The decline of Sudan’s cappuccino-sipping middle class

The Sudanese capital Khartoum has a reputation as something of a backwater. Here the White and Blue Niles meet to form the Nile proper and flow northwards to Egypt. But the rivers, though impressive in their breadth, proceed in a sluggish swirl and are closer to brown than the bright colours suggested by their names.

The town centre still bears architectural traces of the country’s history as a misguided Anglo-Egyptian colonial experiment. But those old buildings have grown tattered with age. As Sudanese writer Nesrine Malik wrote about her childhood in Khartoum: the “city always struck me as sleepy and dark – power cuts were frequent and the oppressive heat infused everything with a sticky torpor. Unlike Cairo to the north or Nairobi to the south, Khartoum did not have that frenetic energy or drama.”

After the turn of the millennium, the reality of the Sudanese capital rapidly outstripped its dowdy reputation. In 1999 Sudan began exporting oil. A decade-long economic boom transformed Khartoum and Sudan as a whole – and vastly expanded the size of the middle class. Businessmen, property developers and contractors in the oil industry joined doctors and engineers (both particularly highly regarded in Sudanese society) in the swelling ranks of the reasonably well-off.

By 2009, when this author arrived in the city for the first time, Khartoum appeared considerably more modern than Cairo. In neighbourhoods like Amarat (“building” in Arabic), blocks of flats – stubby, concrete but undeniably new – had been thrown together on many of the grid-like streets. In the Riyadh district, on the other side of Khartoum International Airport, restaurants flourished on every street, promising Italian, Japanese, Malaysian or Lebanese delights. One shop, on the corner of a busy junction, sold the finest perfumes the Arab world had to offer.

Those flats, restaurants and shops targeted a burgeoning middle class. But the prosperity of those boom years ended when South Sudan seceded in 2011 and delivered a serious blow to Sudan’s economy. Three-quarters of the daily oil production was in the new country and Sudan was left with the crumbs. From 2011 to 2012, GDP shrank by 10%, after exceeding 10% growth per year in the mid-2000s, according to the World Bank. The oil boom was over.

The last three years have been increasingly desperate: the government was forced to remove fuel subsidies, sending the price of transport and many basic goods soaring. Inflation is regularly over 40% annually, according to the Central Bank. The Sudanese pound, which before the split traded at less than three to the US dollar, is now worth just over 10 cents on the black market.

The government has brutally shut down a succession of protests over the failing economy. In September 2013 security forces killed as many as 185 protesters, largely in Khartoum and the surrounding area. For once, the frustrated youth on the streets were from prosperous backgrounds, pharmacists, doctors and the sons and daughters of well-known families. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the rich. For the middle classes, their new prosperity was slipping through their fingers.

For some, it has fallen off their plates. Tahani Abbas, for instance, struggles with her family’s meals. Although the aubergines sizzling in the pan on the small gas stove smell delicious, this usually cheery woman is not happy. “There is no chicken, no meat,” she explains. “Now, I’m cooking only with vegetables, because things are so expensive. Before we could take meat, but most Sudanese families cannot afford it. Maybe only once a week.”

Abbas does not work. Her husband, a journalist, supports the family. Like many, he sees inflation gouging his salary every day. “Everything is much more expensive,” Abbas laments.

The rich still get state-of-the-art treatment at the Royal Care International hospital in Burri, in eastern Khartoum, not far from Abbas’s small flat. But the soaring costs of imported scanners, Asian doctors (who are permitted to work in Sudan and are seen as highly qualified), and nurses have pushed prices beyond the squeezed middle class. They go to less established clinics or take their chances in ramshackle state hospitals. Even here they have to pay for their drugs, an increasing burden as the cost of imported medication grows.

Education is another problem. Mistrust of the state school system is so widespread that even poor families in the capital try to send their children to private schools. As the economy nosedives, more and more parents are pulling their children out of school. Even state schools require children to pay for uniforms and textbooks. Abdallah Nur, a driver, says he can only afford to send three of his six children to school. He worries about the future of those who are not learning.

It all seems a long way from the oil boom years after 1999 when Khartoum’s new middle classes sipped smoothies and overpriced cappuccinos in cafés throughout the capital. If they were feeling particularly flush, they headed to Ozone, a slick café where overhead fans sprayed a mist of chilled water to allay the sweltering Sudanese sun. The cheesecake was as good as anything New York had to offer, and cost just as much. Taxi drivers in battered black and yellow cabs marvelled at the folly of paying the equivalent of several dollars for a polythene-wrapped sandwich, when a hearty plate of fuul, or fava beans cooked in sesame oil, could be had for a tenth of the price.

Sudan had always had a middle class, but never on this scale, and never quite so visibly. The oil industry produced billions of dollars of revenue every year, and – in Khartoum at least – it transformed many lives.

The picture outside the capital was very different. One of Sudan’s perennial problems, from the Anglo-Egyptian period to the present day, has been the concentration of power, wealth and development in Khartoum. Three Nile Valley ethnic groups, the Jaaliyin, Shaigiya and Danagla, sometimes known together as the Awlad al bahr (“children of the river”), have dominated politically and economically. Helped by simple proximity in what was a territory of a million square miles, the colonialists bestowed the best economic opportunities on the Awlad al bahr. This riverine elite subsequently led the struggle for independence.

Since Sudan first raised its flag, on January 1st 1956, this privileged group has monopolised power to the detriment of Sudan’s remote regions. Throughout the country’s history, inequalities in development have sparked conflict. South Sudan seceded in 2011, after two devastating civil wars. In Darfur, in the west, fighting began in 2003 and still rumbles on. In other marginalised areas, in Blue Nile and in South Kordofan, conflicts continue.

To break into the middle classes, ambitious Sudanese had to move to Khartoum. The capital offered, and still offers, a disproportionate concentration of good schools, jobs and the remote (but desperately hoped for) chance of moving up a social class. The oil boom of the 1990s – which created that cappuccino-sipping new middle class in Khartoum – also contributed to entrenching the inequality already so rampant in the Sudanese system. For once, large amounts of money were available for development, but it was inordinately invested in Khartoum and the surrounding area.

The explosion in the size of the middle class had other consequences. President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party adroitly bought off dissent and rewarded those perceived as party loyalists.

The oil wealth created a middle class that was “unfortunately quite tied to the politicians, in terms of their ethnicity and religious fundamentalism”, says Haj Hamed, an economist. The new, moderately wealthy did not act as a check to the politicians – who, after all, had created them. This middle class was conservative and invested in property rather than “circulating money into small businesses and medium industries, which create jobs and spread the national wealth”, Hamed explains. The middle class had got its money easily, and did not want to let it go.

Now, as the economic crisis grows, they have no choice. Life for the poor, still the vast majority of Sudanese, is harder than ever. As for the middle class, many feel their advantages have evaporated. In 2012, 94,000 people left the country, many of them professionals who migrated to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, according to the Sudanese labour ministry. The number for 2013 is thought to be even higher. Middle-class families are sending their children away or investing abroad what little spare money they have.

The end of the oil years has reversed the great expansion of the middle class. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for 2015. Whether the hitherto quiescent Khartoum bourgeoisie will make apparent its dissatisfaction at its bowed circumstances is one of Sudan’s pressing political questions.

This article first appeared in Good Governance Africa.