Turkey’s growing presence in Sudan is heating up geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, as regional rivals watch Turkey's every move.
The diplomatic traffic over the past two years between Turkey and Sudan has significantly accelerated.
Most recently Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay visited Sudan last week. Accompanied by Turkish Agriculture and Trade ministers, Oktay signed a wide range of agreements to boost bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy, agriculture, electricity and livestock.
“Our primary goal is to improve trade,” the vice president said in a press conference following a closed-door meeting with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir.
He continued, “Bilateral trade [between Turkey and Sudan] currently stands at less than $500 million,” which he hopes to boost to $10 billion within the next five years.
To compare, that is exactly what Turkey targets in its trade with India by 2020.
Immediately before Oktay’s visit, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was in the Sudanese capital city Khartoum, meeting with his Sudanese counterpart Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf and President Bashir. Turkey’s plan to establish military training centres in the country was discussed in the meetings.
However, ties initially began to flourish with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan last year, which turned over a new leaf in the relations of the two countries. Both countries during his visit signed a significant amount of agreements pertaining to defense cooperation, mining, agriculture, forest, science, education and tourism.
Among 13 agreements signed, the highlight of the visit was a deal to temporarily lease the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey.
Strategically located in the Red Sea, the Suakin island lies at the crossroads between Saudi Arabia and Port Sudan — Sudan's largest port, located just north of the island.
During the nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule from the 16th to 19th century, Suakin island was a vital point not just for regional maritime trade but also in the journey of Muslim pilgrims traveling from African nations to Mecca and Medina to perform Hajj.
Although, Erdogan’s visit marked the first visit of a Turkish president to Sudanese soil, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Horn of Africa has awakened geopolitical rivalries in the Red Sea region.
The Saudi-backed Egyptian government publicly remained silent, Egypt's pro-government media, however, is vilifying neighbouring Sudan over its growing ties with Turkey and Qatar, saying the three are conspiring against Egypt.
Emad Hussein, editor of Cairo's Al Shorouk daily, wrote that Erdogan's visit to Sudan, "cannot be viewed ... except as harassment of Egypt.”
Ankara and Cairo's diplomatic relations are at the lowest level since 2013, after the coup by Egypt's Abdel Fattah el Sisi toppled the first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
In addition, right after Erdogan’s visit, Egypt sent its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan. In response, Sudan recalled its ambassador to Cairo after the the head of the Sudanese Border Technical Committee, Abdullah al Sadiq, accused Egypt of attempting to "drag Sudan into a direct [military] confrontation."
Reactions to Erdogan’s visit to Sudan is indeed a part of the growing geopolitical competition in the Horn of Africa.
Sudan remained neutral in the blockade of Qatar by a coalition of Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia. And while the UAE actively supported the Saudi-led blockade, Turkey economically assisted Qatar, where it has an army base.
The UAE uses its strategically important army bases in Eritrea and Somaliland to bomb Yemen. Turkey has an army training centre in Mogadishu and supports the Somali government and its federal integrity, while the UAE supports the Somali states of Somaliland and Puntland, which are seeking independence.
Serhat Orakci, an expert from Istanbul-based the Humanitarian and Social Research Center, believes that Turkish ambitions in Sudan are “purely economic.”
Orakci tells TRT World that, in the eyes of Turkey, Sudan symbolises a transitional point to Africa from the Arab world, and “Turkey cannot ignore Sudan’s strategic importance.”
On the other hand, Orakci argues that Sudan does not only seek economic benefits from its relations with Turkey. He believes “Sudan’s Bashir is aiming to gain more international recognition by being continuously seen with Erdogan.”
Bashir, who came to power in Sudan in a 1989 military-backed coup, was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in 2008 by the International Criminal Court over the deaths and persecution of ethnic groups in the Darfur province.
The court’s arrest warrant significantly limits his international visits, and Bashir’s case made it to global headlines once again, when he visited South Africa for an African Union meeting in 2015.
Secondly, Orakci believes, on the eve of the 2020 presidential elections, Bashir is trying hard to overcome the “deep economic crisis,” which resulted from sanctions against the country.
Sudanese people have been suffering from cash shortages and hyperinflation, which touched almost 68 percent last August.
Therefore, he says, Bashir needs Turkish investments; “He is just being a pragmatist.”
As the recent military and economic cooperation between Turkey and Sudan grows, Turkish influence in the Red Sea region appears to have irked some of the actors there, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.