Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are trying to sure up support in Sudan, amid ongoing instability. Does their political and financial lobbying present a threat to Turkish investments?
Since the fall of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in a military coup on April 11, civilian protesters and the Transitional Military Council have been in a tussle over who gets to rule.
Sudanese protesters want a civilian-led government to preside over a two-year transitional period until elections can be held to decide on a new leader. They have called on the military to hand over power as soon as possible.
It’s hard to determine, who will win the struggle but that hasn’t stopped two Gulf nations in particular from continuing to send money into the country.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged to send Sudan $3 billion in aid, giving its new rulers access to vast amounts of cash to ensure the countries smooth running for the time being.
However, protesters on the streets, view that aid with suspicion, with fears that the money comes with strings attached.
After decades of sanctions, and the secession of oil-rich South Sudan, Sudan’s economy has been reeling, but that has not stopped investment. Notably, Turkey has been involved in a number of aid and investment projects in the country.
Ties between the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance and Turkey have been frosty over a number of issues, such as the former’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, as well as their support for dictators in the Middle East, such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar.
According to the Turkish Statistic Institut e(TUIK), Turkey exported $360.8 million in goods and services to Sudan in 2018, while imports from the country stood at $73.1 million.
Turkey has also been strengthening its diplomatic ties. In 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish president to visit Sudan.
"We need to raise our trade volume to $1 billion and then to $10 billion. We have to take appropriate steps for this," Erdogan said.
There is progress on the ground to go with his words.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), has been at the forefront of infrastructure projects.
In 2017, TIKA dug 90 wells, built water pipes to remote villages, and has introduced educational programmes for Sudanese nationals.
The Nyala Turkish Sudan Hospital has also been serving Sudanese nationals, with 46 intensive care beds, three operation rooms, two delivery rooms, one fully equipped radiology unit, and 150 beds.
The Turkish government also provides scholarships for Sudanese students wishing to study in the country.
The largest Turkish investments is an airport project in Khartoum worth $1.1 billion.
While another significant TIKA project is the development of Suakin island, a former Ottoman garrison, which served to protect pilgrims traveling to the Hejaz region of the Arabian peninsula, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located.
So is there cause to worry about the future of these investments?
According to Istanbul Medeniyet University’s Muhammed Tandogan, Saudi and UAE involvement in Sudan dates back to the Bashir days. He pointed out that Riyadh gave Sudan nearly $2 billion at the start of 2018, while Bashir was in power.
Rather than try to influence its current domestic political course, the recent payment could be to ensure Sudan’s support for Saudi military adventures elsewhere.
“Saudi Arabia's $3 billion in aid to the Sudanese Military Council, could be read as buying Sudan's support for the war against the Houthis in Yemen,” Tandogan said.
Tandogan said the change of government would therefore not affect Turkish and Sudanese relations.
It was a sentiment shared to an extent by Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar of the University of Minnesota, who said that while Saudi Arabia and the UAE “do not have the interests of the Sudanese population at heart,” the changes in Sudan “might even have a positive impact on Turkish investment in the country.”
“Turkey should consider aiding the new leadership in creating good public service in the short run, which will solidify the relationship in the long run,” Samatar said.
According to Tandogan, it was because the nature of Turkish investments were humanitarian in the first place, that they would survive in the long run. "Humanitarian diplomacy" puts Turkey in a different level to other actors, he explained.
The message from the Sudanese authorities appears to be the same, that it will be business as usual.
Sudan's Ambassador to Ankara, Yusuf el-Kordofani, said that its strategic relationship with Turkey will continue to be based on agreements that have already been signed.
“In this context, Turkey’s projects, including Suakin island, will not be jeopardised in the future,” Tandogan told TRT World.