Turkey and the new scramble for Africa: Ottoman designs or unfounded fears?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) walks alongside Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (R) and other unidentified officials during the opening ceremony of the new Turkish embassy in Abdiazizi district of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - S1AETHUSPPAA

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Editor's note:

Turkey has emerged as an important, but confusing, actor in the greater Middle East and beyond. Its policies have oscillated as its role has expanded, and it now plays an important role in the Horn of Africa as well as with its neighbors. Zach Vertin assesses the changes in Turkey’s foreign policy and explains how the country’s domestic politics and the ambitions of the Erdogan regime interact with the broader strategic realities the country faces. In addition to interviews in the Horn of Africa and in Gulf capitals, material and quotations herein are drawn from the author’s consultations with Turkish officials, foreign policy experts, diplomats, and commentators in Ankara and Istanbul in March 2019. This piece originally appeared on Lawfare and was edited by Daniel Byman.

“The Horn of Africa will be the first casualty,” opined one dejected Somali, shaking his head. He might have been talking about terrorism, or climate change, or the famines that have more than once devastated his region. Instead he was referring to a toxic new contagion imported from the Middle East—the Gulf crisis that, since 2017, has pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain against Qatar and its ally Turkey. That feud is now infecting the Horn, a neighborhood already fighting to cure its own long-standing ills.

Turkey features regularly in new debates about foreign influence in the region, as does speculation about its motives. While Ankara fashions itself a benevolent power driven by an “enterprising and humanitarian” foreign policy, Gulf rivals say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moves in the Horn reflect a dangerous quest for a “neo-Ottoman” revival.

Does Ankara have grand designs on the region, or have its ambitions been overstated? In confronting this question, three vantage points are helpful: a close look at its recent activity in Horn states, a medium-range focus on regional competition with Gulf rivals, and a wide-angle assessment of Turkish foreign policy making at a time of extraordinary domestic change. Together, these perspectives help contextualize Turkish engagement in the Horn and its desire to project influence beyond its near abroad. But they also reveal a Turkey in search of itself, at home and abroad—one less interested in, and less able to, effect the kind of neo-Ottoman agenda feared by its critics.

The zoom lens: Turkish engagement in the Horn

Ankara’s diplomats lament being lumped together with Gulf “newcomers” when talking about the Horn of Africa and wider competition in the Red Sea region. Turkey has not only been active in the Horn for longer, they say, but its engagement has been more nuanced than the “paycheck diplomacy” favored by Gulf nations. Turkish diplomats have a credible argument, and Somalia is a case in point.

Erdogan first visited Mogadishu in 2011 amid a devastating famine, the first non-African leader to visit the war-torn capital in two decades (and a talking point Turkish officials never omit). What began as a principally humanitarian initiative grew into a more comprehensive policy: Ankara surged aid funding, initiated development projects, opened schools, and assumed a leading role in shaping the state-building agenda, including opening a sizable military facility to train Somali government soldiers. Today, Turkish firms operate Mogadishu’s air and sea ports, its markets are flush with Turkish-manufactured goods, and Turkish Airways flies direct to the capital city—the first major international carrier to do so.

Ankara’s approach in Somalia, underwritten by Erdogan’s appeal to Islamic solidarity and a more visible presence on the ground than traditional donors, has been widely lauded by Somalis. For many, the tenor of its engagement, and the fewer strings attached, draw stark contrast to perceptions of failed Western interventions past. Most recently, Turkey appointed a special envoy for Somalia in 2018—a first in Turkish foreign policy—and tasked him to renew efforts, however unlikely in the near term, to reconcile Somalia’s federal government and the breakaway region of Somaliland.

While officials in Ankara report that they have come to appreciate the soft power value of their investments in Somalia, Turkey’s presence was not envisioned as a long-term strategic project at the outset. Its gradual assumption of a prominent role has been more learning experience than calculated power play, one accompanied by domestic debate about how its posture is perceived—not only in Somalia, but across the continent.

Turkish engagement in Somalia represents the most substantive outgrowth of Ankara’s ambitious “Open to Africa” policy, which emerged in 2005 and aimed to boost Turkish diplomatic and commercial presence across the continent. The initiative has included dozens of new embassies, Turkish Airways routes and regular Turkey-Africa summits. Though notable progress has been made in the 14 years since (now 42 embassies and 54 airline destinations), investments have been relatively modest and diplomats acknowledge the next phase of the strategy is yet to be written.

Sudan, another Muslim-majority nation in the Horn and one with a history of Ottoman influence, was controlled—until last month—by a nominally Islamist (and decidedly repressive) government with historic ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its relations with the United States have long been troubled, making it another attractive satellite for Erdogan, who has sought to fashion Turkey as a model for the Muslim world and an alternative to a West that has surrendered its moral authority.

Erdogan doubled-down in Sudan in early 2017, investing in what by many accounts became a close relationship with then-embattled leader and International Criminal Court-indictee Omar al Bashir. During Erdogan’s state visit to Sudan, the two men visited Suakin Island—a historic and long-defunct Ottoman trading post on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and a one-time launching point for African Muslims traveling to Mecca. Among the dozen cooperation agreements inked was a pledge from Erdogan to restore the island, revive its cultural significance and reestablish annual ferries to the holy sites.

But the bilateral deals—together totaling some $650 million—also included plans to boost military cooperation and build a docking facility for naval and civilian vessels at Suakin. Egyptian and Saudi media outlets immediately cried foul, one accusing Sudan of “conspiring against Egypt under the shadow of Turkish madness” and framing Erdogan’s visit as an unambiguous attempt to “harass” Cairo. Gulf and Egyptian fears of a Turkish military base on the Red Sea are mostly unfounded, as Suakin’s small size and Turkey’s current financial woes render that an unlikely prospect, at least in the near term. But the historic island reflects deepened ties with Sudan, and so carried symbolic value in the wider chess match among Middle East contenders. The disquiet from rivals was not lost on Ankara.

Turkey’s renewed partnership with Sudan encountered unexpected challenges thereafter, and is now in serious jeopardy following last month’s ouster of President Bashir and the political chaos that enveloped Khartoum. The popular protests that gripped Sudan in early 2019 left Turkey wondering where to stand, as senior officials privately articulated both deep concern about the prospect of uncontrolled collapse and an appreciation of the demands of the street. “Managed transition” was preferable, one told me, just weeks before Bashir was dethroned by the Sudanese army. “But how can we be seen as against a people struggling for their rights?”

As the country now struggles to hold itself together and fashion a political transition, Egypt and Turkey’s Gulf rivals have moved quickly, offering resources and asserting influence in an attempt to shape a new Sudan in their image. President Erdogan meanwhile has signaled a desire to sustain his country’s “deep-rooted relations” with Sudan and his government refuted claims that the Suakin agreement had been canceled. A senior Turkish official privately acknowledged they are now in a “wait and see” posture, inclined to support a transitional government but conscious of public perceptions regarding their close relationship with the old guard. Sorting out Sudan’s transition will take time, and while much remains to be determined, many are already interpreting Bashir’s demise as a strategic blow for Turkish foreign policy in the region.

While Somalia and Sudan have proven the most natural targets for Turkish cooperation, neighboring Ethiopia is the region’s ascendant power—and the most recent subject of new Gulf entreaties. Though Turkish schools and mosque diplomacy—two core instruments of Erdogan’s Islamic soft power—have been deployed in Ethiopia, Ankara has been relatively less visible in the predominantly Orthodox Christian nation. But its commercial investments in Ethiopia reportedly outweighthose in both Somalia and Sudan and a growing number of Turkish voices are urging Ankara to make it a priority.

In addition to a new market for commerce, some hawkish Turkish commentators told me they believe a partnership with Ethiopia could provide useful leverage against Egypt, should relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his allies remain testy. Given Ethiopia’s 2018 policy shift in Somalia—in which new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pledged to work with Mogadishu’s federal government—Turkish observers also see new opportunities for cooperation with Ethiopia on Somalia. These advocates of more robust Turkish engagement may get their wish, as Ethiopian officials report Erdogan has recently proposed a visit to Addis Ababa.

To round out the Horn, Turkey has also made modest investments in the tiny port nation of Djibouti, while Eritrea is out of reach, for now. Its own strongman president has been squarely in the Saudi/UAE camp since Gulf partners paid him to lease a military base in 2015 and later helped lift UN sanctions against the long-ostracized nation.

Turkish officials argue their country’s initial interest in the Horn was economic and values-driven. An appreciation of the wider geopolitical currency followed, they say, and only as a result of time and changing regional circumstances. Turkey’s actions in the Horn today may be motivated in part by competition with Gulf adversaries, they acknowledge, while uniformly characterizing such moves as reactive.

“Yes, we have found ourselves in a rivalry there,” one told me, “but we did not go looking for one.”

The mid-range lens: Turkey and the Gulf Arab crisis

When asked about Turkey’s foreign policy priorities, most Turkish officials and analysts suggest the Horn of Africa does not break the top five issues. But a majority affirm it is significant for Turkey nonetheless. Understanding why requires widening one’s field of view, seeing the Horn as part of a larger strategic contest for influence across the Middle East, the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean.

First, fault lines in the Horn of Africa reflect the hardened axes of the 2017 Gulf crisis, a feud that has affected a menu of regional problem-sets from Syria to Libya to Iran and is sometimes colored by an ideological row over the role of Islam in politics. While Erdogan’s ruling AKP party is rooted in political Islam and identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Emiratis see the Brotherhood as an existential threat and have generally sought to extinguish Islamist forces across the region.

Prior to the 2017 crisis, Saudi and UAE relations with Turkey were complicated but better than is sometimes appreciated. Mistrust persisted over divergent worldviews, concern about Turkey’s role in the region and how to deal with Iran. (Gulf states then saw Turkey as a potential Sunni counterweight to Iran but today are troubled by Ankara’s new cooperation with Tehran, particularly in Syria). Erdogan’s government, meanwhile, harbored doubts about where Saudi and Emirati leaders stood on the attempted coup against him in 2016 but was not about to sacrifice sizable Gulf investments. As such, high-level exchanges, trade and new economic cooperation continued into 2017. But all that changed when Turkey came to Qatar’s defense in the first days of the blockade—sending not only food, supplies and high-level visitors but also fresh troops and equipment to a recently opened Turkish military base outside Doha.

Some Turks appear to have embraced the contours of the new rivalry, including its manifestations in Africa. But most express concern, arguing the crisis is bad for Turkey, bad for its economy and bad for the region. They cite deep unease over the absolutist posturing of Gulf antagonists, the destabilizing impact on already fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa, and the unintended consequences for shared concerns such as Iranian expansionism. Government officials argue that Turkey is, and must be, more pragmatic in its foreign relations. “We cannot afford to be emotional … or fixated on perceived slights,” one told me, a thinly veiled reference to Gulf antagonists.

Ankara also blames Washington for the Gulf crisis, citing President Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudis and remarks parroting criticism of Qatar in the first days of the crisis—rhetoric Turks believe gave the Arab quartet carte blanche to pursue the blockade and possibly even military action. Having fanned the flames, Turkish commentators say, it is incumbent upon the United States to take greater action to resolve the spat. They bemoan the Trump administration’s wider collaboration with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv—a bloc they see as attempting to redesign the Middle East in a misguided fashion.

By extension, Turkish observers also wonder whether Saudi and Emirati expansion in the Horn is not only licensed by, but also guided from, Washington. However, such a reading drastically overestimates the current U.S. administration’s interest in the Horn of Africa, not to mention Washington’s ability to task Gulf allies in the service of its interests.

Eschewing discussion of their own country’s authoritarian drift, Turkish officials—and presidential backers in particular—deride Saudi Arabia and the UAE as undemocratic and illiberal while heralding Erdogan as the voice of justice and modernity. “You see, he is a successful leader whose legitimacy comes instead from elections,” one argued, “someone who balances traditional and moderate Islamic values with modern liberal practice.”

Turks across the political spectrum say the so-called “Turkish model”—marrying democratic elections and Islamic values—represents an existential threat to Gulf monarchies. Citing polls showing their president as the most popular figure on “the Arab street,” supporters contrast Erdogan the everyman, champion of grassroots reform across the Islamic world, with the entitled princes of the Gulf. The royals’ animosities are thus understood not only as a reaction to Ankara’s siding with Doha or its ties to the Brotherhood, but also as a product of the monarchies’ own insecurities, especially in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

President Erdogan views Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with disdain, according to many Turkish observers, a sentiment reinforced by perceptions of nefarious influence from the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed, coddling from the Trump administration and, most recently, the audacious murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. But citing his consistently respectful remarks about the Saudi king, many Turks argue that Erdogan has sought to preserve the space for a relationship with the Saudi state, if not for its brash young prince.

The UAE is another story. Divisions between Ankara and Abu Dhabi run deeper, and views of its leader are more contemptuous. Tensions with the UAE reached a boil following the toppling of Egyptian president and Turkish ally Mohammed Morsi in 2013, a plot the Turkish establishment believes emanated from, and was financed by, Abu Dhabi. And while claims are less strident, many Turkish officials privately suggest the UAE was also involved in the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016.

Turkish officials dismiss the notion that it is looking to compete with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea or anywhere else. “Why would we bother?” is a common refrain. They chafe at the suggestion that they would be preoccupied with a small “new money” state like the UAE, as Turkey is a civilization of consequence—its power born of history, size and cultural significance. But the foreign policy activists in Abu Dhabi garner more attention in Ankara than it likes to admit.

The new generation of sheikhs—both bin Zayed and his perceived understudy, bin Salman—are seen as “reckless” and “aggressive,” their cash-backed influence campaigns designed to buy individuals and crush the forces of reform. “Bribery, stoking of conflict, all kind of shady things underway,” one Turkish official scoffed. “This policy will backfire, it will not work in the end.”

Turkish-Qatari relations are at a high point, by contrast. The relationship with Doha was “not particularly special” prior to the crisis, Turkish officials say, and both sides acknowledge areas of divergence today. But for now, the alliance is underwritten by expedience, enhanced trade relations, ideological commonalities, and chemistry between Erdogan and the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. (The fact that Qatar, like its Gulf neighbors, is a status quo monarchy is a fact conveniently omitted.)

“Our politicians are quite sentimental,” one senior civil servant explained of Turkish solidarity amid the blockade of Doha. “[T]hey will always come to the aid of the underdog. It’s born of a sense of justice.” It is also born of a thirst for cash, of course, something Doha was ready to cough up as it sought to shore up powerful allies. In addition to helping stem Turkey’s currency crisis, the Qatari emir offered a $15 billion capital-injection thank you in 2018 for Turkey’s timely show of support.

Turkish officials reject allegations, however, that their new military base in Qatar represents a threat to Gulf neighbors, arguing it was the product of an agreement penned three years before the onset of the Gulf spat, in 2014. They dismiss such claims as disingenuous, but observers both foreign and domestic say Ankara misread the implications of the base deal—at the very least failing to appreciate how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would react to Turkish boots on the ground in their backyard.

The wide-angle lens: Foreign policy or domestic politics?

Atop the list of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities are Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean; complicated relationships with the United States, Russia and Europe (including EU accession); and promotion of its own political-religious brand across a changing Middle East. The Horn comes later, but because it is linked to a wider strategic context, Turkey’s adversaries see Erdogan’s moves in the region as evidence of a dangerous “neo-Ottoman” agenda—and there is ample supply of Erdogan rhetoric to support those claims.

While provocative on its face, the Ottoman nostalgia is primarily for domestic consumption—a nationalist rallying point for Turkish identity in a time of tumult, and a pillar of Erdogan’s swashbuckling brand of populism. “Domestically, this rhetoric has sentimental value,” one Turkish expert assessed, “but it does not represent a real foreign policy pursuit.”

The nuance isn’t clear to everyone on the outside, though, the result of an especially knotty meld of domestic politics and foreign policy under Erdogan.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the “Turkish model” seemed ascendant. For Erdogan, a strong, democratic and prosperous Turkey would help him project increasing influence abroad, which in turn would help cement the perpetual campaigner’s popularity at home. But the landscape of the Middle East looks different now, eight years on, and so too do Turkey’s economic and democratic credentials.

Erdogan’s ambition to sit atop a revitalized Muslim world remains, and soft power projections are likely to continue. But concerns about neocolonial or even territorial conquest are overstated. Such distinctions may be harder to disentangle than ever before, and interpreting Turkish foreign policy, including in the Horn of Africa, requires a careful look inside Turkey’s borders, where three dynamics warrant consideration.

First, the consolidation of power in the new Turkish presidency—the latest development in the country’s steady democratic regression. Following a resounding electoral victory in 2018, Erdogan began swiftly transforming a century-old parliamentary system into a decidedly centralized presidential one. Foreign policy making has thus been concentrated in the palace, too, while the military, foreign ministry and other critical institutions have been pushed to the margins.

The foreign ministry has been relegated to acting as an “implementing agency” while Erdogan’s advisers—including an 11-man security and foreign policy board—have taken the reins in shaping policy. This came after Erdogan purged some 25 percent of career diplomats from the foreign ministry, a reflection of wider government cuts against perceived political opponents—tens of thousands of them—in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt. (Many of those purged were so-called “Gulenists.” The ripple effects of the attempted putsch extended to the Horn of Africa, too, where many of Turkey’s initial business, education and nongovernmental organization links were developed by those tied to accused coup mastermind and Erdogan-foe Fethullah Gulen. Many Turkish-run schools were immediately closed on account of their Gulenist affiliation before being transferred to government-affiliated administrators.)

Second, Turkey’s economy is in the tank, leaving the strong-man president exposed on the one issue he may not be able to strong-arm. After years of impressive growth, economic micro-mismanagement and Erdogan’s sweeping institutional changes prompted a major downturn last summer. Bad turned to worse when the Turkish lira plummeted in eye-popping fashion, a freefall he attempted to blame on foreign conspirators. Investor confidence has waned while inflation, unemployment and prices have soared. Operating budgets and humanitarian aid allocations—an area in which Turkey previously led the world—have been slashed, curtailing agendas of all kinds, including in foreign policy.

Third is an Erdogan obsession: elections. How far Erdogan can extend himself abroad will depend in part on overcoming political uncertainty (including skepticism about his foreign policy) and stabilizing the economy at home. This spring’s nationwide municipal elections, which shaped up to be a referendum on Erdogan’s stewardship, yielded notable defeats for the president’s party, including in both Ankara and Istanbul. (Results of the Istanbul poll were later invalidated under pressure from Erdogan.) Moreover, Erdogan was forced to take drastic, and some say shortsighted, steps to try to shore up the economy ahead of the polls, which may ultimately leave an even deeper hole from which to climb. Will the president focus more attention at home to address the challenge, or again turn to foreign policy populism to aid a political recovery?

Erdogan has attempted to fashion Turkey as a humanitarian power from Somalia to Syria and a welcome refuge for the world’s displaced. He has positioned himself as a champion of working-class underdogs across the Muslim world and moral defender of its besieged communities—from Palestine to Christchurch. His standing up to the West, to Israel and to Gulf monarchs win him acclaim among sizable constituencies. But critics worry that all the bravado doesn’t add up to a coherent strategy, particularly amid the turbulence and democratic backsliding at home.

A right-sized assessment of Turkish ambitions and its influence in the Horn of Africa requires zoom, medium, and wide-angle lenses. The Horn may not be a first-tier foreign policy issue in Ankara—a fact that, when coupled with Turkey’s political introversion and a surge of interest from Gulf adversaries, could diminish Ankara’s comparative edge in the region, at least in the near term. Turkey’s political and economic investments in the Horn should not be underestimated, nor should its continuing presence there, given the larger geopolitical context. But for the moment, Turkey is in search of itself—at home and abroad.