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That report is "outdated now," said a State Department official, explaining that bin Laden divested himself of all holdings in 1996 when he was kicked out of Sudan and moved to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.