Author:Bishku, Michael B.


Historically there have been many political, economic, and cultural connections between the core area of the Middle East (Egypt and Southwest Asia) and Northeast Africa (Sudan, South Sudan, and the Horn of Africa--Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia). Especially since the end of the Cold War, the countries on the periphery of the Horn in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) have been involved to varying degrees in both the political affairs of that region and issues related to maritime safety. These three countries share one other thing: they have been of interest to countries in the Middle East. While Egypt and Israel have been extensively involved in this part of Africa since the Cold War, their actions are far too complex for this study and have been dealt with elsewhere. (1)

This article focuses on countries that have been most actively involved in Northeast Africa and its periphery in recent years: Turkey and Iran, each of which has its own agenda, and Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in both a geopolitical and sectarian rivalry with Iran in recent years that has extended into Africa. These middle powers, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can portray themselves as important actors in the region by supplementing the assistance the major powers provide, which may come with restrictions that countries located in Northeast Africa and on its periphery are reluctant to accept. Iran is not as able financially and/or technically as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to provide such aid, but it needs to counteract diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Particular attention will be paid to analyzing the respective countries' motivations for pursuing foreign relations in Northeast Africa and to assessing how they have fared.

Until the post-Cold War period, Turkey's interest in the African continent was largely focused on the Arab states of the northern part of the continent and Ethiopia. Since then, especially under the Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party government which came to power in 2002, Turkey has paid increasing attention to Africa for political and economic reasons and because of its cultural connections to Sunni Muslim populations. Turkey has been evolving as a middle power that is eager to exert its influence beyond the Middle East, where the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has brought instability to those countries and its neighbors and disrupted Turkish investments and trade. Both Turkey and Iran regard Northeast and East Africa as gateways to expanding relations with the rest of the continent. Under the rule of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), Iran developed close relations with Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie (ruled 1930-1974) and South Africa. However, since its Islamic Revolution, Iran did not regard Africa as a high priority until the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). Ahmadinejad saw forging ties with African countries as a way to counter western attempts to isolate the Islamic Republic and Israel's awakened interest in redeveloping relations with countries on the continent. After Iran signed nuclear agreement with Russia, China and the western powers in 2015, it has had strategic and economic motivations for its involvement in Africa. While Saudi Arabia has recently gained the upper hand in terms of influence in Northeast Africa, Iran seeks to develop stronger economic relations with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, countries that have been expanding their ties, including security connections, with Israel.


In 1896, the Ottoman Empire's Abdul Hamid II (ruled 1876-1909) and Ethiopia's Menelik II (ruled 1889-1913) established diplomatic relations between their two nations. The Ottoman Empire, a power on the Red Sea, set up a consulate-general in Harar, Ethiopia, located within about 100 miles of the borders of both British Somaliland and French Somaliland (Djibouti), in 1912. By 1933, the western and secular-oriented Republic of Turkey, the successor state to the Ottomans, and Ethiopia had established embassies in each other's capitals. (2) Ethiopia, one of just three independent states located in Sub-Saharan Africa before World War II (the others were Liberia and South Africa) was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, who first served under a regent from 1916 to 1930. In 1934, Haile Selassie established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia's King Abd al-Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud; ruled 1932-1953) and Yemen's Imam Yahya (ruled 1904-1948), leaders of the only independent countries on the Arabian Peninsula, as the other territories were British protectorates. This was in part in response to fascist Italy's diplomatic moves in those two countries and the military threat it posed to Ethiopia from its colonies in Eritrea and its portion of Somaliland. (3) When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Saudi Arabia and Yemen remained neutral. (4) Ethiopia was eventually liberated during World War II through British intervention. Ethiopia reestablished diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1948, (5) while its embassy in Turkey never closed, despite the Italian occupation. (6) Iran did not establish diplomatic relations with Ethiopia until 1950. Mutual distrust of the intentions of Egypt's president Nasser subsequently helped Iran and Turkey develop a closer relationship with each other. Eritrea, which the United Nations joined with Ethiopia as an autonomous region in 1952, was annexed nine years later. This annexation triggered Eritrea's struggle for independence, which it won in 1991. Eritrea was admitted to the UN in 1993.

Turkey was one of the first countries to open an embassy in Khartoum following Sudan's independence from Britain and Egypt in January 1956. (7) This move was connected with Turkey's interest in North Africa, particularly Egypt, one of its rivals for influence in the Middle East. Sudan joined the Arab League and developed relations with other Arab states but did not play an important role in Middle Eastern politics. Until 1972, it was preoccupied with a civil war in the south with rebels who were supported by Israel and were supplied through Uganda and Ethiopia. The major oil producers of Iran and Saudi Arabia were concerned about maintaining the political stability of countries in the Arabian Peninsula and in Northeast Africa and of the shipping routes off their respective coasts. Also, they regarded Nasser's promotion of Arab nationalism as a challenge to their political interests in those regions. Close ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran had developed earlier through their cooperation in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1970) in opposition to Nasser's Egypt. When Nasser died in 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, Egypt's relations improved with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, as a result of Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and increasing Soviet naval activity in the Indian Ocean, Iran decided to expand its "security perimeter" into the latter body of water. (8) In Oman's Dhofar province, Iran became militarily involved in quashing a rebellion supported by Marxists in neighboring South Yemen, while conservative Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Sadat's Egypt, provided the Omani government with financial and military training assistance. In 1979, Iran's Islamic Revolution brought an end to its pro-western alliance with conservative Arab states. However, some five years earlier, a Marxist Revolution in Ethiopia had changed the dynamics of the impact of Cold War in the Horn of Africa. In 1976, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and France established the so-called Safari Club, which sought to check the spread of communism in Africa. Consequently, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran supported Somalia in the 1977-1978 Ogaden War against Ethiopia by providing arms. Saudi Arabia paid Egypt to provide Soviet arms worth $75 million, while Iran sent German-made mortars acquired from Turkey. (9) In 1974, Somalia joined the Arab League, while Djibouti became a member when it achieved independence from France in 1977.



From January 1993 to February 1994, Turkey participated in the Unified Task Force/United Nations Operation in Somalia II, contributing a mechanized company of 300 personnel whose main task was to protect Mogadishu airport. Lieutenant-General Cevik Bir was the overall commander of that operation from April 1993 to January 1994. The operation was a reaction to an ongoing famine and to a civil war that broke out in Somalia following the January 1991 overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had been in power since 1969. In December 1992, the UN Security Council in cooperation with the Organization of African Unity authorized a multinational military force led by the United States to establish peace and security in Somalia and to make it possible for humanitarian relief to reach the Somali people. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates also contributed personnel to the operation. (10)

In the post-Cold War era, Turkey was concerned with demonstrating its strategic value to its western partners in the NATO alliance. It therefore participated in the US-led international coalition in 1990-1991 that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The government and the public in Turkey were concerned about the war in Bosnia, and participating in an international humanitarian mission offered Turkey the possibility of gaining more influence in UN activities in the Balkans." After Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia signed the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, ending the Bosnia conflict, Turkey felt sidelined with regard to influence in Bosnia.

In 1998, the Turkish government adopted an action plan for expanding its political, economic, and cultural relations with African countries. This was part of Foreign Minister Ismail Cem's initiative to develop a multidimensional foreign policy in response to the European...

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