WASHINGTON -- The United States denounces Sudan for harboring terrorism and tries to squeeze the Sudanese with economic sanctions. Last month it even bombed Khartoum, the capital.
But there's an exception for the one thing Sudan has that U.S. industry needs. That's gum arabic, a key ingredient in such vital commodities as orange soda, diet drinks, candies, printing production and even beer foam.
Sudan produces 70 percent of the world's gum arabic and through an exemption in President Clinton's tough sanctions, sacks of the amber-colored or clear gum nuggets are still arriving U.S. ports. Now many are scrambling to defend the imports, from the nation's companies that bring in hundreds of tons each year to the members of Congress who hope to extend gum arabic's exemption from the list of barred Sudanese goods into the next century.
There has even been a reversal of the U.S. contention that Saudi terrorist financier Osama bin Laden once had an interest in the gum arabic production. A 1996 State Department report said bin Laden secured a near monopoly on the resin crop through two of his companies.
That report is "outdated now," said a State Department official, explaining that bin Laden divested himself of all holdings in 1996 when he was kicked out of Sudan and moved to Afghanistan. Another State Department official said bin Laden and his cronies tried to take over all the gum arabic crop in the early 1990s "but failed in their attempt."
Last November, President Clinton unilaterally tightened sanctions on Sudan for its support of terrorists, halting most business transactions between U.S. companies and individuals with the African nation. But Clinton's executive order stated an exemption would be allowed for products unavailable from other sources "such as gum arabic."
"The gum arabic lobby is very active," said a government official at the time.
Gum arabic has been bought and sold since the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt. Its name derives from the fact that the gum was shipped to Europe from Arabic ports. Today the substance is used as an emulsifier in soft drinks, a thickener in candies and jellies, a binder in special-purpose inks and drugs, even a foam stabilizer in beer.
Chad, Ethiopia and Nigeria also produce the resin, although not of the quality and quantity of Sudan, said U.S. importers and Sudanese exporters.
Sudanese gum comes from the forests of acacia or "hashab" trees that grow in the semi-arid central quadrants of Sudan, harvested by farmers using the same primitive techniques as their ancestors.
The gum is gathered up, sold at one of 13 auction markets, and then resold to the Gum Arabic Co. Ltd. The gum is trucked to the company's processing plant in Port Sudan. There, factory workers clean and sort the raw gum. Some is refined into a powder, but much of it remains in crude form for sales abroad.
Nearly all of the gum arabic harvested in Sudan is for export, controlled by the Gum Arabic Co. Thirty percent of the company is owned by the Sudanese Ministry of Finance with Sudanese private interests controlling the remaining 70 percent, said a company statement.
The charge that bin Laden has a near monopoly on the product "is completely baseless," said Omer El Mubarak, the company's chairman.
"Osama bin Laden does not have any involvement in cultivating trees to produce gum in any form or involved in the processing of gum inside Sudan or outside Sudan," D. Musa Mohamed Karam, the company's general manager, said in an interview in the firm's Khartoum office. "Nor does he have any stake or shares in the Gum Arabic company. Nor is he providing financing to the gum business inside Sudan or facilitating the export of gum from Sudan. That's for sure."
Karam said he checked the company records, which date from 1969. "We know from where they get their gum, where they get their financing," he said.
Thirty years ago, gum arabic was the second leading export in Sudan. Today, gum arabic exports total 30,000 tons, half of what it was in the 1960s, Karam said. Gum represents 20 percent of the country's export earnings now, he said.
As a result of the trade exemption, U.S. importers of gum arabic were allowed to fulfill pre-existing contracts that will keep the resin flowing through the end of this year, said officials with two New Jersey-based importers. The importers are trying to secure U.S. government approval for gum arabic imports next year, but a State Department official said that was unlikely. "The door has been shut," he said.
Meanwhile, the gum arabic lobby -- which includes the National Soft Drink Association, the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America -- has pressed Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, to come to their aid.
The two lawmakers earlier this year proposed an amendment to a pending Africa trade bill that would continue to allow the importation of gum arabic from Sudan through Jan. 1, 2003.
Menendez last month released a statement saying he supported exemptions before the allegations linking bin Laden to gum arabic. "If these reports are confirmed I am prepared to withdraw my support for an exemption for gum arabic from the Sudan sanctions," he said.
Asked if the congressman was concerned the exemption will also benefit terrorist-supporting Sudan, Hal Connolly, the congressman's spokesman said: "I don't know enough to actually comment on that."
"Extending the exemption makes sense," said Larry Neal, a spokesman for Gramm, who quickly pointed out the lack of evidence linking bin Laden to gum arabic. If a connection is found the senator "would reassess" his support for the amendment, said Neal.
What about supporting Sudan? "I guess you'd have to ask all the folks who need gum arabic how important it is," he said. "I assume it's important to The Sun."
Gum arabic is used in the chemical preservatives that keep newspaper printing plates moist. The National Newspaper Association, whose members include The Sun and 95 percent of American newspapers, supports the continued access to Sudanese gum arabic, said Paul J. Boyle, director of government affairs for the association.
While the association provided information to both the State and Commerce departments about the need for Sudanese gum arabic, he said, it was not actively involved in the lobbying campaign. "It's not used as heavily in our industry," he said. "We're so far removed."
Most of the gum arabic is used in the food and pharmaceutical industry, said Shirley Christian, business manager for Frutarom Meer Corporation of North Bergen, N.J., which imports and processes about 500 metric tons of gum arabic from Sudan each year. Another New Jersey company, Importers Service Corp., is licensed to bring in 1,500 metric tons this year.
"You try to get it from Sudan because it has a quality" lacking from both Chad and Nigeria, said Christian. "It's quite essential to our business." Christian said she has been dealing with the Gum Arabic Co. since its inception in 1969 and believes the company's statements about bin Laden. "They categorically deny any association with this creep," she said.
As for charges that Sudan supports terrorism, she said "Of course it concerns me. I don't know if it's true."
Jim Finkelstein, executive vice president of the National Soft Drink Association, which is pressing Congress to extend the gum arabic exemption, also brushed aside questions about Sudan. "I don't have any comment," he said. "The soft drink industry is going to comply with the law."
Although U.S. businesses are still bringing in gum arabic, imports of the resin from Sudan have dropped 14 percent over last year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Gum arabic imports through June of this year were $2.4 million, down from $2.8 million from the same period last year.
Karam, of the Gum Arabic company, estimates that about $6 million to $7 million (or 4,000 to 5,000 tons) worth of Sudanese gum arabic has reached the United States. Since the trade embargo, he said, Sudan's gum arabic exports to France have increased.
"And we know that the biggest market for France is the United States," said Karam. "We know Sudanese gum is going to the United States through other channels.'
One U.S. importer of gum arabic that is looking elsewhere for the gum additive is TIC Gums of Belcamp, Md. The firm is doing so even though it has an exemption this year for imports.
The company began to look to other African countries for gum arabic several years ago, said Stephen A. Andon, president of TIC Gums.
"TIC Gums has not imported one pound of gum arabic from the Sudan in 1998," Andon said in a statement. "Although we have the right to do so, TIC Gums will not import any Sudanese gum arabic until the U.S. government is satisfied that doing so does not jeopardize American lives."
But Karam, the Sudanese businessman, questions the point of a trade embargo that hasn't kept gum arabic out of the United States and probably couldn't because of the ability to export through another country. "The United States is one of our markets -- it's not our only market," said Karam. "Gum will be there, but it will be there at a higher cost."
Pub Date: 9/15/98