Turkey signed two major deals with Somalia. Will it be able to implement them?

On June 17, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Ankara. It was the fourth high-level meeting between the two countries this year, and the pace of dialogue between Somalia and Turkey is set to increase, following two major agreements between Turkey and Somalia signed earlier this year—a comprehensive maritime and defense agreement signed in February and an oil and gas cooperation deal reached in March.

These agreements have drawn attention to Ankara’s presence in the Horn of Africa and build upon a long history of Turkish engagement in the region. They hold great potential for expanding the security and economic benefits of Turkey-Somalia cooperation, but implementing them will not be easy. Great-power competition over influence in Mogadishu, regional rivalries, security challenges, and a fractured Somali government will all pose significant challenges to these agreements and Turkey’s bid for a greater role in the Horn of Africa.

What’s the big deal?

On February 22, Ankara and Mogadishu signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) establishing the Turkish Armed Forces as a partner in Somalia’s maritime security and law enforcement for the next ten years. Per reports about the MOU, Turkey will reconstruct, equip, and train the Somali Navy while receiving 30 percent of the revenue from Somalia’s exclusive economic zone. Proponents say that the stability and security brought to Somalia’s seas outweigh the costs. Somalia loses $500 million dollars annually to illegal fishing, for example to Iranian and Chinese fishermen, while Somalia’s oil and gas reserves of up to thirty billion barrels remain largely untapped since civil war broke out in 1991. A brief period of stability has led oil and gas companies to cautiously return to Somalia. In 2019, ExxonMobil and Shell indicated a potential return to the country, and in 2022, Coastline Exploration struck a seven-block exploration deal, though an increase in fighting once again prevented any major steps forward. Shortly following this agreement with Turkey, Liberty Petroleum announced that it had secured three offshore blocks for exploration.

Shortly after reaching the maritime defense and security deal, Ankara and Mogadishu announced another MOU, establishing Turkey as a partner in Somalia’s exploration, appraisal, and extraction of petroleum blocks, with the possibility of Turkey taking over sales and distribution. Though the first agreement of its kind for Turkey, Ankara is increasingly factoring hydrocarbons into its diplomatic efforts, including in Libya.

Guns and roses

Turkey’s reaching out to Somalia has been in the making for nearly two decades, though then Turkish Prime Minister (and current president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Somalia during a devastating famine in 2011 was the watershed moment. The first non-African head of state to visit Somalia in twenty years, Erdoğan toured refugee camps and hospitals, pledging aid and drawing international attention to the crisis. His visit was warmly received by the Somali people, many of whom felt abandoned by the global community.

In the years since Erdoğan’s visit, Turkey has integrated deeply into Somali affairs, in everything from its security to its garbage collection and wastewater treatment to its management of seaports and airports. According to Erdoğan, Turkey provided more than one billion dollars in aid to Somalia between 2011 and 2022. Though Turkey’s presence has not been entirely without controversy, evidence of its popularity is widespread, whether through popular fundraising efforts for Turkish earthquake relief in 2023 or in day-to-day life—“Istanbul” is now a common girl’s name in Somalia.  

Turkey receives major attention for the aid it provides, especially considering that it is in the middle on the list of providers of official direct aid to Somalia. This is likely because of Turkey’s tendency to heavily brand its projects, its willingness to operate in dangerous areas of the country, and the close political ties between the two countries. The Turks often capitalize on shared cultural and religious ties to legitimize and optimize their operations, while the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (also known as the Diyanet) facilitates some projects.

At the heart of the Turkey-Somalia relationship is military cooperation, which began in 2015. In 2017, Turkey established its first African military base, Camp TURKSOM in Mogadishu, and it has reportedly trained up to sixteen thousand troops. Alongside the United States, Turkey has conducted drone strikes against the terrorist group al-Shabaab, with at least nineteen confirmed strikes since 2022. In April 2023, Ankara sold Bayraktar TB2 drones to Mogadishu as part of counterterrorism efforts (a sale for which the United Nations accused Ankara of violating an arms embargo). Turkey also plays an important role in training and arming the Haramcad paramilitary unit and Gorgor commando brigade— one of two major elite units in the Somali National Army (SNA), with the other being the Danab brigade, which is trained by the United States. In collaboration with the Danab brigade, the Gorgor has played an important role in combatting al-Shabaab, particularly in renewed fighting in 2021 and 2022.

Turkey turns southward

Ankara’s presence in Somalia is part of a Turkish push toward Africa that started in 1998, with the creation of the Africa Action Plan. By 2008, Turkey had been declared a strategic partner of the African Union and opened at least a dozen embassies across the continent. When Turkey made its successful bid to become a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2009, it was supported by fifty-one of the fifty-three African states. In 2013, Turkey became a member of the African Development Bank Group. Turkey has varying interests in Africa, including ideological motivations, economic and trade priorities, and a desire to build up Ankara’s own defense industries and capabilities. Now, Turkey has a large presence in the region in the areas of humanitarian aid and military cooperation. As of 2022, some thirty African states had signed security cooperation agreements with Turkey, nineteen of which included troop training.

The Horn of Africa is critical for Turkish interests because of its its geographical position, rich mineral resources, and development potential. The region has seen increasing great-power competition involving a diverse cast of characters including Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, China, and the United States. Since 2001, at least eighteen foreign military bases have been constructed in the region, primarily for counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations.

Over the past two decades, Ankara has developed a complex web of economic and military ties with the region, including by leasing the Sudanese island of Suakin, selling drones to Ethiopia, and participating in a decades-long anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa under NATO’s Combined Task Force 151. In 2017, Djiboutian officials invited Turkey to establish a military base near the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait in an effort to promote freedom of navigation and regional stability. On February 20 this year, Djibouti and Turkey signed a military training cooperation agreement.

The Emirati angle

Turkey is far from the only power involved in Somalia. As recently as mid-February, Mogadishu signed an MOU with Washington to open five new military bases in the country and increase training for its Danab brigade. Qatar and the United Kingdom are also players in Somalia. Turkey’s primary competitor in Somalia, however, is the UAE, which has historically seen the region as critical to its strategic interests.

Flush with cash, the Emiratis have embarked on a campaign of infrastructure projects and security agreements across the region, including building major ports in Somaliland (an unrecognized republic in the north of Somalia that self-declared independence in 1991), Eritrea, and Djibouti. It also armed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of Sudan and the Ethiopian government during conflicts in those countries. In November 2022, according to Middle East Eye, Somalia reportedly signed a secretive deal with the UAE to train ten thousand Somali troops and police officers in Egypt. However, frustration among officials with the terms of the agreement, as well as continued Emirati projects in Somaliland, have complicated the UAE-Somalia relationship. On January 1, Ethiopia (also close with the UAE) announced it had reached an MOU with Somaliland exchanging recognition for sea access and the lease of a military base. Following the two major Turkey-Somalia agreements of 2024, the Emiratis severely cut their support for the SNA, which included providing an additional $256 in monthly salary for the 14,400 soldiers trained by the UAE.

The Emirati factor carries two major risks for Turkish ambitions in Somalia. First, Abu Dhabi has played a critical role in the fight against al-Shabaab, including through air strikes. Manpower shortages have plagued the SNA for decades, an issue that Emirati coffers have helped alleviate. The withdrawal or reduction of Emirati support in the fight against terrorism will have a compounding effect as the African Union’s Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), abiding by a request from Somalia, plans to withdraw its forces by the end of 2024. The withdrawal of both ATMIS and the UAE risks Turkey becoming further burdened by the region’s fight against terrorist groups. Second, the UAE has faced several setbacks across the region as the number of players continues to grow, and its attempts to reinforce its position will create effects that will impact Turkey. The UAE is entering increasing competition with China in Djibouti, especially now that Djibouti’s government nationalized the Doraleh Deep Water Port, which was previously owned by an Emirati company; meanwhile, in Sudan, the Emirati-backed RSF has seen its first major setbacks in months with the loss of Omdurman to the Sudanese Armed Forces, who have purchased weapons from Iran. As the UAE seeks to reassert itself and reinforce its position in the region, it will likely double down on its already substantial investments in Puntland, Somaliland, and Ethiopia. Whether the emboldening of Somalia’s rivals and the geopolitical balancing in the Horn will have a stabilizing or destabilizing effect remains to be seen, but it will likely be closely watched by Turkey.

Known unknowns

Though Somali and Turkish officials maintain that the recent agreements are unrelated to the major deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia, the timing is difficult to ignore. The Somali cabinet labeled the Somaliland-Ethiopia MOU as a “blatant assault” on its sovereignty and said it was an example of Ethiopian “interference against the sovereignty of [Somalia].” Unsurprisingly, Somalilanders reacted similarly to the Turkey-Somalia agreements that followed. Though the regional backlash to the MOU may in part steer Ethiopia and Somalia to dissolve it, this is far from certain. It remains unknown if Turkey’s enforcement of Somali maritime security will extend to Somaliland waters, which Ankara recognizes as part of Somalia. In May, Somaliland’s foreign minister explicitly stated that Turkish naval vessels would not be welcome in its territorial waters. This issue will be particularly important if Ethiopia proceeds with its plans to build a naval facility in Somaliland. Despite a strong Turkish-Ethiopian relationship, the Turkish Navy supported joint Somalia-Egypt naval exercises days after the January 1 agreement was signed. It is also unclear how the Turkish Navy will interact with the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which has received funding support from the UAE. Though the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland does not claim total independence, it pulled recognition of the Somali federal government in March.

Equally uncertain is how Ankara will react should the Houthis attack a ship transiting through the Somali waters that it will be charged with protecting. Handcuffed by the group’s connection to the war in Gaza, Turkey has balanced a precarious relationship with the extremist group, quietly opposing them over the last seven years while refusing to label them a terrorist organization and shying away from joining the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian.

A winding path forward

It is uncertain how Turkey and Somalia will deliver on the major agreements and continue the upward trajectory in their bilateral relations. Turkey faces a complex and challenging Somali political landscape. Both MOUs were quickly ratified by the Somali parliament (members perhaps had little choice in the matter, according to one Somaliland-based researcher), though the deal is not without detractors. Beyond concerns over sovereignty, Mohamud is in need of an influential patron as he faces allegations of consolidating power. For Mohamud, Turkey may be the answer, as Turkey largely disregards Somalia’s domestic politics and offers near unconditional support for Villa Somalia, which has led some analysts to describe Turkey as an “all-weather friend.” Mohamud recently proposed a series of constitutional changes, including transitioning to a presidential system, arguing that it would combat clan politics and unite the country. The reforms have prompted protests and polarized the parliament. The Puntland region declared on March 31 that it would be withdrawing from the federal government until a new constitution was put in place. Days later, the Daily Somalia reported that Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni traveled to the UAE and Ethiopia.

Furthermore, Mohamud’s government lacks unity. The same day that the Liberty Petroleum deal was signed by Somali Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Abdirizak Omar Mohamed, Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre expressed concerns and called for revoking the deal. Similarly, the Somali government lacks a clear strategy toward al-Shabaab. Following a successful first phase of “total war” in 2022, both battlefield and political gains have slowed, and al-Shabaab has struck back with a series of horrific attacks. Barre declared his support for peace talks with al-Shabaab in direct opposition to Mohamud, garnering public and private support from within a fractured cabinet.

Moreover, the recent battlefield gains by al-Shabaab undermine the legitimacy of Turkey’s military presence in the country. The concessions required for a peaceful settlement with the terrorist group may include ejecting Turkey’s military, the presence of which al-Shabaab has condemned harshly.

As Turkish officials and lawmakers consider ratification and implementation, they will no doubt look to the past decades of Turkish engagement with Somalia—but also the challenges that lay ahead. The difficulties posed by external influences, great-power competition, tumultuous domestic politics, widespread corruption, high costs, and continued conflict in Somalia will make Turkey’s enormous promises extremely difficult to fulfill. The future of these agreements and thus the future of Turkey’s relations with Somalia and position in the Horn of Africa, though built upon a strong foundation, remains to be seen.

Kiran Baez is a young global professional at the Atlantic Council Turkey program. Add him on LinkedIn.

The views expressed in TURKEYSource are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

Further reading

Image: Somali people carry Turkish and Somali flags as they gather in support of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his government in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar