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World Politics

Turkey's Geopolitical interests in Sudan

Parlanova Aila Telman kyzy

ORCID: 0000-0002-1459-2524

Postgraduate Student, Faculty of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University

191060, Russia, gorod federal'nogo znacheniya, g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Smol'nogo, 1/3, of. pod''ezd 8

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Abstract: The subject of the study is TurkishSudanese relations at the present stage, the object is Turkey's foreign policy strategy. The aim of the work is to identify Ankara's geopolitical goals in Sudan after the conclusion of the Suakin Island lease agreement in 2017 and to analyze the state of bilateral relations after the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar alBashir in 2019. Turning to primary sources, the study shows that Turkey's foreign policy in Sudan is a logical continuation of the policy of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism. An analysis of political events in the region reveals that Ankara needs to consolidate in Sudan in order to weaken the positions of the President of Egypt, A. F. AlSisi. It is determined that in the case of the creation of a military base on the island of Suakin, near the Suez Canal, Ankara gets access to four of the seven most vulnerable logistics hubs of the World Ocean at once. In the Russian literature, this topic has been studied only in certain aspects, without a comprehensive analytical generalization, which determines the novelty of this work. The establishment of a new government in Sudan in December 2019, loyal to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, meant that Ankara's foreign policy course in Khartoum did not justify itself. A comparison of Turkey's foreign policy strategy in Somalia and Sudan reveals Ankara's main miscalculation insufficient use of "soft power" tools. Nevertheless, in the Program of the Foreign Policy of the Republic of Turkey for 2021, Sudan is given a separate place among potential partners. It is concluded that despite the obvious political miscalculation, Ankara still intends to promote relations with Khartoum and pursue its geopolitical interests. Consequently, East Africa and the Red Sea region play a significant role in Turkey's foreign policy. It is necessary to take this factor into account when studying and forecasting Ankara's foreign policy on the world stage.


Turkey, Sudan, neo - ottomanism, pan - Islamism, Suakin Island, Hydroelectric power station, foreign policy, geopolitics, The Red Sea, East Africa

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.


In December 2017, R. T. Erdogan made his first visit to Sudan and signed an agreement on the transfer of Suakin Island to Turkey for a period of 99 years "for the restoration of historical monuments and reconstruction of the port." After the conclusion of the agreement, the media speculated about Ankara's plans to create a military base. According to the Turkish side, the military will be on the island only to protect Turkish citizens engaged in the restoration of the island and the development of Turkish-Sudanese economic and humanitarian relations, which de facto could well mean the construction of a military base. In the Program of Turkey's foreign Policy for 2021, Sudan is given a separate place among Ankara's potential partners, which also confirms the relevance of the chosen topic.

Despite the fact that after the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the fate of the agreement remains in question, it is obvious that specific goals have been outlined, for which Sudan has a key role to play. In this regard, this work is devoted to identifying Turkey's foreign policy goals in Sudan and analyzing the current state of Turkish-Sudanese relations.

The object of the study is the foreign policy strategy of the Republic of Turkey, the subject is TurkishSudanese relations at the present stage.

In the Russian literature, this topic has been studied only in certain aspects, without a comprehensive analytical generalization. Among the main works, the studies of A. A. Bystrov, E. A. Borisova, E. N. Panfilenko and A.V. Kortunov should be highlighted. In his work, A. A. Bystrov examines the role of the Egyptian factor in Turkish-Sudanese relations [3]. The article by E. A. Borisova explores the issue of the distribution of the waters of the Nile River and the construction of the Hidase hydroelectric power plant in Ethiopia, while paying special attention to the position of Sudan [2]. E. N. Panfilenko studies controversial issues in relations between Sudan and Egypt [6]. A.V. Kortunov analyzes the incident in the Suez Canal with a stranded container ship on March 23, 2021 and assesses the possible losses that the world economy will suffer in the event of simultaneous closure of four of the seven most vulnerable straits of the World Ocean [5]. M. M. Agazade defines the concept of the Greater Mediterranean, while paying special attention to the regional security complex [1]. The work of P. A. Gudev is of interest in connection with the above analysis of the Turkish doctrine "Blue Motherland" [4].

To study Ankara's geopolitical motives, the article analyzes: the Foreign Policy Program of the Republic of Turkey for 2021, documents of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources of Turkey, reports of the Agency for Turkic Cooperation and Development (TIKA). Deductive method, taking into account the peculiarities of Turkey's foreign policy strategy (neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism), reveals Ankara's true goals in Sudan. The analysis of political events in the region (the agreement on the lease of Suakin Island between Turkey and Sudan in 2017, on the delimitation of the maritime border between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the fall of the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan, the Ethiopian-Sudanese border conflict in 2020, the change in the position of Sudan on the construction of the Hidase hydroelectric power plant in Ethiopia) allows predict the future of Turkish-Sudanese relations. Comparing Turkey's foreign policy course in Somalia in 2011 and in Sudan in 2017-2020, the author identifies Ankara's main strategic omission in Khartoum.

Ankara's foreign policy goals

First of all, Sudan is part of Turkey's neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamic project. It is noteworthy that in 1517-1882 O. Suakin belonged to the Ottoman Empire. According to the Agency for Turkic Cooperation and Development (TIKA), Ankara launched a program of reconstruction of the island directly from the restoration of the house-museum of the last Sultan of Darfur, Ali Dinar, who during the First World War remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire and resisted the British army [12, s. 95].

As for pan-Islamism, 95% of the population of Sudan professes Islam. In addition, the port of Suakin is 80 km from Mecca. According to Ankara, after the restoration, the island will be able to serve a larger number of ships for sending pilgrims from Africa to Mecca [12, s. 92]. Given the fact that the ideologies of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism constitute the ideological and political orientation of the Turkish leadership, the policy in Sudan is aimed at creating the image of R. T. Erdogan as the leader of the Muslim world.

Suakin Island is located on the shore of the Red Sea, a strategically important logistics hub through which the main routes of oil transportation from the Persian Gulf to Europe pass [18]. In addition, the region has significant military and strategic importance, since it is used for the transfer of weapons to the countries of the Middle East and Africa.

Since 2019, Ankara's foreign policy strategy, primarily in the Mediterranean Sea, has been determined by the "Blue Motherland" (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, according to which Turkey is once again becoming a maritime power [4], and the country's water area now plays a key role in ensuring national security [14]. To date, it is the Mediterranean Sea that is of paramount importance in Ankara's foreign policy. However, when considering the issue of security in the global dimension, Russian researchers include the waters of the Red Sea in the region of the "Greater Mediterranean" [1]. Thus, instability off the coast of the Red Sea directly affects the situation in the Mediterranean Sea, therefore, Turkey's national security, which also explains Turkey's plans to establish a naval base on the island of Suakin.

There are seven of the narrowest and most vulnerable, at the same time strategically important places of the World Ocean: the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Suez Canal, the Bosphorus, Gibraltar and the Panama Canal [5]. Firstly, according to the Montreux Convention, Turkey has sovereignty over the Bosphorus Strait. Secondly, there is a Turkish military base near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Somalia, thirdly, the Turkish army is based in Qatar, near the Strait of Hormuz, and fourthly, an agreement was signed on the lease of Suakin Island, located near the Suez Canal. A situation is being created when the Turkish naval forces have access to four of the seven most vulnerable strategic nodes of the World Ocean and can create any incidents, for example, deliberately stranding a ship in order to block them. The probability of this attempt is not high, but the presence of such an opportunity automatically elevates the country to the rank of world powers and provides leverage on any global economic and military-political processes, because even a temporary cessation of the straits can cause irreparable damage to the world economy.

Khartoum also appears to be a lever of influence on Egypt. In 2013 Turkey lost its position in Cairo after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi. It was on Egypt, led by M. Morsi, that Ankara had high hopes for the introduction of the "Turkish model" of the political system in the Middle East, while the current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power as a result of a military coup, is the ideological antipode of R. T. Erdogan. As a result, the strategic importance of Sudan for Turkey has increased dramatically. According to some reports, in 2014, the territory of Sudan was used for the transfer of Turkish weapons to Sinai [3].

In 2016, after the visit of King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Egypt, an agreement was signed on the delimitation of the maritime border, as a result of which the islands of Tiran and Sanafi, long disputed by the parties, were transferred to Riyadh. In addition to the transfer of the island, agreements totaling $25 billion were signed during the visit of the Saudi king [6]. Taking advantage of the situation, Sudan laid claims to Egypt on the disputed border territory, the so-called "triangle" of Halaib. Turkey is also not satisfied with the strengthening of Saudi Arabia's positions in Egypt and in the Red Sea region. Thus, Sudan seemed to be a springboard for deterring not only Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia.

Sudan plays a significant role in resolving the issue of the distribution of the waters of the Nile River and the operation of the Ethiopian Renaissance dam, which threatens Egypt with a sharp decrease in drainage and poses a threat to its food security.

For a long time, the water issue was regulated by the Egyptian-Sudanese agreement of 1959 and its amendments, according to which Egypt received the right to use 55.5 billion m3 of Nile water annually, in turn, Sudan 18.5 billion m3. Thus, this agreement does not take into account the interests of the upstream countries, primarily Ethiopia, which controls 85% of the sources of the Nile, but consumes only 1% [2, pp. 12-13]. In this regard, the Hidase hydroelectric power plant, the largest in Africa, was built in Ethiopia. Khartoum's position on the water issue is not always unambiguous and depends on the coming to power of certain political forces and changes in political realities. For example, President Omar al-Bashir maintained a neutral position on the construction of the Ethiopian hydroelectric power station, since the electricity generated, according to the promises of the Ethiopian side, can also solve the problem of electricity shortage in Sudan. In addition, the Vozrozhdenie dam is able to slow down the flow of the Nile passing through Sudan and enable Khartoum to retain enough water, which it was not possible to do earlier due to the speed of the river flow when passing through the territory of Sudan. Moreover, in 2018, during the next escalation of the water conflict, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo [7]. Consequently, despite the fact that Sudan, like Egypt, is a downstream state, the Hidase hydroelectric power plant has significant negative consequences for Egypt, while Khartoum has the opportunity to coordinate disputed issues with Ethiopia to benefit from the largest dam on the continent. Turkey is interested in developing a unified position for Sudan and Ethiopia, because this means a political blockade of Egypt, and subsequently may lead to the weakening of the regime of A. F. Al-Sisi.

A promising area of bilateral Turkish-Sudanese cooperation is Ankara's direct participation in the construction of hydroelectric power plants and the development of irrigation systems in Sudan. Turkey is an importer of energy resources, and achieving independence in the country's energy supply is a priority direction of foreign policy. According to the strategic plan of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources of Turkey, by 2023 it is necessary to increase the share of domestic and renewable energy from 59% to 65% [9, s. 76]. Among the problem areas in the plan, there is a need to improve the information management system and the lack of a knowledge transfer system between the departments of the Ministry [9, s. 66]. By constructing water facilities and developing projects for the efficient use and extraction of water resources in Africa, Turkish companies gain experience in countries where the water and energy issue is most acute. For example, in 2017 Turkey commissioned 90 new water wells in Sudan and Somalia, 145 in Chad, Mali 60, Burkina Faso - 35, Djibouti 30, Ethiopia 37, Ghana 35 [17]. Subsequently, the acquired knowledge and experience will contribute to the improvement of the water and energy industry in Turkey itself. In addition, a new direction of cooperation is being created with states experiencing a shortage of water resources, therefore, Ankara's importance on the world stage is increasing.

Interest in Sudan is also caused by the country's natural resources. Despite the fact that after the secession of South Sudan in 2011 Sudan has lost about 75% of its oil reserves, today oil reserves are estimated at 1.5 billion barrels [15, p. 14]. Khartoum actively attracts investors for exploration and development of new deposits. In this regard, Turkey often recalls the Sino-Soviet project of building an oil pipeline from Sudan through the Ethiopian region of Ogaden to the ports of Somalia.

Sudan also has reserves of gold, chromium, copper, iron ore, zinc, and tungsten. Currently, gold mining is a strategic industry in the country: in 2019 Sudan ranked 14th in the world in terms of precious metal production [13]. In 2017, during the visit of R. T. Erdogan to Khartoum, the Minister of Financial and Economic Planning of Sudan called on Ankara to invest in such industries as mining, agriculture and animal husbandry [16].

The current state of bilateral relations

The fall of Omar al-Bashir's regime in April 2019 shook Ankara's position. The slogan of the protesters in Khartoum also became a demand to cancel the lease agreements on Suakin Island. In addition, the military regime received direct funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Suffice it to note that Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is the de facto head of Sudan, participated in operations in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.

After the change of the political regime, the country's position on the distribution of the waters of the Nile has also changed: now, together with Egypt, Khartoum expresses dissatisfaction with Ethiopia's policy on the operation of the Hidase hydroelectric power plant. Moreover, in November 2020 and April 2021, Egypt and Sudan conducted joint military exercises "Nile Eagles-1" and "Nile Eagles-2". In December 2020, the Ethiopian-Sudanese border conflict broke out in the Al-Fashak area. Turkey offered to try on the warring parties [11], however, it is obvious that Ankara's bet on an Ethiopian-Sudanese alliance against Egypt did not justify itself.

The economic crisis in Sudan and the growing discontent of the population with the state of affairs create a situation where the lifting of Western sanctions is paramount for Khartoum. To solve this problem, the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE axis has economic and political advantages over Turkey, which, despite being a member of NATO, maintains extremely tense relations with the West.

Thus, the agreement on the lease of Suakin Island could be called a political victory for Turkey, but the military coup in Khartoum reminded that Sudan is different from Somalia, where Ankara opened a military base, because it had freedom of maneuver due to the absence (at the time of the opening of the military base) of political competition with regional actors. Sudan is a state in which not only regional, but also global forces are interested, it is a country that, according to a number of researchers, was divided into two states in 2011 (Sudan and South Sudan) precisely as a result of the struggle between the United States and China for its resources.

It is noteworthy that before opening a military base in Somalia, Ankara actively used the tools of "soft power". In 2011, during the largest drought in the Horn of Africa region, Ankara provided humanitarian assistance to Somalia for the first time, subsequently projects were carried out to supply the population with drinking water, schools and hospitals were built, scholarships were allocated for students from Mogadishu, and only in 2017 a military base was opened. Such a strategy was not observed in Sudan, there were only isolated cases when humanitarian aid was sent. In fact, the activation of Turkish-Sudanese relations began with the signing of the agreement on the lease of Suakin Island by Turkey. The discontent of the population with the loss of part of the state is quite expected and justified. Ankara's ambitious and abrupt actions also could not fail to attract the attention of regional actors. It was the absence of a carefully thought-out long-term plan for the use of "soft power" that became the main miscalculation.

The Foreign Policy Program of the Republic of Turkey for 2021 notes Ankara's intention to develop relations with Sudan "despite the attempts of some countries to destroy them" [10, s. 35]. As noted above, Turkey offered its mediation services in the Ethiopian-Sudanese conflict of 2020-2021, and in June 2020, during the Sudanese Partner Conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared his readiness to support the people and Government of Sudan during this transitional period [8].

Thus, despite the fact that Turkey is forced to rebuild political relations with the new government in Khartoum, Ankara has no plans to abandon its geopolitical goals in Sudan.

Consequently, the region of East Africa and the Red Sea plays an essential role in Turkey's modern foreign policy strategy.


Thus, Turkey's goals in Sudan are determined by both geopolitical interests and the specifics of the country's foreign policy strategy. In Sudan, Turkey continues to implement a policy of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism. In addition, Khartoum plays a significant role in the issue of Turkey's consolidation in the Red Sea region, through which oil is supplied to Europe, and weapons to the states of the Middle East.

The strategic importance of Khartoum is determined by its proximity to the Suez Canal. The military and political strengthening of Ankara on this transport route creates a precedent when Turkey gets the opportunity to change the course of events simultaneously in four of the seven most vulnerable and strategically important places of the World Ocean: the Bosphorus Strait, the Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz Straits and the Suez Canal. With the strengthening of positions near the four most important logistics hubs, Turkey gets an additional reason to claim the status of a world power.

Sudan is assigned a key role in the issue of weakening the ideological antipode of R. T. Erdogan A. F. Al-Sisi, the president of Egypt. There was an opportunity to take advantage of the unstable situation around the Egyptian-Sudanese border area (the Halaib triangle), as well as to contribute to the development of a joint Ethiopian-Sudanese position (as opposed to Egypt) on the issue of the distribution of Nile waters and the construction of the Ethiopian Hidase hydroelectric power station. The implementation of these plans proved impossible after the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 and the establishment of a new regime loyal to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Khartoum.

An analysis of the strategic plan of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources of Turkey, as well as TIKA reports suggests that the water and energy sector of Sudan is a promising area of cooperation for Turkish businessmen. By implementing projects in this area, Turkish builders acquire additional practical skills in constructing water and energy facilities in difficult geological conditions, which will subsequently contribute to the development of the energy industry in Turkey itself. In addition, Ankara's participation in solving one of the most pressing problems of our time the shortage of water resources, contributes to the formation of a positive image of the country on the world stage.

The change of the political regime in Sudan in 2019 changed the balance of power in the region: the new government in Khartoum is funded by Saudi Arabia and is developing a joint position with Egypt (as opposed to Ethiopia) on the distribution of the waters of the Nile. In December 2020, the Government of Sudan deployed troops in the Al-Fashaka area bordering Ethiopia. Thus, Turkey failed to weaken the positions of the Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis and create friendly relations between Sudan and Ethiopia. Moreover, during the military coup, the protesters demanded to cancel the agreement on the lease of Suakin Island by Turkey.

Ankara's main miscalculation in Sudan turned out to be the lack of a long-term strategy for using "soft power" tools. This conclusion was made as a result of a comparative analysis of Turkey's policy in Sudan and Somalia.

In the Foreign Policy Program of the Republic of Turkey for 2021, Sudan still occupies a special place among potential partners. Thus, despite a number of obstacles, Turkey does not intend to curtail projects in East Africa and abandon its geopolitical goals.

The revealed geopolitical goals of Turkey in Sudan, as well as Ankara's desire to develop relations with Khartoum despite the overthrow of the loyal regime of Omar al-Bashir, testifies to the importance that Ankara attaches to East Africa and the Red Sea region. This factor should also be taken into account when studying and forecasting Turkey's foreign policy on the world stage, primarily in Africa and the Middle East.

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