Turkey’s interest in Horn of Africa a multi-faceted affair – analyst

Turkey’s expanding political and economic investments in the Horn of Africa and its continued presence in the region, while initially economic and values-driven, may today be motivated in part by competition with Gulf adversaries, wrote analyst Zach Vertin in the Lawfare Blog hosted by the Brookings Institution. 

Ankara fashions itself a benevolent power driven by an “enterprising and humanitarian” foreign policy, but Gulf rivals say Turkey’s moves in the Horn are part of a dangerous “neo-Ottoman” revival, the article said.

Turkey’s interest in Somalia began in 2011, following a visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to a Mogadishu that was devastated by famine, Vertin wrote. What was initially a humanitarian initiative developed over time, with Ankara surging aid funding, initiating development projects, opening schools, and assuming a leading role in shaping the state-building agenda.

Nowadays Turkish firms operate Mogadishu’s air and seaports and trains Somali government soldiers at its military facility in the country.  

Turkey’s presence in the country ‘’ has been more learning experience than calculated power play, one accompanied by domestic debate about how its posture is perceived—not only in Somalia, but across the continent,’’ Vertin opined.

Turkey’s heightened interest in Sudan, on the other hand, began in early 2017, when Erdoğan began to develop ties with then-embattled leader and International Criminal Court-indictee Omar al Bashir.

Turkey has increased its military presence in Sudan’s Suakin Island, in an attempt to restore the glory the country’s Ottoman legacy establishing a foothold on the Red Sea. The country has also opened a military base in Sudan. 

Turkey’s bilateral deals with the country reaching some $650 million have caused fear in the Gulf and Egypt, of Ankara boost its regional influence.

However, the military coup that deposed al-Bashir in April may alter the course of Turkey-Sudan relations

Turkey has signalled a desire to sustain the country’s relations with Sudan and Ankara is now in a stand-by as the country’s administration transitions.

Ankara has been relatively less visible in the predominantly Orthodox Christian nation of Ethiopia, Vertin wrote, despite its commercial investments in the country reportedly outweighing those in both Somalia and Sudan.

The article cited Turkish commentators who said a partnership with Ethiopia could provide useful leverage against Egypt, should relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his allies remain on the rocks.

Turkey has not ignored the tiny port nation of Djibouti, either, making modest investments. The country’s president has been aligned with the Saudi/UAE camp, the article noted, since the Gulf partners paid him to lease a military base in 2015 and helped lift UN sanctions.

Critics maintain Turkey’s increasing involvement in the Red Sea region is driven by economic and strategic considerations rather than ideology. Nonetheless, Saudi countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt remain agitated by Turkish moves in the area amid an ongoing international struggle for influence in the region.

While the Horn of Africa may not be among Ankara’s top five issues, it remains significant as part of a larger strategic contest for influence across the Middle East, the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean, Vertin noted.