This week’s Turkey-Africa Economic Forum has been a success
While much of the news coming out of Turkey relates to the suspected murder of Saudi born journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Riyadh’s diplomatic officials, another major event occurred in Istanbul that while deeply positive is not receiving the attention it demands. The Second Annual Turkey-Africa Economic Forum in Istanbul represents an historic move for Turkey to reconnect with African societies that maintained historic trading and in many cases cultural links with Ottoman Turkey. Additionally, Turkey continues to increase its trade with southern Africa in a key opening up of untapped trading routes.
Speaking at the Forum, Turkey’s Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan stated,
“Turkish investments in Africa exceeded $6.2 billion, and Turkish companies offer employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people on the continent”.
She further explained how the value of Turkey’s trade with Africa has risen from $2.1 billion to $11.7 billion since Recep Tayyip Erodgan formed his first government in 2003.
During the course of the forum, the Turkish President spoke with heads of state, finance ministers and businessmen and women from multiple African nations including Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa. Turkey further inked a deal to invest in iron and steel in Senegal while Turkey signed a trading agreement with Zimbabwe. Erdogan further urged the emerging markets of Africa to dump the US Dollar and begin trading with Turkey in a combination of national currencies. This is especially crucial as a low valued Lira actually makes Turkish goods far more attractive to African consumers.
The importance of a win-win Afro-Turkish relationship in the 21st century is two-fold. As part of President Erdogan’s long term strategy to engage in more meaningful trading, investment and cultural exchange agreements with the wider world, Africa’s developing economies represent a chance for Turkey to cultivate new export markets while Turkish companies can help to develop African emerging markets through a combination of hard investment and a sharing of expertise.
There also exists a reactive element to part of Turkey’s Africa strategy. After being largely driven out of Anatolia after their failed attempt to destroy the Republic of Turkey through a violent coup in 2016, the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO) has become ever more active throughout Africa.
In the summer of this year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke at the opening of his country’s new embassy in the South African capital of Pretoria prior to a plenary sessions of the 10th annual BRICS summit in Johannesburg that Turkey was deeply involved with. Incidentally, it was in at the BRICS forum that both Turkey and China agreed that Ankara should join the BRICS in the near future.
During his speech, Erdogan warned of the expansion of the Fethullah Terror Organistion (FETO) into Africa stating that the dangers the terror group represents are no longer restrained to Turkey which has largely rid itself of FETO sleepers and active members. Today, FETO threatens multiple nations and continents in a manner whose dangers are equal to that of Daesh (ISIS) and Boko Haram. Erdogan stated that FETO’s true intentions as a lawless terror group are well known in Turkey. FETO has committed multiple atrocities including an attempted coup against the legitimate government of Turkey in July of 2016. The Turkish President therefore encouraged his African audience not to be fooled by the deceptive rhetoric that FETO employs, not least because FETO aims not only to indoctrinate the young and vulnerable, but also future leaders so as to provoke lawlessness against legitimate governments throughout the world, including and especially in Africa.
Erdogan contrasted the ambitions of FETO with an Ottoman history of positive engagement with multiple African peoples. Invoking the phrase popularised by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Erdogan spoke of a win-win history between Ottoman Turkey and non-Turkic peoples throughout the world including in sub-Saharan Africa. Erdogan stated that he would like to revitalise these historic partnerships based on the pressing needs of multilateral development in the 21st century.
As FETO continues to make inroads into multiple African nations including South Africa, Turkey is pursuing a similar strategy to that which Ankara has pursued in the Balkans. This strategy can be defined as a win-win countering of FETO as the terror group seeks to spread its influence in regions of southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa where there was a historic Ottoman/Turkic influence. In this sense, FETO may well have bit off more than it can chew as when forced to choose between a productive partnership with one of western Eurasia’s fastest growing economies and a terror group with a proven record of deviousness and criminality, the choice for any responsible state ought to be self-evident.
Belt and Road and ASEAN
While there are clearly security components as well as economic components to the win-win strategy of Ankara in Africa, Turkey is also looking to east Asia for new economic partnerships both in terms of emphasising Turkey’s geopolitically indispensable role in China’s Belt and Road initiative but also in respect of building modern ties with the economically and culturally dynamic Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In respect of Belt and Road, Turkey forms the core of the initiative’s western Eurasian terminus. As part of China’s plans to intensify building works on this particular road, Beijing intends to construct a modern Kazakhstan to Baku railway which will then merge with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. From there, China intends to build a railway linking the eastern Anatolian city of Kars to Edrine on the European side of the Bosporus. In this sense, a trans-Anatolian railway into continental Europe will help to complete this central leg of Belt and Road, thus replicating one of the most important ancient trading routes whose modern benefits to the world are substantial.
Against this background, it is not surprising that Chinese investment into Turkey and bilateral trade between Ankara and Beijing continues to grow. The modern infrastructure and economic health of Turkey are clearly vital to the central leg of Belt and Road just as sure as Pakistan’s economic health is vital to the all important Pacific to Afro-Eurasian portion of the global megaproject.
Turkey’s ties with south east Asia can be traced to the year 1565 when the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I sent an expedition to the Aceh Sultanate in present day Indonesia to protect the independent state from Portuguese subjugation. For centuries Ottoman Turkey protected Ache against attempted conquests by both the Portuguese and Dutch empires although ultimately, Aceh was conquered by the Dutch in 1903 during years of declining Ottoman leadership.
In the 21st century, Turkey looks to rekindle ties with the modern Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This summer Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attempted the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore. On the sidelines of the forum, the ASEAN-Turkey Trilateral Ministerial Meeting took place signalling Ankara’s desire to increase trade and economic cooperation with Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei. As FETO also has laid down its poisonous roots in some of the Islamic majority nations of south east Asia, there further exists an anti-terror impetus for Turkey to strengthen positive cooperative relations with ASEAN countries including Indonesia and Malaysia.
Israel forms an anti-Turkish alliance in the Mediterranean
Yet closer to Turkey, Israel continues to build an alliance with some of Turkey’s most prominent enemies, thus demonstrating the extent of the decline in once strong Ankara-Tel Aviv relations. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu spoke this week with the Foreign Ministers of Greece and Cyprus where he launched into a vitriolic tirade against the Turkish President. But while the world has heard anti-Erdogan rhetoric from Netanyahu before, his stoking of traditional anti-Turkish Hellenic sentiments had a clear economic strategy.
Turkey was the first Muslim majority nation to recognise “Israel” and prior to recent decades, Ankara and Tel Aviv have had a generally healthy relationship. This dramatically changed in 2010 when “Israeli” commandos illegally boarded the MV Mavi Marmara in international waters. The MV Mavi Marmara was a privately chartered Turkish flagged ship carrying mostly Turkish activists on their way to Gaza in order to deliver much needed humanitarian supplies to besieged Palestinians. The gruesome raid killed ten Turks and resulted in the lowest ebb in Ankara-Tel Aviv relations until now.
While the MV Mavi Marmara assault resulted in the expulsion of Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Ankara and a formal downgrading in relations, in 2016, the two sides reconciled, primarily out of pragmatic motives. At the time, both Israel and Turkey hoped to jointly participate in a pipeline that would transport gas from northern Iraq through Turkey and into Israel.
This pipeline project has been dead in the water for around a year and as such, Israel is now working on a different pipeline project which will transport gas between Israel and mainland Europe with Cyprus forming the centre of the pipeline’s route. Beyond this, Israel and Cyprus look to cooperate on maritime gas extraction off the coast of Cyprus. This is especially controversial as Turkey claims sovereignty over parts of the off-shore gas field that Tel Aviv and Nicosia will cultivate.
This comes at the same time as Egypt prepares to work jointly with Israel on a bilateral gas deal. Making matters more intriguing, of Cairo and Ankara’s multiple disputes, a disagreement on the rights to an offshore gas field are among the most pressing in the medium term. Israel has clearly taken Egypt’s side in this respect rather than remain neutral.
While the populations of Egypt, Cyprus and Greece remain pro-Palestine, the leadership of each state continues to pivot to Israel. While the leaders of these states look to put economics before the generally anti-Zionist opinions of their people, there is also a clearly anti-Turkish sentiment which underscores this new de-facto alliance. As Israel looks to isolate Turkey in its own region due to President Erdogan’s strongly voiced position in favour of Palestinian justice, it can be reasonably concluded that the anti-Turkish nature of this new alliance is by Israeli design rather than by geopolitical default.
While Turkey looks to build win-win relationships from Cape Town to Jakarta and from Beijing to St. Petersburg, Israel’s new Hellenic-Egyptian alliance has deeply provocative overtones. While this alliance does not realistically pose a military threat to Turkey, in attempting to isolate Turkey from important developments in the gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean, there is clearly an economic challenge that Israel is attempting to foment while Israeli rhetoric now appears to be goading both Greece and Cyprus- thus preventing much needed de-escalation between Turkey and the Hellenic states of the eastern Mediterranean.
From Turkey’s perspective, the best revenge will be the success of working on both trade and energy deals with its multiple restored and new partnerships across the wider Afro-Eurasian space. Such alliances are already rapidly being built.