Turkey’s Engagement with Somalia Offers a Window into Its Strategy to Build Influence

In November, Turkey volunteered to pay off about $3.4 million of Somalia’s debt to the IMF. This month, Mogadishu approved a law that opens up the country to exploration by foreign oil companies. It formalizes arrangements behind an invitation a year ago to Turkish oil companies to explore in Somali waters, revealed then by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These engagements with Somalia offer a window into Ankara’s broader strategy of becoming a leader of the Islamic and non-Western world, centered mostly for now on the continent of Africa.

Erdogan first visited Somalia in 2011. Since then, he has systematically deepened Turkey’s relations with Mogadishu: Turkish companies have been encouraged to invest, Ankara has built schools and mosques, and Turkey has provided opportunities for Somali students to come and study. Most importantly, the Turks also built their largest military base abroad in Mogadishu. This base offers Ankara a valuable strategic spot close to the entrance to the Red Sea.

Erdogan’s Somalia gambit is part of a larger strategy designed to enhance Turkey’s influence around the world. Erdogan, almost from the moment he assumed power in 2003, has argued that the global order was unfair. He repeatedly maintained that the “world was larger than five,” an allusion to the veto-wielding five permanent members of the United Nations. He has hinted that Turkey should one day be recognized as a global power too, perhaps as a representative of the Islamic world.

To this end, in his 18 years at the helm of the Turkish government, Erdogan worked to build up Turkey’s hard and soft power.

Firstly, the defense budget grew as he pushed for the development of a domestic arms industry. Turkey not only is building two types of frigates, but will soon launch a helicopter carrier. Turkish manufactured drones were decisive in helping Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh. And on the northern shores of Africa, Turkish drones in 2020 reversed Khalifa Haftar’s offensive in Libya against Turkey’s ally and the UN-recognized Government of National Accord.

For a country previously totally dependent on imports for its military, these developments are significant achievements. This, in turn, has made Erdogan far more self-confident and willing to take risks and challenge regional powers, and occasionally even his own country’s allies.

On the soft power side, a peripatetic Erdogan sought to improve and develop relations with countries near and far. Because a previously Nato- and Europe-focused Ankara had few representations in Africa, Erdogan quickly increased the number of embassies on the continent to 42 from 12. Helped by a buoyant economy in the first half of his rule, he encouraged businesses to invest on the continent. The state-owned Turkish airlines, before the Covid-19 pandemic laid waste to air travel, offered connections to over 50 destinations in Africa. If you wanted to travel to Africa, there was a good chance you would transit in Istanbul.

To a degree, it was easy for Erdogan to set his sight on Africa. The continent was in many ways low-hanging fruit. The amount of investment needed to achieve the goals Turkey set for itself were modest and certainly affordable.

Nevertheless, such initiatives have not been without acrimony. Erdogan’s attempt to build up a naval presence in the region has not been received well in Egypt and the Arab Gulf states. Indeed, Ankara’s interest in the region is interpreted as neo-Ottoman imperialism by a country seen to be allied with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s active support of Qatar during the Gulf crisis, when Doha found itself in a deepening dispute with surrounding Arab countries, further cemented suspicions in other Gulf capitals.

The UAE and its allies, for example, increasingly perceived a Turkey that was engaged militarily in Libya, Syria and Iraq as a threat to their own security. Why should the Turks build bases so far from their own territory? The Egyptians in particular have historically feared intrusions in the Red Sea, because the Suez Canal depends on the sea lanes being open to shipping. While the UAE has itself constructed bases in the region, the initial intention was to support its side in the Yemeni conflict. Now, the UAE has gone a step further by aligning itself with Israel, Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean in a sign of its increasing discomfort with Ankara.

And if east Africa wasn’t far enough from Turkish soil, Ankara now is seeking to develop a similar foothold in west Africa. The level of engagement is similar to its efforts on Africa’s eastern shores, but minus the military component. Here, it isn’t Arab states and Israel it has perturbed, but the French, who are none too pleased to see Turkish encroachment on what they consider their sphere of influence in Francophone Africa. Already at odds with Turkey over Libya, Paris has been scrambling to counter Ankara’s push. Emmanuel Macron’s relationship with Erdogan has deteriorated significantly at both the personal and official levels.

Henri J Barkey is Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.