Shortly before Christmas, a highly controversial deal was struck in Khartoum between President Omar al-Bashir and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey was given exclusive rights to rehabilitate the port island of Suakin in northeastern Sudan, with docking rights for Turkish civilian and military vessels on the west coast of the Red Sea.
The former Ottoman port once served as a transit destination for Muslim pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Mecca, a role that Erdogan hopes to restore — under the direct supervision of the Turkish Army.
At first glance, this seems like yet another attempt by Erdogan to reach out to former Ottoman colonies, given his obsession with Turkey’s Ottoman past. For the last 15 years, Erdogan has spared no effort at peddling what was often described as “neo-Ottomanism,” a revival of the intellectual, political, economic and military influence of the former Ottoman Empire throughout the Muslim world.
The now abandoned Sudanese island was once the military headquarters of Ottoman Sultan Selim I, back in 1517. The Ottomans were forced to relinquish it to British colonialists, who set up their own base in 1883-1885. It suffered a long march into history after Port Sudan was established in 1922, and by 1939 Suakin had been all but deserted — left to crumble and rot — until Erdogan came along in 2017 promising to put it into use once again.
Port revamp part of $650 million deal
The agreement to revamp Suakin is part of a broader deal between Erdogan and Bashir, estimated at US$650 million, which involves building a new airport at Khartoum and investing in Sudanese cotton production, electricity generation, and grain silos.
Saudi Arabia is furious about the deal, and with good reason. First, it brings Turkish troops dangerously close to Saudi territory, given the Sudanese island’s proximity to the port city of Jeddah. Second, Riyadh believes that Erdogan doesn’t have the money to pursue such an ambitious program in Sudan, arguing that he will use Qatari funds to expand into Arab territories.
In other words, they believe Suakin is actually being handed over to the Qataris, rather than the Turks. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been at daggers-end since last June, over Doha’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and its open support of Iran.
Erdogan and the Qataris, Saudis not happy
Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia and Turkey found themselves on the same side of the Syrian conflict, both committed to regime change in Damascus, but more recently they parted ways over Turkey’s blatant support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, after they were ejected from power via Abdel Fattah Sisi’s coup in the summer of 2013. The Saudis were already furious with Turkey’s warming relations with Tehran, and expected Erdogan to support their standoff with Qatar, especially after setting a long list of demands that Doha was asked to accept. They included changing editorial policy of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV and expelling the Muslim Brotherhood from Qatar.
But rather than apply pressure on Doha, Erdogan chose to back the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in his feud with King Salman, breaking the Saudi-imposed embargo by allowing Qatari flights into Ankara and sending 5,000 Turkish troops to Doha in order to deter any Saudi adventurism in regard to its gas-rich tiny neighbor.
Cairo fears Khartoum has eyes on Halaib Triangle
Egypt is equally upset with Turkey’s new base on the Red Sea. Cairo feels that Erdogan’s port in Sudan might awaken Khartoum’s ambitions over the Halaib Triangle on the Red Sea. For more than 60 years, Egypt and Sudan have quarreled over the disputed territory, which both claim to have sovereignty over. In the 1990s, Egypt deployed troops to the Halaib Triangle, hoping this would put an end to Sudanese claims.
But with Turkish military support, Omar al-Bashir might reconsider his détente with Cairo over the Triangle. That, of course, follows the souring of ties between Cairo and Ankara over Erdogan’s support for former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, now in an Egyptian jail.
Other countries are watching Erdogan’s ambitious undertakings with alarm. In the three years since the start of the Saudi-led war on Houthi militants in Yemen a race has been underway for security bases and pockets of economic and political influence along the Red Sea, especially after Iran took the port of Al Hudaydah in Yemen, via the Houthis, which spread terror throughout the Gulf. From there, they threaten to meddle further in the affairs of the Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia.
Last February, the Emirates set up their own base in the port of Berbera in the breakaway republic of Somaliland, two years after building a naval base in Eritrea. Both have been vital for the Saudi war on the Houthis. In October, Erdogan erected his own base in Somalia, after China established one for its navy in Djibouti.
Elsewhere along the Red Sea, Jordan still controls the Gulf of Aqaba, Egypt still manages the Gulf of Suez, while the Riyadh-backed Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi remains in control of Bab al-Mandab and Aden, all aimed at blocking further Iranian advances.
This wide assortment of overseas bases is a novelty in international affairs. Throughout the Cold War, only the US and Russia had this sort of military influence outside their geographic boundaries. Countries like China and the UAE never thought of expanding militarily in such a manner.
Turkey and Iran, however, always had that ambition and were constantly in search of re-entering former colonies or satellite states. Interestingly, while Iran, Turkey, China and the UAE are all trying to cement their influence on the Red Sea, the Russians have no permanent presence there, and the Americans – whose ships sail through the sea on a daily basis – have a base just south in Djibouti. They are not anchored in the Red Sea – the Fifth Fleet is based in the Gulf and the Sixth Fleet is in Naples in the Mediterranean, leaving that stretch of territory open for other countries to covet and occupy — if they dare.
Published in Asia Times on 2 January 2018.