The current global pandemic crisis (Covid-19) may affect international policy by transforming the foreign policy of many countries. Among these, the most affected could be the small-medium emerging powers that have pursued pro-active policies beyond their traditional regional borders, owing to the permissive multipolar environment. Turkey is amongst the countries that have widened the scope of their foreign policy in the last decade by following a multi-directional approach. Within this strategic framework, the Horn of Africa is one of the main regions in which the Turkish state has increased its presence. Besides a series of trade agreements and diplomatic level exchanges with the majority of countries in the area, the real watershed of Turkish openness to Africa has been the role assumed in Somalia in 2011. Since then the country has become the pivot of Turkish strategy in Africa. After nearly ten years of Turkey's humanitarian intervention in Somalia, it is possible to take stock of the efforts made by Ankara.
The Turkish engagement in Somalia has experienced an initial phase focused almost entirely on aid and assistance to the population fatigued by twenty years of civil war interspersed with various famines. In the second phase, launched in 2014, Turkey's efforts followed a twofold direction. Firstly, Turkish diplomacy, firmly convinced of the need to ensure the territorial integrity of Somalia, promoted the dialogue between the internationally recognized Federal Government of Somalia (FGS)and the six Federal Member States of the country, with particular concern for two de-facto states such as Somaliland and Puntland. Secondly, the Turkish state has supported the complex process of state and institution-building by focusing on the security sector. Turkey, together with other external actors such as Qatar and the UAE, has launched a series of initiatives aimed at the reconstruction of the Somali defence capacity. The long-term goal is that the FGS achieves a level of self-sufficiency in security matters to reduce the presence of the foreign troops on its soil, where the main threat is represented by the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
The Turkish agenda in Somalia has shown flexibility and resilience. During these years, Turkey has invested more than 1 billion dollars in Somalia and has achieved some results. First of all, the humanitarian commitment has brought back international awareness about Somalia. Moreover, the contribution made to the Somali’s cause has increased the spread of the Turkish brand not only on the continent but also internationally as a global player. The most interesting outcome, however, concerns the implementation in Somalia of an unusual intervention model in high-risk environments characterized by a multi-stakeholder approach with top-down coordination by the state's agencies. This mechanism has allowed Turkey to develop an unconventional capacity-building approach and to establish a network of trust-building links with the locals. As a result, Turkey was able to be credited as a reliable political partner both in dealing with (many) internal disputes and in the reopening of Somalia to the outside world. At the same time, the promotion of a Turkish formula for development – the so-called Ankara consensus – which is both an alternative approach to African sustainability problems and a useful political discourse to foster Turkish ambitions as an emerging global power. The promotion of the Turkish formula has allowed Turkey to catch the attention of many African countries, long in search of an alternative to Western and Chinese proposals.
The change of the regional security patterns between 2015 and 2017 has affected the nature of the Turkish presence in Somalia. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and the following rift within the GCC with the emergence of a blockade – the so-called Arab Quartet – opposed to Qatar, a Turkish ally even in Africa, have given Turkey's presence in Somalia a greater geostrategic significance. Somalia has soon become another battleground of political rivalry between opposing alliances. Evidence of this has been the choice of the United Arab Emirates to invest in the port of Berbera in Somaliland. Although the decision pursues strategic purposes related to the control of the Red Sea and the developments in Yemen, the terms of the agreement between Abu Dhabi and the regional government of Hargeisa have undermined the authority of Mogadishu, indirectly hitting its two main backers (Ankara and Doha). Therefore, the Turkish presence in Somalia has assumed a greater security dimension after the decision to open a military base in Mogadishu, the largest Turkish base overseas. Although the base is formally and legally a military facility for the training of the Somali National Army (SNA), in practice it is a full-fledged Turkish military outpost in the region and, consequently, a potential threat to the interests of its rivals.
Over the weeks following the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis, competition between Middle Eastern rivals has shifted into the humanitarian field by delivering full medical equipment packages like beds, ventilators, surgical face masks, face shields, and other useful materials. The aid is more important in Somalia where the health system is very fragile and unable to effectively counter the eventual spread of the virus. Although nowadays the state's priority is to deal with the emergency, some doubts are arising about Turkish engagement in Somalia and more generally in Africa. The Turkish economy, which even before the crisis highlighted several weaknesses, would face an inevitable backlash, exacerbated by two military campaigns in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Libya. The resilience of the Turkish economy will probably determine the future of Turkey's foreign policy. A slow recovery in production and exports will compel the Turkish state to reallocate resources, by reducing investment in hard power and, to a higher degree, in humanitarian diplomacy and development aid. Therefore, it is to be expected that there may be a progressive downsizing of Turkey's global projection, with a consequent focus of resources in its neighbourhood. Notwithstanding, one issue to be considered is that the Turkish agenda in Africa has not developed dependency relationships, but has sought to establish co-operative or even partnership relationships. As a result, many of the bonds established in recent years by Turkey with African countries may be maintained even in the face of a drastic reduction in resources allocated to the continent.
Somali developments will depend largely on the Turkish partnership with Qatar – a country which has been less affected by the crisis thanks in particular to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) –, and by the availability of this latter to provide financial support for the Somali state-building process. If this were not possible, a twofold scenario could emerge for Somalia: Turkey's role as a key player could be taken by another extra-regional actor; otherwise, a few federal states could take advantage of the FGS's weakness to reinvigorate their claims for independence, leading to the eventual fragmentation of Somalia.