Port Sudan — An asphalt highway -- recently completed with the help of five nations -- stretches like a black ribbon from this ramshackle Red Sea port through shimmering desert sands.
Heavy trucks loaded with tires, refrigerators, and wheat, and buses crammed with people charge down the highway in the midday heat shedding thick clouds of diesel exhaust.
Along the road, rashaida nomads tend their camels near the low-slung tents that they have pitched among the sparse desert bushes.
The 700-mile highway is the lifeline of Africa's largest country.
Despite completion of this vital link between Port Sudan and Khartoum, Sudan's infrastructure is a disaster. And the nation's economy is in crisis despite the nation's huge potential.
According to some observers, this varied nation of blowing sands, cotton fields watered by the White and Blue Nile, nomads, and port merchants, is worse off now than it was before independence in 1956.
''Theoretically,'' remarks one European shipping merchant in Port Sudan, ''this country has an attractive future. It has a huge agricultural potential, a huge tourist potential, and has the capacity to serve as an important link between the Middle East and Africa. Yet it just can't seem to get out of its doldrums.''
What's the matter in Sudan? In many respects, it is caught in the same vicious circle as most third-world nations. Spiraling oil prices have shattered its development programs, forcing the government to spend vital foreign exchange on imported fuel.
Exports amounted to only $500 million in 1981 -- a 30 percent drop over the previous year -- and the country suffers from a rising $1 billion trade deficit. Imports are on the rise.
Sudanese officials argue that lack of investment and high costs are the country's biggest impediments, but poor management, lack of initiative, and insufficient trained personnel are equally detrimental.
Nearly 95 percent of the country's exports are agricultural, and four-fifths of the labor force is involved in food production. Rain-fed crops such as sorghum, vegetables, and groundnuts have been good in recent years, but exports of cotton, one of Sudan's most profitable cash products, have fallen by half.
Many large-scale irrigation projects, which the government hoped would transform Sudan into the breadbasket of the Middle East, were started when fuel and fertilizer were cheap in the 1950s and '60s. High costs have whittled down those dreams.
Roughly 80 million acres of the country is suited to crops, but less than one-quarter of this land presently is cultivated. And about 120 million acres suitable for raising livestock are only partially in use.
''Stagnation in food production could easily be boosted by improved organization and logistics,'' says a United States aid official. But many crops lie rotting because transportation is inadequate to bring them to market. Lack of spare parts is another problem.
Sudan's deteriorating economy has also forced more than 400,000 doctors, engineers, plumbers, carpenters, and ordinary workers to seek better wages and employment in the Gulf. This drain on Sudan's human resources has severely handicapped development at home.
Furthermore, only a small portion of salaries sent back into Sudan actually helps the economy. Most hard currency is changed on the curiously ''legal'' blackmarket and invested in luxury goods.
Khartoum University, once a highly regarded institution, has seen its standards fall drastically as its teachers emigrate elsewhere.
Sudan's civil service also suffers from a low level of competence in many bottom -- and middle-rank jobs. Low salaries are part of the problem, which feeds corruption in the bureaucracy.
Almost every domain in government hands, whether agricultural projects or factories, is plagued by bad management and poorly trained personnel. There is now a conscientious move toward more initiative and free enterprise in an attempt to stimulate the economy.
The majestic Grand Hotel in Khartoum overlooking the White Nile has the potential of becoming one of the most romantically comfortable hotels on the African continent. And yet, despite its historic location and high prices, there is a general air of despondency, inefficiency, and uncharasteristic rudeness.
The same goes for Sudan Airways. Like many developing countries, Sudan insists on maintaining expensive overseas routes to show the flag.
Domestic services however, are hopelessly neglected, seriously affecting the country's economic performance. Scheduled flights are often delayed for days or never leave at all.
Fuel shortage is one of the reasons for this inefficiency, but so is inadequate organization and the tendency of government ministers to commandeer aircraft for matters of state.
''Poor transportation is a very serious drawback for Sudan,'' said an American banker in Cairo. ''We'd like to invest more over there but one wastes too much trying just trying to get from place to place.''
President Jaafar Nimeiry is genuinely interested in developing his country, but the problems often seem depressingly insurmountable.
In an effort to promote government decentralization and subdue opposition critics, President Nimiery recently dissolved regional assemblies and held parliamentary elections. Opposition politicians were allowed to run for office.
The International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development are trying to build a base for restoring financial stability to the economy. So are numerous other foreign donors, including the United States.
Recovery measures are a mixed bag of policy reforms, public-expenditure restraints, borrowing and credit, and the dismantling of inefficient public enterprises. The Sudanese pound is grossly overvalued, making Sudan one of Africa's most expensive countries.
One big hope is the discovery of oil. There are indications that Sudan might reach self-sufficiecy in fuel, which would prove a godsend in helping to correct its balance of payments situation. ''It is still too early to say whether Sudan could become a major oil exporter,'' said a US oil-company official.
Western economists believe that Sudan will be in severe financial straits for at least another three years. US officials regard Sudan's relative stability and moderate political orientation toward the West as working in the best interests of the US, too.
As a result, the US profile has become more noticeable since 1979 and Sudan has become the No. 1 recipient of US economic and military assistance in Africa. Economic aid in 1981 alone totaled $115 million.
''But for Sudan to get out of its present mess,'' notes one US official, ''it must create an infrastructure which will encourage investment.
Only then can it hope to reverse the downhill trend and start attracting back all the human resources it has been losing to the Gulf.''