The Red Sea’s importance lies not only in its economic possibilities. It has also become an arena for geopolitical competition. Security and military considerations in the region have been a driving factor behind the efforts of the international powers to establish a foothold there. Turkey is one of the leading actors to have stuck its oar into the regional conflict in recent years. Since coming to power in 2003, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has assigned special importance to the region, given its growing geostrategic importance and the fact that many of the countries that border the sea were former colonies of the Ottoman Empire, which Erdoğan hopes to restore culturally, economically, militarily, and politically through “neo-Ottoman” policies.
Based on these considerations and others, Turkey was one of the first countries to engage in and seek to influence Red Sea geopolitics. Turkey has been taking advantage of its historical relationship with the region, stretching back to the Ottoman era, to advance its relationship with the individual States along the Red Sea coast. It has acquired a military base in Somalia and is negotiating the acquisition of another in Djibouti. Turkey has also attempted to secure a foothold in Sudan. Between 2018 and 2019, Turkish forces were keen to make their presence known in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the surrounding area, as well as along the coast and in the territorial waters of Somalia, into which the Turkish Parliament officially agreed to extend the deployment of Turkish forces.
Although the rules of conflict and competition in the Red Sea region are not clear-cut, Turkey’s presence poses a number of challenges and risks to States in the region and to Arab national security in general.
What does the Turkish presence in the Red Sea look like?
Turkey is present in the Red Sea region in a variety of forms, from diplomatic and political representation in border countries to its actual military presence in the sea itself, where Turkish forces are working with other international fleets, as part of the international community’s efforts – the Combined Task Force 150 - to conduct joint operations to combat piracy and armed robbery of ships and oil tankers off the coast of Somalia. The current Turkish Government has also adopted an ambitious strategy to expand its military presence by establishing stable military bases and conducting military exchanges with various countries in the region. In addition, Turkey has recently shown interest in acquiring a number of strategic ports on the Red Sea, as part of its efforts to penetrate this maritime corridor and the neighboring States, so that Turkey may exercise strategic influence over interactions in the region in order to protect its own interests. Turkey’s presence in the region may be said to take the following primary forms:
1. Establishing military bases
In an attempt to expand its existing strategy, Turkey’s AFK Government has established advanced military bases deep within the volatile and unstable areas of the Middle East. Turkey established its first military base in Africa in Somalia at a cost of $50 million. The base, located near the main airport of the Somali capital, covers 400 hectares and includes 200 Turkish officers and trainers.
Although Somalia does not actually border the Gulf of Aden or the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, as the territory of Somaliland stands in the way, Turkey has been trying to push for change in the current geopolitical situation by supporting efforts to annex Somaliland to Somalia, thereby granting Turkey greater influence over the geopolitics of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and East Africa in general.
In early November 2018, Turkey’s Chief of Defense, General Hulusi Akar, visited Sudan, including the island of Suakin on the Red Sea, which the previous Sudanese government had donated to Turkey so that it could be restored in the Ottoman style. Some analysts suggested that the aim of Akar’s visit was to discuss the establishment of military training bases on the island, given that, in October that same year, the Sudanese Government had approved what it referred to as an agreement for military cooperation and training between Sudan and Turkey with the aim of strengthening cooperation in the provision of training and supporting peace and stability in both countries.
Other experts claim that the fears regarding the establishment of a Turkish military base on the Red Sea are exaggerated, however, as the small size of Suakin Island and Turkey’s current financial difficulties mean that such action is unlikely, at least in the short term. Nonetheless, from a Turkish perspective, this historic island reflects the closeness of Turkey’s relations with Sudan, granting it a symbolic value in the wider competition across the Middle East.
What is certain is that Turkey’s efforts to establish a military base in the region will continue to arouse the wrath of various regional States. For example, the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has criticized the possibility of allowing Turkey to establish a military presence on Suakin, in addition to its presence in Somalia. He dismissed such actions as unacceptable, stating that, in his view, it would not contribute to the stability of the region, as Turkey was pushing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Red Sea and was seeking to impose its influence over the region.
2. Using the tools of soft power
In addition to using hard power and establishing military bases, Turkey has made keen use of the tools of soft power within its foreign policy of expanding its influence and strengthening its role in the region. Turkey has provided humanitarian aid and scholarships and built hospitals, mosques, and roads, and it continues to produce Turkish television dramas that glorify Ottoman rule. Turkey has also taken advantage of the turmoil experienced in countries such as Somalia in order to exploit the possibilities available. This may explain why Erdoğan visited the Somali capital in 2011 following the famine that struck large parts of the country, which Turkish officials are keen to recall at every opportunity.
What began as a humanitarian initiative developed into a more comprehensive policy, as Ankara began to increase the level of aid provided, launch development projects, open schools, and play a prominent role in shaping the nation-building agenda, including by opening a large military facility to train Somali government troops. Today, Turkish companies operate Mogadishu airport and port, and the capital’s markets are filled with Turkish products. In addition, Turkish Airlines was the first major international airline to operate direct flights to Mogadishu.
In the minds of the Somalis, Turkey is the only party that has “dared” to engage actively with dangerous countries such as Somalia. The Somalis widely praised Turkey’s approach, in particular given Erdoğan’s appeal for Islamic and humanitarian solidarity and given Turkey’s more visible presence on the ground compared with traditional donors. For many observers, the way in which Turkey engaged with Somalia and the minimal restrictions imposed on such engagement contrast sharply with their impressions of past failures in Western intervention. In 2018, Ankara appointed a special envoy to Somalia — the first position of its kind in Turkish foreign policy — who was charged with reviving efforts to achieve reconciliation between the federal government in Somalia and the self-declared Somaliland region, however unlikely in the short term.
While officials in Ankara have reported that they have begun to see the benefits of the “soft power” investments in Somalia, Turkey’s presence in the country was never initially intended to be a long-term strategic project. The increasingly important role that these investments have played has served as a more beneficial experience than the exercise of perceived power. This was accompanied by an internal debate on Turkey’s position not only in Somalia, but also across the entire African continent.
Turkey’s engagement in Somalia represents the most fundamental area of growth in Ankara’s ambitious policy of “opening up to Africa”, which emerged in 2005 as part of the Year of Africa initiative aimed at strengthening Turkey’s diplomatic and commercial presence throughout the continent. As part of the initiative, dozens of new embassies were opened, Turkish Airlines established new routes, and regular Turkish–African summits were held. Although significant progress has been made over the past 14 years (Turkey now has 42 embassies in Africa and the airline operates 54 routes to the continent), recent investments have been relatively modest, and diplomats have acknowledged that the next stage of Turkey’s strategy is not yet ready.
Nonetheless, Turkish soft diplomacy in the Red Sea region has maintained momentum. Mosques run by preachers trained in Turkey have appeared throughout the region. Most recently, the Turkey Diyanet Foundation constructed the Abdulhamid II Mosque in Djibouti, now the largest mosque in the country. The Foundation follows the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which has 1000 branches within Turkey and offers services in 135 countries. Designed in classic Ottoman style, the mosque covers 10,000 m² and overlooks the Indian Ocean from near the presidential palace in Djibouti.
As part of the AKP’s plans to move into the region, official media platforms in Arabic and Somali have been launched, and Turkish television series have been dubbed into Somali and Amharic. It has also sought to use historical television series to change attitudes towards the Ottoman era among peoples in the region.
Among the countries of the southern Red Sea region, Turkey is attempting to present its plans as an alternative to relations with the European powers, which have a history of colonialism in the area. To demonstrate this, Turkey is working diligently to build roads and bridges, provide humanitarian assistance, and offer scholarships to African and Arab students. Approximately 4,500 African students from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, and Djibouti, among other places, are currently studying under a government scholarship program. Since 2011, Turkey has maintained a diplomatic presence in all States along the Red Sea coast, with the exception of Eritrea. Turkish Airlines operates regular flights to Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Sudan, and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency has opened offices in the capital cities of those countries.
On the east coast of the Red Sea, Turkey is attempting to insinuate itself into events in Yemen under the guise of providing humanitarian aid. Through governmental and non-governmental organizations, Ankara provides humanitarian aid to “to help the Yemeni people endure the war-time conditions that they have experienced for more than five years”. Turkish efforts to provide assistance to Yemen can be understood as an attempt to reproduce its experience in Somalia, where Turkey transformed itself from a foreign donor to a country with its hands on the reins of Somalia’s most important economic and service sectors. It can also be seen as an attempt by Turkey to establish a foothold along the south coast of Yemen, thereby granting it influence over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which would enable it to protect its interests in a region that lacks permanent regional structures to govern relations and cooperation between the countries involved.
3. Opening markets to Turkish products
Turkey’s approach to penetrating the Red Sea region involves deepening its economic and trade relations with as many countries as possible, in particular by pumping Turkish products into the Arab and African States along the Red Sea coast. It is also investing directly in the public and private sectors of these countries and concluding commercial deals to establish free trade areas. In December 2016, for example, Turkey signed an agreement with Djibouti, the smallest country to border the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, establishing a 5 million-m2 free trade zone “with the aim of getting its products into Africa more quickly and easily”.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the value of bilateral trade between Turkey and Somalia increased from $144 million in 2017 to $206 million in 2019. Turkey benefited greatly from its alliance with former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in the form of increased influence in the region and the creation of a new platform in the Red Sea. During his visit to Khartoum in 2017, President Erdoğan pledge to increase the value of Turkish–Sudanese trade by close to $10 million. He also purchased the rights to renovate Suakin island, which had been an Ottoman port from the 15th to the 19th century, in a move that sparked concern in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which believe that Turkey is building a military base on the western coast of the Red Sea in order to threaten their security and interests.
4. Renting seaports
As part of its strategy to penetrate the economy of the Red Sea region, the AFK have attempted to lease a number of strategic ports. Most recently, Turkey signed a new agreement on maritime cooperation with Djibouti as a step towards achieving its ambition of controlling Doraleh port in Djibouti, one of the most important ports in the Horn of Africa, which has long played a major role in regional trade. The agreement sets out the legal basis for Turkish investments in Djibouti.
The agreement covers areas such as establishing joint projects for the operation and management of ports, in addition to international maritime transport, navigation services, ship- and yacht-building, the application of modern technologies, and the provision of training. The agreement was approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament on the same day that Djibouti Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf and Turkish Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Mehmet Turan co-chaired the meeting of the Joint Economic Commission held in Ankara on February 19, 2020. According to the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet, the two sides agreed to further boost bilateral trade, develop their relations in the transportation sector, including the aviation, rail, and maritime sectors, and establish a new free economic zone in Djibouti.
In Somalia, the Turkish Al-Bayrak Group, which is known to have close ties to the ruling AKP and President Erdoğan, has been running Mogadishu port since 2014, in line with the Turkish Government’s agenda. The Group obtained a 20-year concession, whereby it takes 45% of total revenues from the port.
Turkey’s agreements with Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan are in line with the AKP’s foreign policy, aimed at expanding Turkey’s role and presence in the Red Sea region and on the African continent in general. By expanding the number of lease contracts that it holds, Turkey is seeking to control certain ports and the surrounding areas in order to increase its control over global trade routes and secure navigation routes for its forces, thereby supporting any future attempts to expand its military scope.
Turkey’s objectives in the Red Sea
Turkey’s objectives in the Red Sea may be summarized as follows:
Developments in the Red Sea and their implications for Turkey
The Red Sea region is affected by local, regional, and global variables, owing to its interconnectedness and its growing strategic and geopolitical importance. A number of political, economic, and security developments have led to the emergence of a new status quo in the Red Sea, albeit one that is highly volatile. These developments can be grouped into four main changes, which have cast a shadow over Turkey’s involvement in the region:
1. Political change in the Horn of Africa: Following the shake-up of the decades-old political regimes in the two main countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia in the fall of 2017, and Sudan in the spring of 2019), it is increasingly likely that the Horn of Africa is going to experience an historic shift that is unlikely to be in Turkey’s interest. Since the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which had been close to the AKP Government, Turkey has attempted to establish relations with the new transitional authority in Sudan, despite having been one of the most vocal supporters of the previous regime. Turkey’s loss of influence in Sudan has dealt painful blow to its expansionist ambitions in the region, and in East Africa in general, especially as the transitional government in Sudan has been reviewing various agreements signed with Turkey under the former regime (including the Suakin Island agreement) which favored Turkey over Sudan.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been pursuing a moderate policy towards foreign countries, and appears to be leaning towards the Emirati–Saudi axis, given the important role that the two countries played in the historic peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea in mid-2018.
2. War in Yemen: The activities of Gulf actors in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have reached unprecedented levels owing to the continuation of the Yemen war, the failure to reach a comprehensive settlement, and the attempts by local parties, supported by Iran and Turkey, to impose new conditions on the ground. This has led to a frantic race along the African coastline, in which Gulf actors have scrambled to acquire commercial ports and build military bases, surrounding Turkey’s asset in the region on all sides.
3. The appearance of the Red Sea Council: The so-called Red Sea Forum was a hot topic for debate between 2018 and 2019 both within and outside the region. The creation of such a structure to enable regional States to discuss shared interests, identify emerging threats, and develop common solutions was a reasonable response to changing realities in the region. The forum would allow participating States to address various issues, such as trade, infrastructure development, maritime security, migration, financial flows, environmental protection, and peaceful conflict management.
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to establish the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has provoked concern within Turkey, and Turkish officials were quick to voice their doubts about the Council’s goals. When a high-ranking official in Ankara was asked whether Riyadh’s interest in establishing a Red Sea forum represented a step towards forming a broader alliance against Iran, he immediately responded with “Or is it an alliance against us?”
4. Increasing efforts by Somaliland to break away from Somalia: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a military base in the Somali city of Berbera (now in Somaliland), owing to its strategic importance and its proximity to the Red Sea. In its quest to strengthen its influence over Somalia, Turkey too is aware of the city’s strategic importance, and is readying itself to prevent the region from seceding from the Federal Republic of Somalia. Turkey has appointed Olgan Bekar as special envoy for the Somali–Somaliland talks, setting a precedent in Turkish foreign policy and making it the first country in the world to take such a step. The Turkish authorities are well aware of the region’s importance, which stretches some 650 km along the coast of the Gulf of Aden, and they understand that, were the region to be recognized internationally, Turkey could lose an important part of its presence in the Red Sea.
Turkey’s future in the Red Sea
Turkey is expected to continue its efforts to expand its influence in the Red Sea region and in eastern Africa over the coming period. Given the changes seen in the Red Sea region over the past two years, there are two main scenarios for Turkey’s future in the region:
Scenario 1: Reduced military presence and increasing use of soft power. In this scenario, Turkey gradually reduces its military presence in the Red Sea, which may make it easier for Somaliland to secede from Somalia. Having lost its Sudanese ally, the Turkish Government may be forced to turn instead to trade diplomacy and other tools of soft power. This scenario is possible, and is supported by various factors, such as Turkey’s recent efforts to lease Doraleh port in Djibouti (although Ankara’s chances seem low) and its continued use of various tools of soft power to increase its presence, such as by building mosques and schools, offering scholarships to African and Arab students, and providing humanitarian aid, in particular given the economic fragility that characterizes many countries in the region, such as Somalia, Yemen, and Djibouti.
Scenario 2: Increased Turkish military presence and greater regional polarization. Conversely, however, Turkey may choose to increase its military presence in the Red Sea region, thereby reinforcing its extensive military involvement in Libya and exacerbating the conflict over Mediterranean gas. In this scenario, Turkey is likely to come up against the Saudi-led Red Sea Council in a conflict that Turkey is not likely to win, given that Riyadh is far more capable of mobilizing the countries of the region to support them.
The Turkish presence in the Red Sea cannot be understood without first understanding the state of militarization, competition, and conflict between regional and international players aimed at expanding and strengthening their influence over the region and protecting their own interests. No State from outside the region has an influence over this are without having some form of presence in the Red Sea or its coastal States.
Despite the significant changes witnessed in the region, in particular in the past two years, the Turkish military presence is likely to persist, just as Turkey’s soft presence in the region — in the form of film and TV production, religious education, and the sale of Turkish products — is set to increase. Nonetheless, Turkey’s military presence in the region will continue to pose a threat to the security of the region, and perhaps even to that of the wider Arab region.
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