In Doha, his face is on bumper stickers. In Mogadishu, it looms on giant posters. Nowadays, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan enjoys great popularity in certain countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Remarkably, too, he has achieved this while at the same time managing an unprecedented escalation in the number and size of his country’s overseas military bases.
On the Arabian Sea, his country’s flag flutters on warships, and by the Persian Gulf, it flies from tank turrets.
Turkish troops are now in Qatar and Somalia, while Turkish navy vessels patrol the Gulf of Aden. Recent statements by leading figures in Sudan and Djibouti have also caused speculation that these countries, too, may soon play host to soldiers sent by Ankara.
Turkey stresses that it has only peaceful intentions behind this buildup. Yet in a region that has not seen such deployments since Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, ruled much of the Middle East, such a return is not always welcome.
“The Arab world will not be led from Tehran and Ankara,” United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted at the end of last year. He had earlier warned against the “surrounding regional ambitions” of Iran and Turkey.
For some, indeed, these new Turkish moves bring with them concerns of “neo-Ottoman” encirclement.
Yet, others argue, much of this deployment follows a more long-standing Turkish search for new markets in the Gulf and Africa – although this economy-driven expansion is now going in parallel with new opportunities created by recent regional fractures and global changes.
“There is a new world now,” said Aybars Gorgulu, research director at the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM) in Istanbul. “In this environment, Turkey is taking its own initiatives, becoming more active and more present.”
Crisis and opportunity
Concerns over Turkish intentions have been growing in some capitals after a string of moves by Ankara.
First, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – known as the Arab Quartet – imposed a blockade of their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partner Qatar back in June 2017, Ankara quickly stepped up to defend Doha.
Fast-tracked by the Turkish parliament, a force of around 3,000 troops is currently being built up at the Tariq bin Ziyad base, south of the Qatari capital, along with naval and air units.
Meanwhile, west of the Arabian Peninsula, in Somalia, some 200 Turkish soldiers have been deployed to a new US$50 million camp in Mogadishu. There, they are training some 10,000 Somali troops in the fight against the jihadist Al-Shabaab group.
Further north, and right at the entrance to the Red Sea, last December, Djibouti’s ambassador to Turkey, Aden Abdillahi, said that “possible steps from Turkey to build a military base in the country would be welcomed.” Turkish naval vessels engaged in international anti-piracy work are already based there, along with forces from France, the US, the UK, China, and even Japan.
That same month, Erdogan was also in Sudan, a visit that ended with an agreement for Turkey to construct a port with Qatari financing on Suakin Island, an old Ottoman-era naval base.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour told reporters at the time that the two countries had agreed “to build a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.”
The Turkish president later denied any specific military interest in the island, but a number of military and civilian cooperation agreements were signed between the two countries.
The March of the Mehter?
Statements by President Erdogan at home have not helped ease concerns in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.
On February 10, the Turkish leader declared that the Turkish Republic was “a continuation of the Ottomans,” and that while borders and forms of government might have changed, “the essence is the same, the soul is the same, even many institutions are the same.”
Yet for all the talk of Ottoman revival, there may be more practical concerns behind these recent moves.
“In Qatar,” said Noha Aboueldehab, visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, “I’m sure Turkey has been looking at this crisis as an opportunity. We can see this in the major number of business deals Turkey is making with Qatar.”
Indeed, late last year, Qatar green-lighted some US$19 billion in investment in Turkey for 2018, after investing around US$18 billion in 2017.
At the same time, the blockade has meant the shutting down of Qatar’s traditional sources of imports – such as Saudi Arabia. Turkish companies have rushed to fill the gap, with supermarket shelves in Doha now full of Turkish produce. Meanwhile, construction contracts in the fast-growing Qatari economy have been gratefully handed out to Turkish companies.
Somalia, meanwhile, has long been close with Turkey, which has provided it with much humanitarian aid in recent years, along with investment in basic infrastructure.
“Turkey sees Somalia as a ‘brother state,’” said Gorgulu, “a place with a special tie. Turkey has a growing interest there in capacity building and aid – the military presence is really largely symbolic.”
Engagement with Somalia was one outcome of an enhanced Turkish Africa policy, as the country looked for new markets for its products after the global economic meltdown in 2007-08. This went along with increasingly fraught relations between Turkey and its main overseas market, Europe.
Deployments in Sudan or Djibouti might also be largely symbolic, Gorgulu argues, if they indeed ever occur.
“Turkey is not so rich and is already fighting in Syria, so there’s little enthusiasm for sending even more troops abroad. Turkey just doesn’t have that global capacity.”
Yet within the Arab Quartet states, in particular, suspicions remain. A recent Twitter war between the UAE foreign minister and the Turkish president over allegations of betrayal and massacre during the Siege of Medina in World War I illustrates how sensitive the Ottoman past remains.
The UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, began the spat by retweeting a claim that Ottoman soldiers had looted the city – now in Saudi Arabia – and abducted its residents. “These are Erdogan’s ancestors,” he tweeted.
The Turkish president responded that the UAE foreign minister had been “spoiled with petrol and spoiled with money.”
The spat still continues, too, with Ankara municipality recently renaming the street of the UAE Embassy after the Ottoman commander in Medina during the controversial 1916-1919 siege.