Iran and Turkey’s Orientation Towards Africa

ByMohammad Abdulqadir Khaleel

Turkey is one of the major regional players, hungry for dominance in the region, for this it utilizes soft and hard power. It has sought to forge strategic partnerships with neighboring countries given its failure to enter the EU; therefore, the Turks have shifted their thoughts towards the Arabs and Muslims to realize their new thirst for dominance. Turkey’s policy of “zero problem” with its neighboring countries, has been positive with it expanding economic and political cooperation. As well as, putting itself forward as a political, cultural and economic model for neighboring countries. Turkey has managed, within a short period of time, to re-claim a foothold in the region and become a significant regional player.
Similarly, Iran, a country founded on a national and sectarian principle, has pursued a policy of exporting its model. It has become a vital competitive player in the region through employing militias, proxies and by establishing solid relations with some countries under the “Axis of Resistance”.
A fluid geo-political situation has permitted both countries to expand their influence across the region. The power vacuum resulting from the American invasion of Iraq has allowed the Turks and Iranians to play a larger role in the region. This is light of President Obama’s decision to withdraw from the whole region, as the U.S. could not take the burden of any more costs to maintain the balance of power. Also, the whole Arab world had entered a stand-still period, as it was unable to react to new regional political situations.
The Iranians and the Turks, many times, have competed over interconnected political and strategic interests, religious ‘sectarian’ alignments, and a larger regional role. Both are pragmatic as they have a general convergence of interests –a sort of coordination- as they never been enemies nor allies.
The Iranian-Turkish penetration in Africa is a mere reflection of their ambitions to increase their influence across the region, and their growing involvement in the region’s conflicts and crises. Africa is the backyard where regional powers settle scores in their struggles, and it is absolutely a rich soil for seeding military, economic and political conflicts.
Despite having the same target, they do not, necessarily, have mutual coordination because they apply divergent strategies and use different tools of influence. However, intensifying their presence along the most strategic waterways and coastlines -near the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and the Red Sea- may pose a threat to the Arab and Gulf states, at any time.
Turkey’s military base in Qatar was intended to balance power in the region but soon, at the peak of the Gulf crisis, turned into a threat— along with Turkish-Iranian coordination and their supportive posture for Qatar. The same scenario could play out in the Red Sea region. Though Iran has failed to gain a foothold in the Red Sea, it can spread its influence there if its interests with Turkey converge. The danger behind Turkey’s increased presence in the Red Sea and the East African coasts surfaced as it established a military base in Somalia and began its new investment project in Suakin island on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
The study aims to 1) unfold the Turkish orientation towards Africa, 2) to what extent are Iranian-Turkish interests intersected 3) and how this affects the balance of power in the region. Also, it draws many recommendations to curb the expected developments on Arab and Saudi security.
First: Turkey’s tools of influence
In a series of successive steps, Turkey has used variant tools and methods to entrench its presence in Africa. Stemming from Turkey’s geo-eco-political strategy and its ambitions to be an influential player in several regional domains, Turkey can strategically penetrate deeper in Africa — with improving mutual relations with the East and West.
Turkey proclaimed that 2005 is an “African Year”. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan- made his first trip to Africa. During the same year, Turkey had an observer status in the African Union (AU), later in 2008, it became a strategic partner in the AU and a member in the African Development Bank (ADB).[1]
In June 2008, Turkey joined the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and strengthened its relations with other sub-organizations in Africa such as, ‫the East African Community (EAC) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This all culminated in forging more comprehensive ties between Turkey and the Africa Cooperation Summit‬‬‬‬. [2]
The first Summit was held in Ankara in 2008, and the second Summit was in Equatorial Guinea in 2014. The upcoming Summit will be held in 2019. The African states voted unanimously for Turkey’s non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council for 2009/2010. Besides, the number of Turkish embassies in Africa have more than tripled, since 2014, from 12 to 44. [3]
Turkey has used soft and hard power to strongly entrench its presence in Africa. The Turks’ statements are always free of any colonization ambitions or any sense of exploitation. The Turkish language touches on its desire to help and improve ties between the Turks and Africans. These concepts were mainly translated through educational institutions which endorsed that Turkey aims to transfer knowledge, expertise and increase educational programmes for disadvantage African youth. It is worth mentioning here that 15000 Somali students were granted full scholarships to study in Turkey, as well as a number of Turkish schools were opened in Somalia.[4]
Turkey has endeavored to spread the learning of Turkish by making it a requirement to get a job, and converted Arabic street names into Turkish in countries such as Somalia. Moreover, the schools of religious thought which President Erdoğan graduated from have mushroomed across Somalia. The funding has come from the ‘governmental’ Turkey Diyanet Foundation. Also, African students are granted with a larger percentage of Turkish scholarships than any other international students.[5]
Turkey seeks to replace the Gülen Movement Schools, a movement it accuses of being behind the recent coup, with new institutes. Also, it hosts joint conferences and summits for African and Turkish journalists, as well as, consistently organizing invitations for African scholars, thinkers and media professionals. It has launched a number of websites in various African languages to convey its political perspective to the African people.[6]
Turkey has not stopped at cultural engagement, but has also offered generous relief support through addressing the predicament of African migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people. It has provided relief aid via the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TiKA) the Red Crescent, and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (iHH).[7]
On the economic level, the first Turkey-Africa Business Forum was held in Ankara with 3000 participants including 2000 representatives of the economic community for 45 African states. Tens of contracts were signed with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenia, Ghana, Zambia, and Tanzania.[8] Turkey showed great interest in the African markets, especially those located in northern Africa because they are geographically, culturally, historically and religiously closer to Turkey. Later, the Turkish interests tilted towards Sub-Saharan Africa.
On the other hand, Turkey has employed hard-power by signing extensive military agreements with African states and by transferring its growing influence in to many ‘fragile’ countries, such as, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti. In such countries, Turkey has established industrial districts and military bases.[9]
Second: The goals behind Turkey’s policy towards Africa
1- Political goals
The major motives steering Turkey towards Africa are 1) it includes more than 45 states 2) it is listed as the second biggest continent with the second biggest population 3) it is rich in natural resources, with it having the most diverse and fastest growing economy – especially in West Africa –attracting foreign investments.
Turkey seeks to be the first regional power embedding its influence across Africa by supporting African states in international forums. East Africa is a vital field for Turkish maneuvers due to its strategic location on the Horn of Africa. It controls international navigation routes on the Red Sea, i.e., 15% of international trade, approximately about $ 2.5 trillion worth- according to 2016 statistics.[10]
Turkey works in an orbit of intricate interests with several powers such as, Qatar. This can be clearly noticed when President Erdoğan visited Sudan, Tunisia, and Chad, the Emir of Qatar Tamim visited, at the same time. This synchronized visit was important as was indicative of a possible triple axis resulting out of the three countries (Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan), which have a similar policy towards Islamic political entities, such as the, Muslim Brotherhood. The triple axis may include Ethiopia and Iran. [11]
2- Military goal
Turkey has sought to spread its influence across the Horn of Africa and participate in several regional joint exercises. It has, already, signed security agreements with Kenia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda to train their security forces on counterterrorism.[12] Turkey’s new military alignment echoes its growing interests over waterway security and its desire to spread its circle of influence.
This military alignment is denoted as a “war of military bases” in the Middle East and East Africa. A related point to consider is the presence of the Israeli ‘espionage’ base in Africa, a fuel-supply for Israeli submarines on Dahlak Archipelago, along with the American, French, Chinese, Italian, and Saudi military bases in Djibouti. The Iranian have a military base in Eretria, and the UAE’s has military bases in the Arab Sea and Red Sea. [13]
President Erdoğan achieved a successful foothold in Sudan but he could not do so in Djibouti, which is riddled with military bases of several international powers—however, he did not stop trying.
The Turks seek to open new markets to promote their military industry, which has notably developed in recent years. The Turkey-Qatar convergence towards Sudan has increased. While the emergence of a triple axis – which may include Ethiopia- is looming. This speculation is confirmed by the unprecedented military arrangements Qatar and Sudan officially announced just after President Erdogan visit. The mere announcement of such military arrangements, amidst the Qatar-Gulf crisis and the vague position of Turkey and Sudan in this crisis, discloses, probably, the triple axis is materializing.
Turkey’s military presence poses a threat to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as they do not agree with Turkey in some regional issues. Turkey is quite pragmatic; cooperating with Iran is possible once its interests are under threat. This can be clearly noticed in Turkey’s posture towards the Kurdistan referendum and Syria’s crisis. Further, Turkey targets to paralyze Egypt’s movement towards Africa and thrust down its attempt to embrace the Sudanese leadership, through opening a wider strategy for Omar al-Bashir’s government.
Thus, Turkey’s base in Suakin, near the Egyptian borders, targets Egyptian national security, this is amid Egyptian stress-strain relations with Turkey and Qatar, and somewhat less with Sudan. Turkey works towards offsetting Egypt’s endeavors to strengthen military relations with Cyprus and Greece; to establish a military axis in the Middle East, and to maintain consecutive joint naval exercises. Also, Turkey is concerned about Egypt’s agreement with Greece and Cyprus for a natural gas pipeline, which ignores the Turkish seaports. Egypt insists to undermine the importance of Turkish seaports as a “gas terminal’ in the Mediterranean Sea.[14]
President Erdoğan seeks to bolster ties with Libya to distract Egyptian relations with its neighbor. He tries to be closer to Libya than its true bordering neighbor, Egypt. Roughly speaking, it can be stated that Turkey’s military presence in the Red Sea may pose a threat to the interests of Egypt and the Gulf states, which may hinder their military operations in Yemen and curb their influence in Africa. Turkey may, eventually, coordinate with Iran if it is necessary— taking into consideration that Turkey and the Gulf have diametrically-opposed viewpoints towards Iran.
3- Economic goals
Turkey seeks to reinforce economic ties with African states as it believes that ‘the opportunity is just around.’ This reflects the political-commercial coalition, which consists of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Islamic stream (Melli Georch- MB of Turkey) and a group of businessmen (representatives of MÜSİAD).
It is very important for Turkey to boost economic ties with Africa and open new markets for Turkish products— which are not easily exported to Western markets. However, there is a great opportunity for Turkish products in emerging-markets—allowing Turkey to maintain its economic interests. Remarkably, Turkey’s trade volume with Africa is expected to amount to $50 billion by 2023.
This explains why President Erdoğan was accompanied with 150 Turkish businessmen in his visit to Chad, Tunisia, and Sudan, where he signed a number of significant agreements – most of which were economic and the rest are, unannounced, related to security. Therefore, he is always escorted by security ministers in his foreign visits.[15]
President Erdoğan’s recent trip, in December 2017, confirms that Qatar is stirring a new phase in Turkey-Africa relations. Qatar assumes that it can change the Arab political and security equation by simply solidifying Turkey’s ties with the African-Arab states. Also, that it can develop a coalition backing its interests and opposing the so-called moderate Arab axis.
Qatar stirs the whole issue with money. Most African states have endured decades of low economic performance and are starving for cash that is required to revive commercial and infrastructural projects.
President Erdoğan’s visit to Sudan would have been, absolutely, fruitless without it giving cash to Bashir’s regime to overcome Sudan’s economic crisis. Qatar endeavors to entrench its influence – in coordination with Turkey- this is crystal clear. Qatar’s investments in Sudan have risen dramatically, along with development projects in Port Sudan— on the Egyptian borders and in front of Saudi seaports in the Red Sea.[16]
The Turkey-Qatar project of establishing the largest container port in Port Sudan is indicative of Qatari competitiveness with Dubai’s DP World, over the deal. Also, it reveals Qatar’s plan to affect Egyptian development plans, as it aims to make the Suez Canal as a major source of national income.
The triple axis reaffirms our analysis; Sudan by its strategic geographical location in the Red Sea, Turkey by its military presence, and Qatar by its financial support. This axis also affects Egyptian interests by creating different touristic sites along the Sudanese Red Sea coast and by generously funding investments in Africa, estimated at approximately $3.8 billion.[17] Furthermore, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser paid a visit to Sudan’s ancient Nubian pyramid sites, provoking Egyptian anger.
It is expected that Turkey’s presence in Suakin will incite more explicit and implicit conflicts. In an increasing confrontational path, the upcoming stage of the Suakin project is marked by ‘Ankara has reached Egyptian and Saudi borders.’ It is unreasonable to analyze Turkey’s influence across two of the most significate Arab states as part of ‘touristic development’, as President Erdoğan justified. It takes the lid off the “New Ottomans”, that aim to re-draw the regional map.
Third: Boundaries of intersected interests between Turkey and Iran in Africa
Turkey and Iran have common and intersected interests within the African sphere. Both countries seek to increase their political influence, spread more intelligence entities, protect their economic interests, and establish military (training) bases. They want to restate the balance of power and ensure African states are loyal to particular regional powers not to Arab states.
1- Coordination and threatening Arab interests
Regardless of the tools or targeted countries, Turkey and Iran indirectly coordinate to spread their influence across Africa and to gain a strategic foothold in the most significant geographical locations, including waterways near Arab countries.
Iran’s enmity with the Gulf states runs deep. Iran attempts to forge a circle of influence surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. Whereas, Turkey seeks to be a powerful regional player -that cannot be surpassed- while curbing Egyptian moves, under tense relations since 2013. Iran depends on spreading chaos, whereas Turkey seems to adopt a soft power strategy. All in all, both pose a real threat to some Arab states. Sometimes Turkish and Iranian interests converge more than they diverge. Turkey’s policy towards Hamas, Libya, Sudan, the Arabian Gulf states, its urge to establish military bases and its plan to confront enemies, mirrors Iran’s strategy. [18]
Their policy of expanding influence around the Arabian Gulf is to ensure they remain important in the balance of power game. The Arabian Gulf has a unique status and influential role in the Arab and Islamic world. The looming threat turned into reality when the Gulf-Qatar crisis boomed —Turkey publicly coordinated with Iran to back Qatar.
In a parallel analysis, gaining a foothold in Suakin – a strategic location in the Red Sea- poses a real threat to Gulf states’ national security. It may serve as a coordination hub for Turkey and Iran to confront any expected crisis, which will no doubt impact the interests of Gulf states and Egypt. Suakin is only 297 km away from the Saudi coastal dominance. Turkey takes advantage of Iran’s military presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and Iran takes advantage from Turkey’s presence in Africa to ensure the Arab region is completely cornered.
Religion is used, by both, to infiltrate, influence and achieve their national interests. Turkish decision-makers have realized that religion strengthens Turkey’s influence in Africa and makes it stand tall amongst giant regional powers there. By the same token, Iran adopts a similar strategy by exploiting religion in sharpening its foreign policies towards many African countries. Iran works to spread Shiism and form sectarian militias, standing as odd entities in cohesive regional communities.[19]
Africa has been a top priority on the Turkish agenda. Iran, in recent years, has gradually extended its influence deep inside Africa by exploiting Shiite communities-, which are approximately 5-10% of the African Muslim population- through scholarships, specialized educational institutes, cultural centers, Hawza, and Red Crescent societies.
Apparently, this is the reason behind Iran increasing the level of diplomatic representation in more than 30 African states within only ten years. Iran usually implement its policies, implicitly, through non-governmental charitable organizations such as; The Mostazafan Foundation, Shaheed Foundation, Imam Reza Foundation, and the 15th Khordad Foundation. These organizations are tax free and directly operate under the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. They perform multiple task, such as; provide social services, spread Shiism, and increase trade capacity.[20]
Turkey and Iran use religious ideology, particularly theocracy, to strengthen ties with Islamic streams and organizations of the same school of thought. Turkey strengthens ties with Bashir’s regime, which is akin to the Muslim Brotherhood and is supported by Qatar. Absolutely, this policy restrains and shrinks the Gulf states’ influence across Africa.
President Erdoğan’s recent trip to Sudan reflects Turkish steps to regain influence in the Arab-African region. Probably, Turkey would leave the Arab camp and move to the axis of ‘political Islam’ (Turkey-Qatar), which may later include Iran. While, taking into consideration several stirring drives and the new regional grouping resulting from the Gulf-Qatar crisis.
2- Turkey-Iran’s fields of competition
Regardless of the convergence over soft and hard power in Africa, Turkey and Iran are in race to entrench their influence, strength and protect their interests.
During recent years, Iran has been interested and active in Africa. It gained an observer status in the African Union, just like Turkey. Iran has been trying to assert its dominance in Africa through high-level bilateral meetings and a network of relations with many African states. For example, the former Iranian President Ahmadinejad had more than six trips to countries in Western Africa.
Any military presence in the Red Sea and Somalia is a threat to Iran’s interests in the Horn of Africa, which is one of the most strategic locations Iran strives badly to have a grip over. The huge ramifications of Saudi’s ‘Decisive Storm’, on Iran’s fading influence in the Middle East, will be even severe if Turkey coordinates with the Gulf states, particularly, Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s presence in Somalia supersedes Iran’s growing influence, which has expanded via cultural and charitable organizations. Further, Turkey has realized the geo-political strategic significance of Mogadishu as the gate to Africa.[21]
While Iran has been backing its proxies with sea-smuggled weapons, Turkey has been boosting its –greatly developed- defense industry, which indeed needs markets. Turkey, always, endeavors to stand tall amongst other regional powers by training the forces of neighboring countries.[22]
Iran resorted to magnify the common bonds with Africa. It has spread its dominance over the water lanes in the region through exploiting the military assistance it gives to many African countries. At the same time, Turkey exploits the concerns of some of African countries, about Iran’s growing influence and intervention, to assert its influence. African concerns dramatically increased after the attacks on Saudi diplomats in Iran. As a result, Sudan, Djibouti, Comoros, and Mauritania completely cut diplomatic ties with Tehran and expelled the Iranian ambassadors, standing in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. They seem like the most reactive regional states in taking precedent actions to thrust down Iranian and Turkish plans.[23]
Without a shadow of doubt, Iran, regards itself as the leader of Shiites, and Turkey, believes itself to be the leader of modern Sunni Islam. Both, are in race to have a grip on religious affairs within their common spheres—including Africa. Both have a strategic plan and use soft power to expand their influence.
3- Influence on the gates of the Red Sea
The race for influence has been enflamed in the Red Sea. This sea is significantly strategic, through which an estimated 3.3 million barrels of oil flow daily. Also, it serves as a major trade bridge between East Asian countries – India, China, Japan- and Europe.[24] The Red Sea countries; Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eretria, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, and Israel have allowed regional and international powers to set a foot in the Red Sea.
One of the Arab coalition’s motives behind challenging the Houthi’s rebels in Yemen is to protect western Yemeni ports from Iran’s grip, as it seeks to expand to the Red Sea coastlines. After Turkey established a base in Somalia, Iran has become more careful in maintaining its pivot in the Horn of Africa—under the pretext of combating piracy. Iran has been more concerned after the Saudi-led Arab coalition operations in Yemen.[25]
Apparently, therefore Iran is so keen to open an embassy in Mogadishu, establish charitable projects, and provide vocational training for Somalis. Iran aims at gaining military facilitation, strengthening ties with Eretria, and arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Red Sea coastline, according to Iran, is a field where it can destabilize Arab security and smoothly smuggle weapons to its allies in Africa.
Though Iran and Turkey are in a race for influence in Africa, they do not really conflict or clash. The analysis of the implicit and explicit disagreements foretells that Sudan will join the triple axis; Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. The factors for the emergence of a quadruple alliance can be tackled as follows:
» The four countries share common objectives; they proactively support Islamic movements, and have mutual ties to confront the counter-terrorism alliance; Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain.
» The four countries aim to penetrate deeper into Africa. Turkey has great interests in the Horn of Africa and works to expand its influence Eastward and Southward. Qatar’s aims are, as clear as daylight, in penetrating in Africa. Iran has made significant strides in expanding its influence there. Sudan has solid relations with many African countries, smoothing the path for the three countries to deepen their penetration into the heart of Africa. Sudan is ready to perform this role as it is badly in need for economic and political support— if its tense relations with Egypt worsen.
» Forging this alliance gives an opportunity for regional powers to leap ahead in exhausting major regional players. The confrontation between pro-Islamic and anti-Islamic forces is doomed to happen.
» The four countries have various dilemmas, which they try to jump over by a coordinative regional alliance. This way, every country can achieve a part of its ambitions without monopolizing power.
To sum up, we can state that Turkey’s presence in the Horn of Africa, amidst the current regional development, poses a threat rather than an opportunity. The Iranian-Turkish multi-coordination steps have surfaced in several events. Turkey has a divergent disagreement with Saudi Arabia more than it does with Iran. Warning bells start to ring as an anticipated coordination between Turkey and Iran gathers pace – like seen during the Qatar crisis. This will, indeed, disturb the national security of both Arab and Gulf states.

“Erdoğan has the highest record of visits to Africa amongst world leaders,” Anadolu Agency,
Ayman Shabanah, “Dimensions and Motives behind Turkey’s Base in Somalia,” Future for Advanced Research and Studies, April 6, 2017.
“Turkey is to Open Five New Embassies in Africa,” Turkey al-Aan, October 30, 2017.
Baha’a Offi, “Somalia is the Strategic Gate to Africa,”
“The Ottomans Return to Somalia,” Makkah (Makkah City, Saudi Arabia), March 14, 2014.
”Turkey Launching a War against Gülen’ institutes in Africa,” El-Watan News
TiKA,”TiKA Inaugurates Anadolu College of Agriculture in Somalia,”
“A Tripartite Meeting of Chiefs of the Defense Staff: Turkey, Sudan and Qatar,” ART,
”Sudanese Cry out: Handing Suakin to Erdoğan Theatens Arab National Security,” Mobtada, Dec. 26 2017.
Ayman Shabanah, op. cit.
“Sudanese Island, Suakin, Triggers Ottoman Caliphate’s Dream, Egyptian Precedent Steps is a Fortress in front of Southern Threats,” Ahram, Dec. 2017.
Isra’ Ramadan, “After Erdogan’s Visit to Sudan: Turkish Plans to Manipulate Red Sea’s Treasures,” Dec. Mobtada 27, 2017.
Future for Advanced Research and Studies, “Triangle of Ideology: How Does Turkey Consider its Relations with Sudan and Qatar?”, Dec. 31, 2017.
Mohammad Jame’,” Port Sudan and Gulf Crisis, Would Sudan Choose Qatar?”, Noon Post, Dec. 6, 2017.
”Qatar is about to Build the Largest Port on the Red Sea,” ART, Nov. 17, 2017.
Olivier Decottignies and Soner Cagaptay, Turkey's New Base in Qatar, Washington institute, Jan. 11, 2016.
Mobtada, op., cit.
“Africa is the Resort of Iran from International Isolation,”, Feb., 2015.
Penetrating Softly, Africa is Turkish Agenda: Determinants, Contexts, Challenges,” Qiraatafrican, June 2017
Tayel al-Odwan,” Turkish and Iranian Strategy towards Middle East,” University of Middle East, 2013.
“Countries Cut Diplomatic Ties with Tehran, the World Condemns its Violations, after Attacking Saudi Diplomatic Mission,” Middle East in London, Jan. 8, 2016.
Ayman Shabanah, op., cit.
Mohammad Abdulqadir Khaleel
Mohammad Abdulqadir Khaleel
Turkish Affairs Researcher