In Doha, his face is on bumper stickers. In Mogadishu, it looms on giant posters. Nowadays, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan enjoys great popularity in certain countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Remarkably, too, he has achieved this while at the same time managing an unprecedented escalation in the number and size of his country’s overseas military bases.
On the Arabian Sea, his country’s flag flutters on warships, and by the Persian Gulf, it flies from tank turrets.
Turkish troops are now in Qatar and Somalia, while Turkish navy vessels patrol the Gulf of Aden. Recent statements by leading figures in Sudan and Djibouti have also caused speculation that these countries, too, may soon play host to soldiers sent by Ankara.
Turkey stresses that it has only peaceful intentions behind this buildup. Yet in a region that has not seen such deployments since Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, ruled much of the Middle East, such a return is not always welcome.
“The Arab world will not be led from Tehran and Ankara,” United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted at the end of last year. He had earlier warned against the “surrounding regional ambitions” of Iran and Turkey.
For some, indeed, these new Turkish moves bring with them concerns of “neo-Ottoman” encirclement.
Yet, others argue, much of this deployment follows a more long-standing Turkish search for new markets in the Gulf and Africa – although this economy-driven expansion is now going in parallel with new opportunities created by recent regional fractures and global changes.
“There is a new world now,” said Aybars Gorgulu, research director at the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM) in Istanbul. “In this environment, Turkey is taking its own initiatives, becoming more active and more present.”
Crisis and opportunity
Concerns over Turkish intentions have been growing in some capitals after a string of moves by Ankara.
First, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – known as the Arab Quartet – imposed a blockade of their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partner Qatar back in June 2017, Ankara quickly stepped up to defend Doha.
Fast-tracked by the Turkish parliament, a force of around 3,000 troops is currently being built up at the Tariq bin Ziyad base, south of the Qatari capital, along with naval and air units.
Meanwhile, west of the Arabian Peninsula, in Somalia, some 200 Turkish soldiers have been deployed to a new US$50 million camp in Mogadishu. There, they are training some 10,000 Somali troops in the fight against the jihadist Al-Shabaab group.