Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is scheduled to pay an official visit to Turkey. The upcoming visit has renewed suspicions that the foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is partly driven by ideological considerations, particularly feelings of Muslim solidarity.
Since the AKP came to power in November 2002, its foreign policy has been based on what Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main foreign policy advisor, has described as a “strategic depth.” Davutoglu argues that, prior to 2002, Turkish foreign policy had been unbalanced and that an over-emphasis on ties with Western Europe and the United States had resulted in the neglect of its relations with other countries, particularly those in the Middle East. There is little doubt that Davutoglu had a point. For example, unlike other former imperial powers, for the first 80 years after its foundation in 1923, the Turkish Republic largely ignored relations with the independent states that had been formed out of the former Ottoman provinces in North Africa and the Middle East.
However, detractors have argued that the AKP’s underlying motivation is not so much redressing an imbalance as a combination of Muslim solidarity and Ottoman nostalgia, an attempt to reassert what they regard as Turkey’s rightful place as the dominant regional power and the leader of the Islamic world. Certainly, since the AKP came to power, its efforts to “redress imbalances” have largely focused on Muslim states. In some cases – such as the energy it has devoted to forming strong economic and political ties with neighbors Syria and Iran – it is possible to argue that there are practical benefits to a closer relationship. However, it is difficult to make the same argument for Sudan. Not only is the government in Khartoum implementing one of the most rigid Islamist regimes in the region but its role in what former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell once bluntly described as a “genocide” in Darfur has made it a pariah to much of the international community. Nevertheless, since it came to power, the AKP has devoted more energy to cultivating closer ties with Sudan than to any other African country. Indeed, AKP officials have repeatedly described Sudan as “our partner in Africa (Turkiye, March 15, 2006).
In December 2007, at a reception in Ankara to promote a book on Sudan, Turkish Special Minister Responsible for Foreign Trade Kursad Tuzmen described Sudan as “Africa’s Sun” and predicted that it would soon be Turkey’s largest trading partner in Africa. He noted that bilateral trade between the two countries had risen from $35 million in 2002 to around $300 million in 2007, adding that 100 Turkish firms were now operating in Sudan. He called on all Turkish businessmen who had not already done so to visit Sudan (TGRT, Ihlas Haber Ajansi, Dunya, December 28). Significantly, most of the Turkish businesses in Sudan are run by highly conservative Muslims. In 2006 Tuzmen traveled to Sudan to open a school built by followers of the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen (Zaman, Milliyet, March 16, 2006).
However, statistics would appear to suggest that any attempt to transform Sudan into Turkey’s largest trading partner in Africa cannot be based on economics alone. Although it has some oil reserves, there is no evidence that it is likely to be able to rival other African countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Algeria in terms of meeting Turkey’s energy needs. Despite the rapid increase in bilateral trade since 2002, in the first 11 months of 2007 (the latest period for which official statistics are available), Turkey’s exports to Sudan stood at $168.8 million and its imports from Sudan at $215.6 million. Sudan thus ranked 65th in terms of Turkey’s largest export markets and 61st in terms of the countries from which Turkey sourced imports. In total, in the first 11 months of 2007, Sudan accounted for just 0.15% of Turkey’s total foreign trade and was only Turkey’s seventh-largest trade partner in Africa behind Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, South Africa, and Tunisia.
In addition, Turkey has been attempting to strengthen political ties. The visit of al-Bashir to Ankara is the result of an invitation by Erdogan in December 2007 (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, December 8). Al-Bashir is due to arrive in Ankara on January 21 as the official guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gul (Milliyet, January 15). There is as yet no indication of what the two leaders are likely to discuss. However, on January 8-11, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul paid an official visit to Sudan to discuss possible military cooperation; although the details have yet to be made public (Anatolian News Agency, January 11).
There is also evidence to suggest that feelings of Muslim solidarity have colored the AKP’s opinion about the Sudanese government. AKP officials have frequently tried to absolve the regime in Khartoum of responsibility for what has been happening in Darfur. In March 2006, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Darfur after participating as an observer in an Arab League summit meeting in Khartoum. When asked what he thought of the situation in Darfur, Erdogan replied: “I do not believe that there has been assimilation of a genocide in Darfur. In any case, the verses of the Kuran reject tribalism and clans” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, March 28, 2007).