Turkey being drawn into Red Sea power struggle

Turkey’s increasing involvement in the Red Sea region is driven by economic and strategic considerations rather than ideology, writes academic Mustafa Gurbuz in the Arab Center Washington DC’s website.  

At the end of 2016, Turkey signed an agreement to establish a free trade zone in Djibouti. The following September it set up a military base in Somalia. In December last year it signed $650 million worth of deals with Sudan, including purchasing the rights to rebuild Suakin Island and establish a naval dock there.

These moves come at time of increasing militarisation in the region as war rages in Yemen and a crisis in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) pits Qatar against an array of Gulf Arab states led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s interests in the region can be partly understood as a response to the ongoing GCC crisis, wrote Gurbuz. As the crisis drags on, Turkey, which has consistently supported Doha, has come to perceive itself as the latent target of the embargo on Qatar and in response has sought to strengthen its relations with countries such as Somalia and Sudan.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are among countries agitated by Turkish moves. Turkish assurances that the deal over Suakin Island has no military dimension are unlikely to be heeded, especially, following meetings between top Turkish, Qatari and Sudanese military officials in Khartoum and the existing Turkish military presence in Somalia, with another base planned for Djibouti.

Turkey’s activity in the Red Sea region also poses a challenge to relations between the United States and Ankara. Washington worries that increasing militarisation in the Red Sea may result in its military partners in the Middle East coming to blows as the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis competes with the Doha-Ankara axis for influence in the region. This would undermine the Trump administration’s anti-Iran coalition.

Thus although Turkey’s motives in involving itself in the Red Sea may be driven by economic and strategic motives rather than neo-Ottoman dreams, Ankara risks dragging itself into a complicated power struggle.