Gulf Powers Fear Turkey’s Jockeying for ‘Soft Power’ in Yemen
A lot of it is paranoia and regional competition, but Ankara's ambitions there cannot be discounted.
Many countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, and the United States have both directly and indirectly intervened in Yemen’s conflict. Now there is growing talk about Turkey’s alleged involvement in Yemen. Yet as the situation on the ground remains murky, one must take certain allegations about Ankara’s purported role with a healthy degree of scepticism while also distinguishing between Turkish ‘soft-power’ and ‘hard-power’ in Yemen.
Several months ago, various news outlets, including ones linked to the Emirates, put out reports about Turkey’s influence in Yemen, focusing on Ankara’s ties to al-Islah, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. Such articles maintained that the Turks were especially involved Socotra, Shabwa, and al-Mukha. One claimed that the Governor of Socotra, who is close to al-Islah, met with Turkish and Qatari officials in Ankara in order to obtain their support for his struggle against the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) shortly before the separatist group usurped control of Socotra’s main island in June.
In Ataq, Turkish intelligence operatives allegedly established and managed a training facility for 600 Muslim Brotherhood-linked militants with Qatari money, according to Atalayar, which claimed that this operation’s goal was to outmaneuver the Saudi-led coalition and give Turkey control over the Port of Balhaf and its strategic gas facility.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to be taking this supposed Turkish threat in Yemen seriously. For example, in June, the Saudi-led coalition prevented a Turkish plane with humanitarian aid from landing in Aden on the grounds that Ankara was using its humanitarian agencies to send military advisors and weapons to al-Islah.
Distinguishing Facts from Propaganda
Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, explained that “there is evidence of civil society and informal links between Ankara and the Islah movement, and the influence of Tawakkol Karman is often highlighted as a sign of this.” It is indisputable that al-Islah figures have been residing in Turkey and speaking from Istanbul to international audiences about the Yemeni conflict. Yet, according to Ramani, there is insufficient evidence to prove that Ankara is providing Yemeni Islamists with material support on the ground in Yemen. Indeed, no international organizations or neutral agencies have confirmed such activities.
Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based analyst, asserted that these stories coming out of The Arab Weekly and other UAE-linked platforms are false and aimed at fabricating a “Turkish threat” in order to justify controversial Emirati actions in Yemen. The former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein agreed, stating that “fabricating a ‘Turkish threat’ is a dangerous ploy.”
At this juncture, Turkey’s main focuses in the Arab world are in Libya, Iraq, and Syria—not Yemen, which is far more peripheral to Ankara’s regional interests. At least for now, talk about Turkey’s ‘hard-power’ influence in Yemen is based on disinformation, false assumptions, and major leaps of logic. Yet that does not mean that Turkey has no interests or agenda in Yemen. As Ramani contends, Ankara’s efforts to “undermine the Saudi-UAE image in the region and also to be a provocateur” drive Turkey’s Yemen foreign policy.
Indeed, Turkish messages about Yemen, which are intended to reach both Yemenis and the world at large, rest on anti-Emirati narratives. Turkey presents itself as a Muslim power which is far more responsible and ethical than the UAE. In early 2019, Turkey’s Deputy Interior Minister Çatakli visited Aden to discuss the humanitarian situation and infrastructural investments. Around that time, Prime Minister Çavuşoglu stated that “finding a solution to the Yemeni issue will be one of Turkey’s priorities in 2019” and he blamed Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the current crisis. In May, Ankara’s chief diplomat accused Abu Dhabi of fuelling chaos in Yemen.
Recently, Turkey’s humanitarian agencies have been stepping up their efforts in Yemen. Late last year, Hadi’s former transport minister, Saleh al-Jabwani, paid a visit to Turkey, during which there was an announced agreement which would let Turkish companies operate Yemeni ports and airports. However, President Hadi rejected that deal.
Based on these documented events, it is safe to reach at least two conclusions.
First, Turkey is determined to strengthen its ‘soft-power’ influence in Yemen, a Muslim country suffering from the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. This is similar to Ankara’s agenda in Somalia and other war-torn, impoverished African countries where Turkey promotes itself as a humanitarian actor seeking to alleviate human suffering. “Turkey’s biggest threat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen is not military or economic, it is in terms of its potential for soft power,” argued Ramani. “Turkey has provided humanitarian aid to Yemen in a strategic fashion, which bolsters its image at a local level, compared to the Saudis and Emiratis.”
Second, Ankara has an interest in Yemen’s ports in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean—bodies of water where there are high levels of geopolitical competition between various powers, including Turkey. In recent years, Turkey and Qatar have engaged in a scramble against the UAE for the control of strategic ports along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden rim. Both the port of Balhaf and Socotra represent pivotal assets along vital maritime routes and Turkey was also assigned the rotational command of the multinational anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.
Nonetheless, as Ramani maintains, there are not solid grounds for believing that the Turks will build a Red Sea base in southern Yemen given how much leverage Abu Dhabi possesses in this part of the country. “If a foreign power outside of the UAE gets a foothold in Aden, Russia is much more likely than Turkey.”
An important dynamic to keep an eye on regarding Ankara’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Yemen pertains to tensions between al-Islah and the Saudi government. Although the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood backed Saudi efforts against the Houthis early on in the conflict, the independent Yemeni analyst Nabeel Nowairah maintains that “al-Islah’s enthusiasm for Saudi policies in Yemen has been significantly damaged due to the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s aggressive stances against the Muslim Brotherhood in the whole region.” At previous stages in the war, al-Islah viewed the Saudi kingdom “as a refuge from the Houthis, but they later realized that the Houthis are getting stronger while Hadi’s government, which al-Islah is backing, is getting weaker and weaker, even in the areas free from the Houthis.” Although al-Islah’s leadership has not formally declared any divorce with Riyadh, a recently leaked video of Abdu Farhan Salem (who is a leader of al-Islah’s military wing) in Taiz calling the Saudis “mice” suggested that the Islamist party’s relationship with the Kingdom is worsening.
Simultaneously, Abu Dhabi continues backing the STC in no small part due to the UAE’s desire to severely weaken al-Islah’s position. “In these conditions, al-Islah sees Turkey as a new refuge from Saudi and Emirati actions in Yemen,” as explained by Nowairah. “Al-Islah party would like to have Turkey take a position… and counter the Saudi/Emirati influence in Yemen. There are many al-Islah-affiliated figures who have been harshly criticizing Saudi Arabia and the UAE and showing their support for Turkey.” Furthermore, in the leaked video, Salem vowed to wage an offensive against Abu Dhabi-sponsored forces in Mocha, claiming, albeit without evidence, that Turkey would provide the arms for this campaign.
A Perceived “Neo-Ottoman” Threat in Yemen
While Turkey’s influence in Yemen is wildly exaggerated by certain media outlets, Gulf Arab and Egyptian fears of Ankara’s agenda in Yemen must be viewed within the context of not only recent events in Libya, but also Turkey’s grander foreign policy throughout the Arab region. As a handful of Arab states see it, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is committed to a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy agenda in the Middle East and North Africa.
Although the idea of Turkey recreating the Ottoman Empire is unrealistic in the 21st century, some rhetoric from officials in Ankara and certain symbolism in Turkish foreign policy feed into this narrative about a “neo-Ottoman” agenda. Often this rhetoric rests on a popular argument made in Turkey, which is that there would be more social justice in the Arab region if only the Ottoman Empire still existed. Thus, Turkey’s historic connections to Yemen from the Ottoman era cannot be dismissed when analysing Ankara’s current perspective on the Arabian country. Given that parts of Yemen—like some Arab states where Turkey has recently flexed its military muscles—were once ruled by the Ottomans, the view from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh is that Turkey may be eyeing a more pronounced role in Yemen down the road.
Elsewhere in Arabia, Turkish ‘hard-power’ played a big role in pushing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispute toward a standstill, rather than a Qatari capitulation to Saudi/Emirati demands. Over in Libya, Turkish military intervention decisively tilted the balance of power against the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. Within that context, there are fears in the Emirates and Saudi kingdom about Turkey, perhaps one day, exercising such ‘hard-power’ in Yemen even if that is highly unlikely to occur any time soon.
Nonetheless, the more pressing concerns which are connected to reality pertain to Turkey’s ‘soft-power’ in Yemen which may easily strengthen in the future. More Yemenis looking to Turkey in favourable ways could harm Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s interests in Yemen, making it yet another country where Ankara counters Emirati and Saudi influence.
Corrado Cok is an intern at Gulf State Analytics. He previously worked in Djibouti, where he researched the Red Sea’s geopolitics and Arabian-East African relations.