Showdown in Sudan

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, Mar. 19 – Actor George Clooney, fresh off a visit to the White House last week, found himself a guest of another branch of government a few days later: the US Secret Service. Along with Clooney, at least eight others were given similar accommodations, including his father Nick Clooney.

They were all arrested after staging a protest at the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. Their demand? That Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir immediately end his government’s blockade of food and humanitarian aid intended for people in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions.

After speaking on the steps of the embassy to hundreds of activists, Clooney along with other activist leaders were asked by police to leave. When they refused, officers swooped in for the arrests.

The protestors included Martin Luther King III, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Enough Project Co-Founder John Prendergast, President of United to End Genocide Tom Andrews and four US Congressmen: Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Al Green, D-Texas, Jim Moran, D-Va., and John Olver, D-Mass.


If anyone doubts Clooney’s sincerity in protesting on behalf of the beleaguered Sudanese people, they need to think again.

The Hollywood actor, nominated for an Oscar this year, has long been on this issue as underscored by his role as producer and narrator of Sand and Sorrow, a documentary depicting the horrors perpetrated in the region by al-Bashir’s regime.

Clooney certainly has the respect of US leaders, too. Just days before his protest at the Sudanese embassy, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations which held a hearing on independence and insecurity in Sudan and South Sudan.

Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry introduced Clooney as an actor, but underlined his credentials by referring to him as co-founder – along with John Prendergast – of an important means to understand events in the region.

“They represent the Satellite Sentinel Project, which has given us a window in to events in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and elsewhere,” Kerry said, adding that the two had just returned from Sudan. “So I think today we will have a good opportunity to really get some insights, and we welcome it,” he said.


Quite apart from the humanitarian crisis now brewing in Sudan, Ranking Committee Member Sen. Richard Lugar noted that the impact of the “bloody fighting” has been brought home to the US in the form of higher gas prices.

“When the comprehensive peace agreement, signed in 2005, finally achieved the separation of South Sudan from the north last July, it was hoped that the petroleum wealth that they share, oil from the south exported through pipelines in the north, would be deemed too precious for either side to forego,” Lugar said.

“Instead, however, oil exports have stopped, putting upward pressures on oil prices globally. Even though the United States imported no oil from Sudan, oil is traded on a world market. So in today’s tight oil market, any major loss of supply affects all prices,” he said.

Clooney and Prendergast are highly aware of the role played by oil in the current crisis. Indeed, two years ago, in an Op-Ed for The Washington Post, they were explicit in linking Khartoum’s policy of terror to its drive to secure the country’s oil.


“Over the past 20 years, the regime in Khartoum has armed and politicized the northern communities that border Abyei, using them as a battering ram to drive out residents and ensure control of the area’s valuable oilfields,” Clooney and Prendergast wrote.

They went on to quote Dinka inhabitants of Abyei on their need for the oil that lies underneath their lands: “We have suffered so much for so long. The oil is a gift for our suffering. We cannot give it away. We just want to feel the winds of freedom.”

The repercussions of the situation in Sudan go far beyond the Dinka, now stretching all the way into the highest levels of international politics as Sudan’s oil is mostly exported to China, thirsty for every drop it can find.

Apart from higher gas prices, though, the shutdown of oil production in South Sudan also makes a problem for Washington D.C., given its efforts to get Beijing on board with sanctions against Iran. In the Kerry hearing, Prendergast recognized that point and drew it to everyone’s attention.


“To put a fine point on what this moment does present with the cut off of the oil, is that President Obama and President Hu are going to meet very soon,” he said. “This is a chance to put the issue high on the radar screen of the two leaders.”

The D.C. protest that saw the arrest of one of Hollywood’s most famous actors, along with a host of other activists was not a stunt. Clooney, Prendergast, and all of the others know exactly what is at stake.

Yes, it’s about oil, but oil that will enable the Dinka and other South Sudanese to feel the winds of freedom. It’s also about oil that could spell the difference between war and peace in the Middle East.

Contact Eric Watkins at


About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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One Response to Showdown in Sudan

  1. douglas c jones says:

    Eric Watkins is an exceptional reporter. And as anyone following the petroleum industry knows,
    nearly everything is touched by the influence of oil. Since he left Oil and Gas Journal as Oil Diplomacy reporter, we have been anxious to see him reappear.

    How much does it cost to subscribe? There is no free lunch.

    Doug Jones

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