Turkey's Sudan port deal greeted with deep suspicion by Cairo
Energy politics featured heavily in Arab media coverage of Turkey this week, with stories on Turkey’s standoff with Egypt over gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, and news of Turkish companies’ withdrawal from the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant.
One notable story also touched on Turkey’s diplomatic expansion in the Red Sea region, to dispel rumours around a Turkish military base in Sudan.
Turkey’s announcement that it will start gas exploration in eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Egypt in a 2013 deal with Cyprus is part of a campaign of “harassment,” according to a column by Dr Samir Farag published in the Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.
Farag has served in diverse civilian and military roles over a decades-long career, including as the Egyptian military attaché in Ankara and the governor of Luxor. He is currently the chairman and CEO of NAT Energy, an Egyptian energy holding company.
Egypt’s 2013 deal with Cyprus demarcates maritime borders between the two countries, allowing for gas exploration in an area near the island that holds potentially huge reserves. The deal is a part of Egypt’s drive to become energy self-sufficient this year, and an exporter of energy to Europe by 2020, wrote Farag.
This deal, together with a planned Egypt-Cyprus-Greece gas pipeline and naval modernisation projects, will lead Egypt to becoming a “great economic power in the region” by 2020, according to Farag.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, condemned the deal in an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini on Feb. 4, claiming that it had contravened the “inalienable rights” of Turkish Cypriots to the island’s natural resources, and declaring that Turkey would explore the area for gas.
Çavuşoğlu’s statements are part of a “new stage of political and economic harassment of Egypt”, wrote Farag. Turkish-Egyptian relations have been mutually antagonistic since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi in a coup in 2013.
The confrontation over Mediterranean gas is part of a concerted effort by Turkey to undermine Egypt in its own neighbourhood and foil its development plans, according to Farag’s article, which also cites Turkey’s December 2017 deal with Sudan to redevelop the Red Sea port city of Suakin as part of this scheme.
The Suakin deal, which grants Turkey temporary control over an island port in the Sudanese city to rebuild its disused docks for civilian and military use, was greeted with deep suspicion by Cairo, and triggered a diplomatic spat between Egypt and Sudan.
Two of the main points of contention between the two neighbours were the perception that the Suakin deal signalled the arrival of a bolstered Turkish military presence in the Red Sea, and allegations that the reconstruction project would lead to the establishment of a Turkish military base on the island.
However, Sudan was also unimpressed with its neighbour’s dealings in the Red Sea, recalling its ambassador to Cairo on Jan. 4 as a response to a deal handing over two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia, a deal which Khartoum rejects, but also in the midst of angry statements from Egyptian officials around Suakin.
Relations are set to return to normal after a successful meeting between their foreign ministers on Thursday, according to a news report in the Saudi pan-Arab news site Asharq Al-Awsat. The ministers were also joined by their countries’ intelligence chiefs at the meeting.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said the meeting was “a first step to solving all the problems that resulted in the recall of our ambassador”, while his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shukry, described it as “very successful”.
Ghandour also firmly denied that his country had any intention to grant Turkey a military base on Suakin island. The denial, made in the context of a high-level meeting attended by the Egyptian foreign minister and intelligence chief, may put to rest months of speculation from Arab and Turkish journalists around the prospect of a Turkish military expansion into the Red Sea.
Asharq Al-Awsat also published an in-depth article dealing with Turkey’s energy policy on Wednesday, starting with the announcement that a Turkish energy consortium had pulled out of the joint Russian-Turkish project to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, in the town of Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast.
The Russian energy company Rosatom is the majority stakeholder in the project, with a 51 percent share. The three Turkish companies in the Cengiz-Kolin-Kalyon consortium announced they would be pulling out after failing to reach an agreement on commercial terms.
Asharq Al-Awsat cited sources close to the project, who said that a Turkish firm is in the running to take up the remaining 49 percent and replace the consortium in the construction of the plant, which could meet as much as 7 percent of Turkey’s energy requirements.
The deal with Russia will strengthen Russian-Turkish ties and could lead to further economic collaboration, the article said.
The plant is due to be completed in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic’s founding. The increased production capacity it brings will be especially welcome given the additional future costs of buying gas from Iran, according to the Asharq Al-Awsat.
Turkey had been benefiting from free gas imports from Iran after the International Court of Arbitration ruled in Turkey’s favour in an overcharging dispute, and ordered Tehran to reduce its prices and repay Ankara $1.9 billion in compensation. With that amount now repaid, Turkey is once again being billed for Iranian gas.