Michael MacKenzie
Dec 29 2017

Erdoğan’s Africa trip draws Arabs’ ire over “imperial” ambition

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tour of African states has angered Gulf Arab states wary of what they see as Turkey’s expansionist neo-Ottoman ambitions in their backyard.

Erdoğan signed an agreement with Sudan on Sunday to rebuild the ruined Ottoman port city of Suakin, on the Red Sea, and construct docks to service both civilian and military ships.

Arab politicians and Arabic media said the agreement showed Turkey was an expansionist power seeking to dominate the region through an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkish former foreign minister, Yaşar Yakış, meanwhile told Ahval that Erdoğan’s visit, which also included stops in Tunisia and Chad, was both “successful and timely”.

But, he cautioned, “it will be unrealistic to expect too much from such visits, because the countries that are covered by the visit have limited possibility to contribute to Turkey. It remains to be seen whether Turkey will be able to give substance to the agreements signed during the visit. On the other hand, Turkey needs new markets and new friends in the world”.

Turkish opposition leaders condemned Erdoğan’s friendly relations with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, while Meral Akşener, the leader of the dissident nationalist opposition Good Party called on the government to reclaim 18 Aegean islands she said were occupied by Greece.

Turkey has become embroiled in a series of simmering disputes with Gulf Arab countries since June this year when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Turkey rushed to Qatar’s aid, bringing the confrontation to a stalemate and placing the Turks, in the eyes of the Arab quartet, on the same side as their arch rivals in Iran.

It is thus no surprise that Erdoğan’s latest manoeuvre, and the prospect of a Turkish presence in Sudan, are viewed by nervous members of the quartet as a highly provocative move. A glance at the map will explain why: Sudan is Egypt’s only neighbour to the south, and Suakin is a short distance away from Saudi Arabia’s major Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

Mosque on mainland el-Geyf, Suakin, Sudan. Picture taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia
Mosque on mainland el-Geyf, Suakin, Sudan. Picture taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia

Egypt

Turkey’s relations with the most populous Arab state have been ice cold since the 2013 coup overthrew Mohamed Morsi as president and brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. Erdoğan vehemently condemned Sisi, the coup, and the bloody suppression of protesters in its aftermath, signalling his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the group outlawed as a terrorist organisation by the quartet blockading Qatar.

Youm7, an Egyptian private daily and the country’s most visited news website, said on Sunday that Sudan had been “tempted” by Erdoğan and his entourage of Turkish businessmen to relinquish control of its economy to Turkey with promises of “food and an airport”. Turkey’s motives, the site said, lie in its “alliance with the international terrorist organisation [the Muslim Brotherhood], Qatar and Iran”.

The article’s headline plays on historical grievances that have recently been a striking part of the political discourse between Turkey and its Arab rivals: “Sudan in the arms of the Ottomans”.

The government-owned Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest-circulation print newspaper, quoted the Sudanese journalist Fayez al-Sleik, who defined the Turkey-Sudan deal as a move against Egypt and the Gulf States. Yet again, the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood was at the centre of analysis, with al-Sleik referring to the “ideological ties” linking Bashir’s regime in Sudan to Erdoğan, Qatar, and the Muslim Brothers of Egypt.

Bashir has been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood since he seized power in 1989 in a coup with support from the group’s leader Hasan al-Turabi. His relationship with the Brotherhood since its downfall in Egypt, and the subsequent international pressure from Sisi’s regime and the Gulf states, has been less clear.

The Egyptian media reports led to heated responses from Sudanese officials, the Sudan Tribune said, with the Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour on Tuesday hitting back at the “embittered” Egyptian journalists, and the ambassador to Cairo branding the press “fools”.

Kitcheners Gate, city gate on mainland, Suakin, Sudan. Photo taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia
Kitcheners Gate, city gate on mainland, Suakin, Sudan. Photo taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia

Saudi Arabia

The nationalism of Turkey’s ruling party plays on nostalgia for the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, to great effect domestically, but has the opposite effect in Arab states with an historical axe to grind with the Ottomans, none more so than Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi dynasty conquered an expansive territory in the Arab peninsula in the early 19th century, laying claim to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina until an Ottoman force reclaimed the region in 1812-14, executing the Saudi leader Abdullah and ending Saudi rule for a century.

Accusations that Ottoman rulers had stolen artefacts from the Arabian peninsula made headlines this month, and the Saudi press quickly picked up the theme to criticise a renewed “Ottoman incursion”.

The liberal daily Okaz in an editorial on Sunday criticised the Sudanese leadership for relinquishing control of part of their country one week before the anniversary of its independence on Jan. 1.

The Saudi-owned al-Hayat news site, meanwhile, ran a story on Sunday with the headline “The Saudi opposition invites Erdoğan to apologise for the practices of the Ottomans”. The story quoted a statement condemning the Ottoman legacy by Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi, the deputy head of Sudan’s largest opposition party, made hours before Erdoğan’s arrival.

A view of Egypt National Bank's ruins in Suakin, photo taken in 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia
A view of Egypt National Bank's ruins in Suakin, photo taken in 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia

United Arab Emirates

The most striking Emirati response to Turkey’s latest foreign policy initiative came from Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, who in a series of tweets called on Arab countries to resist the “surrounding regional ambitions” of Tehran and Ankara.

“The Arab system is in a dilemma,” tweeted Gargash on Wednesday, “and the solution is to cooperate against surrounding regional ambitions. The sectarian, partisan approach is not an acceptable alternative, and the Arab world will not be led from Tehran and Ankara, but by its own combined capitals.”

Ruins of the custom office, Suakin, Sudan. Photo taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia
Ruins of the custom office, Suakin, Sudan. Photo taken on Nov 2008. Bertramz / Wikimedia

Qatar

The Arab quartet blockading Qatar has called the state-funded media network Al Jazeera as a “platform for extremists” and demanded its closure, so the site’s commentary provides a contrasting Arab perspective on the latest developments.

Al Jazeera’s on Monday echoed the view that Erdoğan’s visit sent a “message” to Egypt and Gulf countries. It said the deal with Sudan was not only a counter attack in Turkey’s rivalry with its Arab rivals, and an expansion into the Red Sea region, but also a sign of the country’s readiness to engage in wider regional disputes, in particular the conflict in Yemen. Sudan is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting in Yemen since 2015.

The article goes on to quote the writer Alam Eddin Sharif, who claims that the move signals Erdoğan’s renewed determination to take a leading role in the Islamic world.

Another notable Qatari reaction came from Maryam al-Thani, the wife of the former Qatari Emir Hamad al-Thani. The Qatari royal appeared to be in buoyant mood after Erdoğan’s visit, tweeting a clip from an Egyptian news programme featuring a furious newscaster commenting on the trip. “The really really really great ones meet in Khartoum, while the really really small ones, regionally and internationally, beat themselves up”, she wrote, mocking the Egyptian’s reaction.