Such positive coverage of Turkey’s expanding footprint in Africa is certainly welcomed by Ankara at a time when the government has been subjected to harsh foreign and domestic criticism for its militarized foreign policy, rule of law deficit, and human rights violations. Stuck between a rock and a hard place on several fronts, Turkey is in desperate need of success stories, especially in the foreign policy domain.
Constrained Foreign Policy
Turkish foreign policy has been a recent source of strain with Ankara’s traditionally important bases. U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have yet to speak by phone, which is viewed as a message of discontent with the major NATO ally over Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defense missiles from Russia. This purchase defied repeated calls from NATO and the United States in particular. Turkey’s relations with the European Union have also been in decline, especially since Turkey’s crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The EU has criticized Turkey not only for its poor human rights record and rule of law deficit but also for its militarized foreign policy in the neighborhood.
Turkey moved closer to Russia in an attempt to counterbalance the pressure coming from the United States and EU. This rapprochement was partly due to the working partnership in Syria. However, as the differences with Russia over Syria and Libya become more pronounced, Turkey is increasingly feeling the urge to choose between Russia and its traditional Western allies.
On the Middle East front, Turkey’s relations with Arab countries have been gradually deteriorating over the past decade. Turkey’s support for Qatar during the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt from 2017-21 was a tipping point in this regard. This polarization also had repercussions on eastern Mediterranean maritime jurisdiction disputes. And Turkey has become increasingly isolated in the region.
In Need of a Success Story
The Turkish government is facing an economic crisis, which has been brewing since 2018 with the weakening currency, increasing inflation, and high unemployment rates – a crisis that has been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. The economic hardships have taken their toll and made life difficult for the middle-class and youth. With these increasing domestic challenges and as the Turkish government has become stuck on major foreign policy fronts, Turkey’s engagement with African countries, in a sense, provides the government a much-needed foreign policy success story, which can be drummed up both domestically and abroad.
Second, Turkey’s engagement with African states can be seen as one of Erdogan’s principal political legacies. It consists of humanitarian discourse, religious ideals, and an anti-imperialist stance, which are key components of Erdogan’s image and political posture. This policy has the tacit approval across the political spectrum in Turkey, and it does not attract much criticism from the international community.
In many ways, Turkey’s engagement with the continent has been a success story, particularly in terms of the pace of engagement. It has caught the attention of both its African partners and other outside powers, who have their own Africa engagement strategies. Even though an opening up to Africa had been considered by the then government in the late 1990s, only under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s rule over the past two decades has Turkey made it a priority and an official policy. To this end, the government engaged relevant state agencies and stimulated the private sector and nongovernment organizations. The coherence among these parties created a synergy that generated a fast diplomatic surge and high-level visits to the continent as well as the provision of humanitarian and development assistance. Erdogan has blazed the trail in his numerous visits to African countries especially since 2011.
Number of Erdogan’s Visits to Foreign Countries 2003-20 (by region)
Limits to Turkey-Africa Ties
Turkey has made political commitments and well-established connections throughout Africa with 42 embassies, several development and cultural offices, and Turkish Airlines flights to 51 cities. However, Turkey’s Africa policy is yet to bear concrete benefits on Turkey’s side. There are a number of bottlenecks and limitations. For instance, while trade volume between Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa has increased almost 600% since 2003, the share of both sides in each other’s total trade remains relatively low. As of 2018, Turkey’s share in sub-Saharan Africa’s trade was still less than 2%. And the latter’s share in Turkey’s trade has mostly remained below 4% for the past decade.
Turkey’s Trade Volume With Sub-Saharan African Countries (in billions of U.S. dollars)
Turkey and Sub-Saharan Share in Trade
Second, Turkey’s confrontational foreign policies in other regions have started to sour its relations with African countries. For example, the arm wrestling between the Turkey-Qatar axis on one side and the bloc of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt on the other is notable, particularly in Sudan and Somalia. Unless Turkey readjusts its policies regarding the Saudi-led bloc, particularly in the aftermath of the January deal to resolve the dispute with Qatar, it could be destined to lose its foothold in Africa.
Third, France, a time-honored critic of Turkey in the EU, is leading efforts to counter Turkey’s policies vis-à-vis Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Cyprus. Turkey also took the wrangle with France into sub-Saharan Africa, where France has maintained a rather imposing post-colonial footprint. Pro-government Turkish media outlets have been portraying France as an adversary in Africa. However, Turkey has neither the economic nor political leverage to stand a chance against France in Africa.
Last but not least, Turkey’s Africa engagement policy seems to have lost a lot of steam since the initial enthusiasm in the 2000s. While Turkey received support from almost all African countries in 2008 for its bid for a nonpermanent member seat on the United Nations Security Council, it failed to attain the same backing from the continent in 2014. In addition, Turkey-Africa partnership summits were supposed to be held every five years, as declared at the first summit in 2008. However, the second summit was put off one year and the third, which was planned for 2019, is still on hold. Not being able organize two consecutive summits on schedule can be read as a loss of determination on Turkey’s side. Without deeper engagement, what is left of Turkey’s Africa policy is mainly policymakers echoing the increase in the number of embassies, Turkish Airlines flights, high-level visits, and development assistance.
Considering its current economic conditions and tarnished international image, Turkey would find it difficult today to mobilize anything to lure African states to further deepen their partnerships with Turkey. Hence, any polishing of Turkey’s 20-year-old Africa policy would hardly suffice to rejuvenate its current engagement with the continent or do much more than provide a little positive spin on a decidedly mixed bag of progress and setbacks.
No matter how Erdogan wants to use Turkey’s Africa policy, either for ephemeral political ends or for his political legacy, the current state of affairs is not tenable in the long run. Therefore, Turkey will eventually need to recalibrate its Africa engagement policy given its overall foreign policy priorities. It could start by ending its confrontational approach toward other actors in the region and formulating economic policies to increase trade and investment between Turkey and African countries.
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