The six-month-old Gulf crisis has expanded to the Horn Africa, potentially fuelling simmering regional conflicts.
Renewed fears of heightened tension in the Horn, a region pockmarked by foreign military bases that straddles key Indian Ocean trade roots with its 4,000-kilometre coast line, was sparked by Sudan last month granting Turkey the right to rebuild a decaying Ottoman port city and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels on the African country’s Red Sea coast.
The $650 million agreement was the latest indication that East Africa was being drawn into the Gulf dispute and associated conflicts in the Middle East. Concern heightened as the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar appeared to have become the new normal.
Competition for influence between rival Gulf states stretches beyond the Horn that straddles the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait, links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and is plagued by the nearby war in Yemen, into the Sahel as well as Central and West Africa. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, toured six West African nations last month to shore up support for his country in its dispute with its Gulf brethren.
Africa is a battlefield not only in the Gulf crisis but also in the fierce rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is often fought in countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon and Mauritania primarily as a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite Islam.
The Sudanese-Turkish agreement raised anxiety in capitals on both sides of the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both worry about Turkish military expansion because of its support for Qatar. Turkey has a military base in the Gulf state and has said it would beef up its presence to 3,000 troops in the coming months.
Turkey also has a training base in Somalia and is discussing the establishment of a base in Djibouti, the Horn’s rent-a-military base country par excellence with foreign military facilities operated by France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan.
Hinting at a link between the Turkish presence in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on a visit to the African nation last month, the first by a Turkish head of state, that the ancient port of Suakin would boost tourism and serve as a transit point for pilgrims travelling to the kingdom’s holy city of Mecca.
Suakin was Sudan’s major port when it was ruled by the Ottomans, but fell into disuse over the last century after the construction of Port Sudan, 60 kilometres to the north. Suakin allowed the Ottomans to secure access to what is today the Hejaz province in Saudi Arabia and home to the Red Sea port of Jeddah.