Is Middle Eastern Rivalry Good for Africa? Turkey is increasing its influence in Sudan and Somalia amid Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s role in the Horn of Africa, a contest for military and economic influence that has regional and global implications for Washington.
By Seth J. Frantzman
In mid-June, the pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Safak ran an article accusing the United Arab Emirates of “swimming in dangerous waters” by expanding its role in the Horn of Africa. Excoriating the UAE for its role in Africa doesn’t come in a vacuum. In March Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote that “we want to walk with Africa as a new world order is established.” In the wake of the Gulf crisis that began in June of 2017 between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and which has pitted a Turkish-Qatar alliance against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, influence in Africa is increasingly important to both sides. This has wider regional implications and is important as Washington also engages with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Ankara. With Yemen ceasefire talks scheduled for December, the wider role of the Horn of Africa, which has played a key role in the Yemen conflict, will continue to reverberate among Middle Eastern states.
The intervention in Yemen, launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies in 2015, has increasingly drawn in east African countries. Initially, Riyadh and its allies wanted to push the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels back from the port of Aden and any threats they might make either to Saudi Arabia or to the Bab al-Mandeb straits which see a million barrels of oil pass a day.
In the early days of the war, Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki visited Saudi Arabia and Eritrea opened its airspace and port of Assab for the UAE and other members of the Saudi-led coalition. Eritrea, which is just 30 km from Yemen, received fuel and financial support for its aid. The Saudi coalition was encouraged by Eritrea to use the Hanish islands and the UAE sought a thirty-year lease to use Assab. The United Nations also said Eritrea had deployed troops to Yemen. Sudan joined the war effort in Yemen, sending hundreds of troops according to a report by the International Crisis Group. Somalia indicated the coalition could use its airspace, and Somaliland, an autonomous region in Somalia, said it would rent out the port of Berbera. Djibouti allowed the use of its airspace as well and also agreed to host refugees from the Yemen conflict. The Saudi King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) opened facilities in Djibouti for the refugees. Troops for the war in Yemen also came from faraway Senegal.
The increasing involvement of the Horn of Africa countries in Yemen and Gulf politics, particularly Djibouti, has larger implications. The United States has a military base in Djibouti which supports several thousand personnel, and China, France, Italy, and Japan also have bases located there. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Djibouti in April of 2017. The immediate impact of the war in Yemen was pressure brought to reduce any connections that Sudan and other countries in the Horn had with Iran. These countries preferred Gulf investment over limited Iranian activities. Once Saudi Arabia and UAE broke relations with Qatar in June 2017 however, the East African countries were called upon to make a choice. Djibouti and Eritrea sided with Riyadh and Qatar withdrew a contingent of peacekeepers that had been in Djibouti.
Saudi Arabia’s role in Eritrea helped lead to a peace agreement with Ethiopia, signed in Jeddah in mid-September 2018. In the lead-up to it, Eritrea’s Afwerki visited Jeddah where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and discussed more Saudi investments in Eritrea. Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir praised the September agreement for “strengthening security and stability in the region.” The role in brokering peace made it clear that the involvement in the Horn of Africa is not just about a narrow strategic goal of fighting the war in Yemen or protecting the Bab el-Mandeb straits to the Red Sea.
The peace agreement paved the way for the UN to lift an arms embargo on Eritrea in mid-November 2018. This is important because monitors had told the UN Security Council in 2016 that the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s “military presence” in Eritrea was a violation of the embargo. While the use of Eritrea’s airspace or waters were not a violation, compensation to the Eritrean government and military would be a violation. The UAE was investing heavily in a military base at Assab airport and a new seaport. Eritrean foreign minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said the UAE had trained 4,000Yemenis in Assad, according to Reuters. The UN also said Abu Dhabi was training Eritreans in the UAE. In July 2018 the UAE had a “major force of Yemeni, UAE and Sudanese troops” in Eritrea ready to take part in the Hodeidah battle in Yemen. That battle is still ongoing. After the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, along with sanctions relief, Eritrea’s importance to the coalition will increase.
Next door to Djibouti, the UAE has invested heavily in Somaliland, a breakaway region in Somalia that declared independence in 1991. Somaliland president Muse Bihi Abdi described his region as being in alliance with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A twenty-five-year lease of Berbera international airport was signed. Somaliland’s The National claimed this was in exchange for $1 billion of investment. Dams, a highway, and other infrastructure projects were included. Dubai’s DP World signed on to manage Somaliland’s port of Berbera for thirty years. In October 2018 it began work on a 400-meter quay, part of a $442 million investment. According to a report in Arabian Business, Ethiopia took a 19 percent stake in the project, which would appear to link landlocked Ethiopia with Somaliland. This would decrease Ethiopia’s reliance on Djibouti. The UAE also constructed a military base as well, and in neighboring Puntland, Abu Dhabi has invested in training maritime police.
In contrast to Somaliland, the UAE faced hurdles in Somalia. Somalia banned DP World after its deal in Somaliland. In March, Somalia called for the UN to condemn UAE’s activities in Somaliland and in April Somalia seized $10 million from a plane arrived from Abu Dhabi and then canceled a program for training Somali soldiers. The controversy was interpreted as related to Somalia’s unwillingness to choose between UAE and Qatar in the Gulf dispute. Turkey’s influence was also growing in Somalia with a military base.
Kenya, which has suffered from terror attacks by al-Shabaab in Somalia, was alarmed by the gulf crisis spilling over into Somalia. In May, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said that the region was not at peace and the African Union Mission in Somalia must not be undermined by gulf rivalries. “Somalia remains troubled, largely by foreign agents who weaken its government, who divide its people and who threaten to reverse its gains.” The statement appeared to reference the UAE’s role in Somaliland and the cash seizure controversy.
The UAE was also faced with new hurdles in Djibouti. In February, Djibouti canceled DP World’s contract to run its Doraleh Container Terminal, which DP World had built and designed. Djibouti accused the port operator of a “flagrant contravention of state sovereignty.” The London Court of International Arbitration ruled in favor of DP World in August, but in September the local government transferred its shares in the port to the Government of Djibouti. The crisis over the Djibouti port unfolded at the same time as UAE faced turmoil in Somalia over the Somaliland ventures, and the two were interpreted as being connected. “Along with the competition by outside players has come greater leverage for Horn of Africa countries, whose elites have long been adept at playing external patrons off one another,” noted Stratfor. The Atlantic Council argued that the thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia might lead to Eritrea becoming a “welcoming partner to foreign militaries,” enabling them to bypass Djibouti. Financial Times called it a “political and commercial battle taking place in the under-developed Horn of Africa.”
While the UAE and Saudi Arabia were able to increase their influence in Africa, obtaining rights to use airspace and develop ports between 2015 and 2018, today Turkey, an ally of Qatar, is breaking new ground as well. In Somalia and at the Sudanese port of Suakin, Turkey is putting down roots.
Ankara opened its largest overseas base last October with an investment of $50 million in a large complex that can train 1,500 soldiers at a time. It came after two visits by Erdogan to east Africa in 2011 and 2016. In 2016 he went to Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya. Turkish Daily Sabah praised the base for helping to “ restore security ” in the country. According to the commander of the training base, Col. Mehmet Yasin Kalin, the Turkish role would complement “humanitarian” work as well, alongside Turkish naval and air support. Surprisingly, the Turkish support for Somalia didn’t manifest itself after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. While Turkish allies such as Qatar condemned Saudi Arabia, Somalia expressed solidarity with Riyadh. Saudi King Salman also hosted Somali prime minister Hassan Ali Khayre on October 10 as the crises were unfolding.
Turkey’s main success has been in Sudan. On November 20, Turkey and Sudan signed a wide-ranging series of bilateral deals for cooperation in agriculture, energy, transport, and aviation, according to Hurriyet. They came during a visit by Turkey’s vice president Fuat Oktay to Khartoum in which he hoped to boost trade from $500 million to $10 billion in five years. Oktay also spoke to Sudan about defense cooperation. A massive agriculture investment in 780,000 hectares was also announced.
Turkey has also been investing heavily in Suakin Island on the Red Sea since Erdogan visited Sudan in December 2017 and agreed to restore and invest in the historic port. Qatar was also part of the deal that could involve the investment billions of dollars in Suakin through 2020. The Turkish investment is supposed to refurbish the area for tourism and develop port facilities for civilian and military use.
The military aspect of Turkey’s role in Sudan was discussed during a visit by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in early November to Suakin. According to Ankara’s Anadolu news agency “ Turkey’s plan to open military training centers in Sudan was among the topics discussed.” Yasin Aktay, who is close to Erdogan, wrote in Yeni Safak on November 10 that the trip by Akar, which included Libya and Somalia, “had great significance.” In Somalia, Akar said that Turkey was an “important supporter of the regional and global peace and stability,” emphasizing that Turkey operates the only modern military training facility in the country.
The increasing involvement in the Horn of Africa by Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia has several important implications. Each visit and bilateral agreement tend to have repercussions with neighboring countries. For instance, the UAE’s links to Somaliland affect its relations with Somalia and Djibouti. Turkey’s role in Sudan impacts Sudan’s relations with Egypt, where strained relations have resulted. Turkey sees itself as carving out a new relationship with Africa, as evidenced by Erdogan’s frequent trips and visits by many other senior officials. Turkey’s influence is also multi-layered, including cultural ties, economic investment and, in Sudan and Somalia, increasing military-to-military connections. Turkey will tread carefully, especially in regard to any naval facilities on the Red Sea. But it will also increase its clout in the region. Advisors to Erdogan clearly see this as an important step.
Were it not for the Yemen war and the Gulf crisis between Qatar and its neighbors, the increasing investment in the Horn of Africa would join other countries, such as China, whose investment is seen as a more economic strategy than military and political strategy. The Yemen crisis has increased the militarization of the Horn, including more modern military facilities. This bypasses the existing infrastructure of the United States, western countries and the African Union that was aimed at combating piracy and terror. It represents a departure from the United States and western states playing a major role in the regional security framework, and a shift towards Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar playing a central role. That was clear in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement and the unprecedented investments now being made in Berbera and Suakin ports.
The potential for developing conflict is seen as a regional concern, especially by Turkish commentators. UAE commentators tend to be tighter lipped or stress either humanitarian or economic issues, as opposed to larger strategies and influence building. Turkish journalist Ibrahim Tigli claims that the UAE’s role will “lead to moves striking a blow to Turkey’s humanitarian policy ” and that the UAE is working with the United States, UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He argues that Turkey’s growing role means “Turkey has become a country which is listened to in the region” and that this could lead to Ankara being an intermediary in ending the Yemen war. With Yemen peace talks scheduled for December and a push for a ceasefire, the Turkish role and its influence in the Horn of Africa is essential to understanding its view of the interconnected Africa-Middle East connection. The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, was in Hodeidah on November 23 to seek a way to end the conflict. It is a conflict that has deeply affected the neighboring African states and will continue to play out across the Red Sea.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.