Erdogan is deepening his involvement in Sudan

During Erdogan’s December 2017 visit, Sudan had agreed to lease the Suakin Island to Turkey for an indeterminate period.

By
December 9, 2018 22:52
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, October 23, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/TUMAY BERKIN)

 
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Pursuing its strategic goals in Sudan, Turkey is turning to the economy.

On November 29, Turkish Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli told Sudanese daily Al Shuruk that his country and Sudan had established a joint agricultural and livestock company; its offices, he said, had opened in Khartoum a few days earlier.

TIGEM, the general directorate of agricultural enterprises of Turkey, holds 80% of its shares and Sudan 20%. According to the minister, as a pilot project the company will lease 12,500 hectares to Turkish companies in the private sector out of the 780,000 hectares Sudan agreed to lease to Turkey for a period of 99 years when president Erdogan visited the country in 2017. These vast tracts of land are spread across five districts. The purpose of the pilot project is to study culture and export feasibility. According to the minister, it is to help develop Sudanese agriculture while providing Turkey with agricultural produce that cannot be grown locally because of the climate. That produce will not be taxed. The company was established following the Turkish-Sudanese agricultural agreement signed in 2014, which aimed at developing Sudanese agricultural potential in order to produce foodstuffs.

This public and important development demonstrates the common and long-range determination of both countries to consolidate their relationship. During Erdogan’s December 2017 visit, Sudan had agreed to lease the Suakin Island to Turkey for an indeterminate period. Turkey is to build a port, develop agriculture and restore the citadel, which had been for centuries the seat of the Ottoman Governor. The island is situated in the Red Sea opposite the Saudi port of Jedda.

President Erdogan is using Sudan to establish a foothold on the Red Sea to further is grand design of making Turkey a regional power and perhaps giving it back the glory of the Ottoman Empire, a policy he started implementing as soon as he was in power. He first came to Khartoum in 2006, when he was head of government and relations between the two countries kept getting warmer. Ankara provided much-needed economic relief when the United Stated imposed sanctions on Khartoum and in the past decade Turkish companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Sudan.

But it was during his December 2017 visit that the Turkish president set the seal on the special relationship between the two countries. Arriving with an impressive delegation of ministers and industrialists, he signed no fewer than 12 economic cooperation agreements for a total of $650 million. A high committee for strategic consultations was established. Another agreement dealt with security cooperation, but no details were published; what is known is that the commanders in chief of Turkey, Sudan and that of Qatar (who “happened” to come to Khartoum during the visit) met for unspecified meetings. A few days later the ministers of defense of those three countries arrived in Khartoum; they joined president Omar el Bashar for the inauguration of a textile factory that will manufacture uniforms for their armies as well as for neighboring African countries.

In March 2018, the Sudanese finance minister signed with Soma, a leading Turkish construction firm, a contract for the establishment of Khartoum’s new airport at a cost of $1.5 billion.


In June of the same year, the joint Turkish-Sudanese businessmen committee met in Ankara with the participation of the finance and economic ministers of both countries, who signed a reciprocal agreement to promote trade with the ambitious goal of reaching exchanges of $2b. During the two preceding years, trade volume was barely $500m. a year, with Turkish exports making up 90% of the total.

There are important international aspects to their cooperation as well. Because of its closer ties to Turkey, Khartoum reduced significantly its participation in the Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. At the same time, it developed its ties with Qatar, whose investments in Sudan reached $3.5b. in 2017. 

But Turkey sees beyond Sudan. It set up a military base in Somalia. Inaugurated in October 2017, it is intended “to train the Somalian army.” The year before it had set up a similar base in Qatar and later dispatched reinforcements to bolster the small kingdom engaged in a confrontation with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, fearing an invasion by the latter.

What the three countries involved in the Turkish alliance – Sudan, Somalia and Qatar – have in common is that they are ruled by Islamic parties close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, itself a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, took advantage of that fact to enhance its the strategic importance in the Red Sea area. It has now a political basis through its allies and a military presence through its outposts in Somalia and the Sudani port city of Suakin and could therefore threaten freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. As things stand today, it has no reason to do so, but it has demonstrated that it should be taken into consideration even far from its own borders.

This is a state of affairs that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, are unhappy with, but cannot tackle at this point because they are embroiled in other conflicts. Saudi Arabia is focused on the threat of Iran and on the long-drawn Yemen war against the Houthis; Egypt has not yet quelled the Sinai insurgency and is trying to implement much-needed economic reforms. They are not ready for a confrontation with Turkey. Nevertheless, Cairo fears a deterioration of its own relations with Sudan, since it needs the help of that country in its efforts to preserve its share of the Nile waters, threatened both by claims of other African countries and by the massive “Renaissance” dam being built by Ethiopia on one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile.

Though Riyadh and Cairo are so far behaving with circumspection, there is a very real potential for a regional flare-up that would speedily expand to the whole Middle East.

The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

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