Turkey denies plan to turn Red Sea island into base

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Çavuşoğlu denied that Turkey aims to turn Sudan’s Red Sea Suakin Island into a military base, a prospect that has raised alarm in neighbouring Egypt and Gulf Arab states.

The agreement for Turkey to rebuild the ruined Ottoman-era port and construct a naval dock on Suakin, announced during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit in December, led to tension between Sudan and Egypt. Cairo has been at odds with Turkey since the overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

In medieval times, Suakin was an important trade and transport hub, but steadily declined under Ottoman control from 1517. By the early 20th century it was largely in ruins.

Speaking on visit to Sudan on Tuesday, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey aimed to turn Suakin into a “centre of attraction”, the Istanbul-based news website World Bulletin quoted him as saying.

Çavuşoğlu said a 20-person team from Turkey’s development agency had visited the island and determined, “Suakin Island cannot be used for military purposes due to its position”.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour has also denied that Sudan intended allowing the establishment of a Turkish military base in Sudan. "There is neither an intention to establish a Turkish base in Suakin, or any other place in Sudan," he said during a visit to Egypt this month.

Not everyone is convinced that Turkish intentions regarding Suakin are innocent, given the island’s location in the strategically important Red Sea. Gulf Arab states, wary of what they see as Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in their backyard, view the agreement over Suakin as step towards Turkey expanding its influence in the region.

Turkey already boasts a sizable military presence in nearby Somalia, with some 200 Turkish troops, and has a base in Qatar.