Turkey and Qatar: Overlapping agendas in the Horn of Africa

The influence of Turkey and Qatar are considered here in parallel, both because their interests and agendas have overlapped to some degree (resulting in some instances of cooperation, if not always coordination) and because they have sought to pursue more overtly political agendas in the Horn of Africa than the other Gulf states. From 2011 onward, both countries have found their interests increasingly aligned as the changes initiated by the Arab Uprising have swept through the region. The 2017 rift between Doha and the other regional Arab powers (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) have served to reinforce Turkey–Qatar connections. The degree to which support for political Islam underpins the foreign policy of either country is overstated, however, even if this is the core accusation that drove the split in 2017.

Turkey has pursued a broader project focused on cultivating its own economic and political influence since a turn away from Europe in the late 1990s. The Qatari agenda is more pragmatic and opportunistic than ideological, focused in part on maintaining independence from larger Gulf neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. The states of the Horn of Africa, especially Sudan and Somalia, have been affected by the competition between Qatar and other Gulf states. In particular, the 2019 revolution in Sudan exposed the fragility of the Qatari position (and to some extent the Turkish position) in the competition for influence in the Red Sea.

Turkish opening towards Africa

Turkish involvement in the Horn of Africa has intensified substantially in the last decade. Most of the existing literature analyzing this development considers the Turkish approach to Africa in terms of individual dimensions, or drivers, of foreign policy decisions—economic,[53] humanitarian[54], and security-related[55] factors. The literature rarely views the Turkish approach to the Horn of Africa as part of its broader regional agenda for the Middle East and North Africa, which connects it more clearly to critical events for the economic prosperity and security of the country.


Although the AKP government announced the Year of Africa in 2005, the opening toward Africa was not a new project. Rather, this is rooted in events that took place in 1998, after Turkish exclusion from the list of candidate countries for EU membership. Consequent to this, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs İsmail Cem decided to reformulate Turkish foreign policy guidelines. This reformulation included drawing up the Africa Action Plan (AAP), which highlighted the great potential of Turkey in Africa and showed that there was general sympathy for Turkey from African states.

Until that moment, the Turkish presence in Africa was very limited. The few existing links were with countries in North Africa, along with a few others, including Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa.[56] Turkish foreign policy routes ignored Africa south of the Sahara. The purpose of the AAP was to develop a diplomatic framework that would facilitate the establishment of economic and cultural agreements with a growing number of African countries.[57] The main objectives were twofold: first, to diversify political partners (to garner support at international forums on the Cyprus issue); and second, to broaden economic markets. Domestic political instability and the lack of adequate resources, however, hindered the Turkish government in pursuing the AAP.

In 2005, the AKP government revived and re-elaborated the guidelines recommended by the AAP. Thanks to rapid economic growth, the AKP government was able to widen the scope of Turkish foreign policy by following a multi-directional approach.[58] Within this strategic framework, the Horn of Africa is one of the main regions where the Turkish state has increased its presence. It should be stressed that in both cases (1998 and 2005) the Turkish projection towards the Horn of Africa was a natural outgrowth of drivers that were largely situated in the economic sectors of the country.

Phases of Turkish involvement in Africa

Turkish involvement in the Horn of Africa may be categorized in three distinct phases: 2005–2010; 2011–2015; 2016–present.


In the first phase, Turkey built diplomatic and economic relations in African countries, particularly in the Horn of Africa, by exploiting different instruments of public diplomacy and by establishing a network of contacts. During this phase, the government, constituted by an emerging conservative political elite, faced several obstacles in Turkish institutions, including some key ministers such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and most of the diplomatic service and cadres.[59] Resistance was not so much to the new orientation of foreign policy as to the fact that it was promoted by a political party (AKP), the background of which diverged from the traditional Kemalist one.[60] This environment led to the establishment of a large number of new institutions and state agencies (i.e. AFAD, Yunus Emre Institute) and the strengthening of the prerogatives of pre-existing ones (i.e. the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), Diyanet, DEIK) to bypass the institutional blocks.[61] At the same time, the layered approach adopted by the government allowed the involvement of a growing number of civil society organizations, thereby giving rise to the civil society–state nexus that is one of the distinguishing traits of the Turkish presence in Africa.[62] With respect to the Horn of Africa, Turkey acted to consolidate existing bilateral ties, first of all those with Ethiopia, its most relevant regional partner. In order to strengthen links with Addis Ababa, Turkey has followed a roadmap of semi-coordinated actions of state institutions and civil society organizations, including: opening schools through NGO and charitable foundations; diplomatic visits accompanied by business people and other representatives of civil society; establishing a TİKA office; starting scheduled flights by Turkish Airlines (partially state-owned), and opening an embassy and consulates.

Following this five-part template, Turkey tightened relations with Djibouti, Uganda, Sudan, FIFA World Cup, Mohamed is hoping to celebrate different nationalities in Edmonton. So far teams include players from Somaliland, Jamaica, Fiji, Kenya” href=”” data-wpil-keyword-link=”linked”>Kenya, and Eritrea.


The real watershed of Turkish engagement in the Horn of Africa is the role the country assumed in Somalia in 2011. Since then, Somalia has become the pivot of Turkish policy in the region. The humanitarian intervention in Somalia—whereby Turkish officials and charitable organizations staged high profile relief operations, including the visit of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family to Mogadishu, amid a contrasting Western response defined by US counter-terrorism concerns—has had a significant impact on both the policy and the presence of Turkey in the region.[63] From the perspective of Turkish policy, the situation in Somalia prompted Ankara to enhance the humanitarian dimension. Due to the popularity, it gained at the international level, a few months after its initial humanitarian efforts Turkey decided to invest further in humanitarian diplomacy and institutionalized it as a niche area.[64]

Deepening involvement in Somalia transformed the Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa through the adoption of a proactive unilateral approach to regional political issues. Until then, Turkey had remained external to the political and security issues of the region, engaging only in multilateral initiatives such as anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations.[65] The stated Turkish political aim in the Horn of Africa was and still is to promote the stability of the region and the security of the Red Sea. According to Turkish policymakers, this goal can only be achieved by stabilizing Somalia, in particular through the consolidation of Somali institutions.[66] To this end, Turkey has tried to maintain a balanced position with all regional actors. This is especially the case with Ethiopia and Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, FIFA World Cup, Mohamed is hoping to celebrate different nationalities in Edmonton. So far teams include players from Somaliland, Jamaica, Fiji, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya, which Ankara considers to be key stakeholders for Somali stability.

Following the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen (Operation Decisive Storm) in 2015, and the 2017 rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) focused on isolating Qatar, the Turkish presence in Somalia has taken on greater geostrategic significance. The Turkish decision to provide logistical support to Operation Decisive Storm was mainly dictated by the desire to reassure Riyadh about plans in Ankara to establish a military presence in Somalia.[67] Following the blockade of Qatar, however, Somalia became another battleground of political rivalry between opposing blocs.[68] In 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Mogadishu, its largest overseas base. Although formally and legally a facility for the training of the Somali National Army (SNA),[69] in practice it is a Turkish military outpost in the region and, consequently, perceived as a potential threat to the interests of its rivals.[70]


Following the unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, several domestic changes— especially the transition to a presidential system—have altered Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has adopted an interventionist attitude in the regional crisis, with the consequent rebalancing between soft and hard power in favor of the latter. Since that moment, Turkish commitment to the Horn of Africa has been increasingly conditioned by Middle Eastern politics, with the effect of reducing the relevance of the Red Sea region in wider Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, the assertive policy of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn has slowed down and partly downgraded Turkish plans. On the other hand, its own increasing interventionism (for example, in Syria and Libya) and the more immediate challenges (Islamic State, the YPG [Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or People’s Protection Units] in Syrian Kurdistan and competition with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean) have forced Turkey to rethink its strategic priorities.[71]

However, the Horn of Africa has subsequently lost strategic weight in the framework of Turkish foreign policy. This deprioritization is attributed to policymakers’ beliefs that in the context of regional competition (the wider Middle East) there is less to be gained in the Horn of Africa than in other areas.[72] Moreover, despite the growing importance of the Horn of Africa to the Turkish trade balance, the region remains far less important than other areas such as North Africa. Consequently, at a time when Turkey faces difficult choices, the Horn of Africa is more expendable in terms of economic and political ties than other areas.[73] Therefore, the region does not play a priority strategic role in current Turkish foreign policy.

Qatar and the Horn: multilateralism in action

Qatar has long viewed the Horn of Africa as a key arena for its status-enhancing multilateralist foreign policy. As a Qatari senior diplomat notes, ‘Africa is becoming more and more economically important, and the Horn is, of course, the most important and closest to our region.’[74] The organic multilateralist approach of Qatar was established under the leadership of Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the ruling emir from 1995 to 2013. Emboldened by significant economic and financial wherewithal,[75] Qatar positioned itself as a mediator of regional conflicts, in turn gaining recognition as a key player, and preserving its autonomy from neighbors perceived to be threatening, especially Saudi Arabia.[76] While the Qatari strategy in the Horn of Africa has remained largely unaffected by broader regional events—for example, the Arab Uprisings—from 2013 onward there has been a shift under Tamim bin Hamad (successor to Sheikh Hamad), with a Qatari official noting that foreign policy ‘is not the same under Tamim, things have calmed down of course, but aid, mediation, and strategic investments continue’.[77]

Together with Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, who served as minister of foreign affairs (1992–2013) and prime minister (2007–2013), Sheikh Hamad had positioned Doha ‘as the Oslo, Geneva or Vienna of the Islamic World—a destination for belligerents intent on undertaking discreet, if not secret, talks’.[78] In line with this approach, Qatar cultivated bilateral ties with a wide variety of political forces across the Middle East and beyond to garner support for its multilateralist strategy.[79] Qatar played a sizeable role in mediating several regional political disputes throughout the 2000s, including but not limited to: Morocco/Polisario Front (2004); Hamas/Fatah (2006, 2012); Lebanon (2008); and Sanaa government/Houthi movement (2008–2011).[80] As one observer notes, the Qatari decision to mediate nearby conflicts (including those in the Horn of Africa) is partly about promoting greater stability in an adjacent region, which would ultimately benefit Doha.[81] In the Horn of Africa, Qatari mediation efforts have focused on conflicts in Eritrea (its border conflict with Djibouti), Sudan (particularly in post-2008 talks between Khartoum and Darfuri rebels) and through its influence with state-building processes in Somalia.

Ideology in Qatari engagement in the Horn

While it is often assumed that a major driver of Qatari involvement in the Horn of Africa is its support for political Islam, the reality is more complicated and nuanced. As one commentator explains, ‘Qatar is not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood [per se]. The country supported different political forces during the Arab Uprisings, like left-wing stakeholders.’[82] In short, Qatar ‘does not have an ideological foreign policy’.[83] In a similar vein, a Qatari diplomat notes that ‘Qatar’s foreign policy is a mix of strategic hedging, pragmatism and realism, with an Islamic touch. We are not ideological per se.’[84] Rather than being the main driver of Qatari policies in the Horn, support from Doha for political Islam has largely been ‘instrumental’[85] and ‘opportunistic’,[86] as Doha seeks influence through access to political actors perceived as having power or capacity.

At a practical level, Islamist political actors are often the most organized across the Red Sea region. Many political actors in the Horn of Africa (especially Somalia) have at least some elements of Islamic identity woven into their founding organizational principles.[87]Any appearance of ideological support on the part of Qatar also waned following the retirement of Sheikh Hamad as emir in 2013. Unlike major neighboring countries, ‘Qataris never got the idea they had to fear political Islam. … The Qatar Muslim Brotherhood [which dissolved in 2003] never had a political agenda.’[88] This has led to the perception that Qataris ‘never really let the Brotherhood mingle in their affairs. … They never really infiltrated Qatar as they did in the UAE.’[89]

The limits of Qatari clout

The ripple effects of the intra-Gulf crisis highlight the lack of comprehensive strategy and the fragile political influence of Qatar in the Horn of Africa. The crisis is thought to have ‘reduced Qatari options in terms of hedge betting’[90] and disrupted its ability to lead on mediation efforts in the region. With Doha marginalized, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have successfully taken on a similar peacemaking approach. This contributed to their role in supporting Ethiopia and Eritrea’s rapprochement in 2018, and the signing of peace agreements under their patronage in 2018. When judged against the recent impact of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the region, several commentators argue that Qatari influence is dwindling and much less relevant than before.[91]

The Gulf crisis drove a wedge between Qatar and Djibouti, the prior relationship between which had been historically ‘cordial but limited’.[92] In 2017, Djibouti support for the AntiTerror Quartet (ATQ, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) resulted in Qatar pulling out 450 peacekeepers positioned on the disputed land with Eritrea. The efforts of Doha to pen a peace deal had stalled.[93] The crisis provided Qatar with an opportunity to bury the issue. Similarly, by abiding by the ATQ position, gentle support from Asmara of the blockade[94] was perceived to be the result of its growing engagement with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which had been developing since 2015. Eritrea did not sever ties with Qatar but it is clear that the relationship between the two countries has significantly weakened. During the final days of then-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan in 2019, Asmara accused Qatar and Turkey of supporting Eritrean Islamist opposition groups based in Sudan.[95] Relations may improve following the end of the ATQ blockade in early 2021.[96]

The impact of the 2019 Sudanese revolution

From 2017, Sudan was caught in between Doha and the ATQ, with various actors in the Sudanese political and security elite exploiting connections to the Gulf to benefit themselves. While the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under General Hemedti provided the Arab coalition in Yemen with troops, al-Bashir granted major deals to Qatar and Turkey in Suakin off the Red Sea coast. In brokering the 2018 USD 4 billion agreement to develop and manage the Suakin port,[97] Doha ‘challeng[ed] Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea, facing Jeddah and Mecca. Qatar is not on the defensive anymore but on the offensive now’.[98] A few months earlier, Turkey had also signed a 99-year lease contract to build a naval quay for civilian and military vessels in Suakin.[99] TİKA also committed to refurbish an Ottoman historical building on the island.

Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo criticized these deals, which were eventually brought into question following al-Bashir’s downfall. There are longstanding close ties between the Egyptian military and the Sudan Armed Forces, and links were growing between the Saudi/Emirati coalition and the RSF in the context of Yemeni operations.[100] The Transitional Military Council put on hold ‘all agreements, treaties, and charters signed by the previous Sudanese government’; however, Ankara rejected this.[101] Left with a damaged network,[102] the Qatari project in Suakin was locked in a stalemate, and there has been little progress since phase one kicked off in April 2018.

Qatar is seen by many interviewees as having worked against the Sudanese revolution: ‘Qatar tried very hard for it not to succeed and used Al-Jazeera for that purpose.’[103] Overall, the Sudanese interpretation appears to be that Egypt and the Gulf states wanted to ensure control over the new post-revolution government.[104] They thought the Transitional Military Council—rather than civilian politicians and civil society leaders—should have executive power and wanted a cabinet with which they could work.[105]

The Turkish relationship with Qatar

Since 2013, Turkey has developed increasingly close relations with Qatar, especially after the 2017 blockade. While the support that both Turkey and Qatar have provided to the Muslim Brotherhood is often seen as their most important shared agenda item, the broader convergence between the two states on regional security policy is connected with the common interest of countering or containing, Saudi and Emirati power in the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region.[106]

The strategic alignment between Doha and Ankara has uneven effects in the Horn of Africa.[107] At a political and security level, the two countries have adopted some joint or complementary policies, particularly with respect to Somalia and al-Bashir era Sudan. On the ground, however, they do not always cooperate but rather are indirectly tied together, especially in financial terms.[108] For example, in Somalia, through the Qatar Fund for Development, Qatar is investing in a 122 km tarmac road construction between Mogadishu–Afgoi and Mogadishu–Jowhar, with a Turkish construction company implementing the project and Turkish engineers on the ground.[109]

The strongest collaboration is evident in Somalia, where Turkey has been able to capitalize on the longstanding links established by Qatar with former members of the Islamic Courts Union and in the Somali diaspora. The network of connections that Qatar has shared with Turkey is useful both in the attempt to establish institutions and—as demonstrated by Turkish involvement in the May 2020 release of the Italian aid worker Silvia Romano—in developing links with Somali intelligence services, led by Fahad Yasin—director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA)—who has ties to Doha.[110] In the coming years, the financial role Qatar plays in Somalia will be even more important because Turkey, already before the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis,[111] had reduced its budget allocated to support Somali stabilization. Nonetheless, both countries pursue their own, partly hidden, agendas in the Horn of Africa, which do not always coincide or overlap.

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