Turkey's Red Sea presence unsettles Arab states

Turkey’s deal with Sudan to rebuild a port island on the country’s Red Sea coast, and consequent entry into the Red Sea security environment, will upset the strategic balance in the region and “raise new questions” for Arab states located near the sea, according to a Jan. 17 report by the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was attempting to project Turkish power into Africa through his visits to Sudan, Chad and Tunisia last December, said the report, written by the founder and a senior analyst from the Gulf State Analytics risk consultancy.

The expansion into Africa is a “long-term goal” of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and through the deals with Sudan, Ankara has gained a range of trade and commercial benefits, as well as access to the Red Sea through the port island of Suakin.

The Suakin project is particularly significant, since it will grant Turkey economic benefits from passing traffic on the way to the Muslim religious pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but it also secures Turkey’s military presence in the Red Sea.

However, this toehold in the Red Sea is likely to cause friction between Ankara and Riyadh, said the report. Saudi Arabia gains huge economic benefits from the pilgrimages, and will see the move by Turkey as “cutting into its profits”.

Egypt and The United Arab Emirates also view the bolstered Turkish presence in the region as a threat, said the report. 

Turkey’s expansion into the Red Sea is indicative of a broader trend, as regional and global powers race to establish a presence in a waterway of rising global importance, “roughly one tenth of global maritime trade traverses the Red Sea”, and as China continues to develop trade routes with its “One Belt, One Road” strategy, that figure is likely to rise.