East for their tremendous ingenuity, skill, and enterprising spirit. This population is now gravitating from Sudan toward the Middle East and Persian Gulf countries to find opportunities and compensation. Those who remain in Sudan are slipping into poverty. Sudan is losing an opportunity to integrate them into the economy in ways that benefit industry and commerce for all Sudanese people.
Lifting people from poverty, easing inequalities, rebuilding the national workforce and industrial sectors, and ultimately rebounding from economic losses to thrive again requires Sudan to invest much more generously in its most valuable resource—its people. Not to do so is everyone’s loss.
The author is an Advisor at the Enough Project