Turkey pursues soft expansion strategy in Mauritania and Sudan

To attract Nouakchott and Khartoum, the Turks have focused on promises of investments and new projects.

Tuesday 06/04/2021
The activities of Turkish charities in Mauritania and Sudan are used to boost Ankara’s reputation. (ana)
The activities of Turkish charities in Mauritania and Sudan are used to boost Ankara’s reputation. (ana)

ANKARA – Turkey is seeking to fill the vacuum left by the boycotting countries’ dwindling interest in both Mauritania and Sudan after the reconciliation process set in motion by the Al-Ula summit in Saudi Arabia this January.

The boycotting countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, later known as the boycotting quartet, had in June 2017 suspended diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. They have since opted for reconciliation with Doha and its allies after the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement in Al-Ula.

In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited the president of the Sovereignty Council in Sudan, Abdel Fattah Burhan, and Mauritanian President Muhammad Ould Ghazouani to visit Ankara, in a step that illustrates a Turkish strategy of soft expansion in the two countries.

To attract Nouakchott and Khartoum, the Turks have focused on promises of investments and new projects. These promises resonated with officials in the two countries after Khartoum and Nouakchott failed to gain the support that they were expecting when they backed the boycotting quartet against Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey is seeking to draw the lessons from its approach towards Sudan, which ended in its  humiliating exclusion after the fall of Omar Bashir’s regime.

This time, Ankara wants to play a political, economic and cultural role that will withstand any political turbulence.

Sudan did receive Gulf support in the post-revolutionary period  after the fall of Islamist ally Omar Bashir. However, the internal complications during Sudan’s transitional phase lowered the enthusiasm of Khartoum’s Gulf backers, who found themselves drawn toward other priorities, including the Gulf reconciliation process, normalisation of relations with Israel and the repercussions of Joe Biden’s accession to the presidency in the United States.

Mauritania obtained support for vital development sectors in the country, especially in its fight against terrorism and radical Islamist currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, during the rule of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who espoused the cause of anti-Islamism.

Observers say Turkey wants to benefit from the dissatisfaction of the Mauritanians and the Sudanese with their Gulf donors. However, it will not be confine itself to making promises to Nouakchott and Khartoum, especially since the cost of projects in the two countries is relatively low and provides opportunities for Turkish companies to promote their cultural and religious presence through aid programmes as Ankara tries to restore the influence it lost over the past few years.

The Sudanese Sovereignty Council said that President Burhan, received Friday an invitation from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Turkey.

On Sunday, Turkish Vice-President Fuad Oktay invited the Mauritanian president to visit Ankara when both met at the Diori Hamani International Airport in Niger’s capital Niamey, after attending the inauguration of President Mohammad Bazum.

The Turks are working to return to Sudan and regain the influence they lost with the fall of Bashir, as they try to win back the 2018 agreement on the island of Suakin, which would have provided them with a vital location on the Red Sea.

Until now, Turkish officials have been satisfied with making various aid promises to Sudan without any new expression of interest in Suakin, in a gradual strategy that prepares the ground for a positive Sudanese response.

In Mauritania, Ankara’s efforts to infiltrate Mauritanian society have doubled since Erdogan’s visit there in February 2018. These efforts were crowned by the signing of several agreements between the two countries in the fields of minerals, fishing, maritime economy and tourism, in addition to a memorandum of understanding in the field of agriculture and an agreement on protecting and promoting investments between the two countries.

The visit, the first of its kind by a Turkish president seemed to open the door to Turkish interests in Mauritania, which is located in a strategic area on the Atlantic Ocean and on a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa.

There is no doubt that Turkey’s most recent invitation to the Mauritanian president is part of drive to establish closer ties with the current leadership in Nouakchott, as well as a bid to exploit the economic crisis that Mauritania faces on top of its chronic lack of resources.

Turkey also seeks to enhance its presence in the country through religious charity projects such as the training of imams and through charitable organisations.

Although relatively limited in scope, the activities of these charities are used by Turkey to boost its reputation. Much like the donation of small number of chicken to Tunisian farmers in recent weeks, Turkish organisations found propaganda value in food parcels they provided Monday to 300 Mauritanian families on the eve of Ramadan.

Last September, the Mauritanian government began work to establish a training centre for imams and preachers with the aim of “improving their oratory skills and academic standards,” according to the ministry of Islamic affairs.

Turkey has also channelled its soft power through the educational sector in Mauritania by a number of projects including efforts aimed at encouraging Mauritanian students to study in Turkish universities.

Observers point out that Ankara’s bet on Mauritania and Sudan has another goal, which is to use the two countries as a gateway for Turkey as it seeks to widen it influence in the African continent and to compete with international powers in the countries of the Sahel and east Africa.