Since last year Turkish relief workers and volunteers have poured into the Somali capital of Mogadishu – a city deemed too dangerous to work in by most governments – building hospitals, schools, and public infrastructure.
“Since the coming of Turkey there has been a paradigm shift,” says Somalia’s interim Prime Minister Abdulweli Mohamed Ali, in an interview with the Monitor.
He says Turkey has proven that reconstruction and aid efforts can work even as African Union troops battle to claw back parts of the country from the Al Shabab Islamist group, which is aligned with Al Qaeda.
“You can do it simultaneously,” says Prime Minister Ali. “You can create peace and stability by working on the security side, but also on the development side at the same time. That is what Turkey is successful at.”
Somalia’s disparate factions are negotiating the creation of a national government, which would be the first since the country was plunged into civil war in 1991.
There is doubt, however, over whether they will be able to meet an August 20 deadline to finish the process, which also involves crafting a constitution and parliament.
Emerging regional power leading by example
Analysts say Ankara’s humanitarian and peace-building drive is part of a campaign to bolster its status as an emerging regional power.
At the conference, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized other nations for lacking Turkey’s on-the-ground presence in Somalia.
"Without living there you cannot devise the correct policies and you cannot help. I invite the international community to open representative offices," he told delegates on Friday.
Prime Minister Erdogan has led by example. He made an official visit to Mogadishu last August, becoming the first non-African leader to set foot in the city in two decades.
Three months later Turkey opened an embassy in Somalia and then in March this year the national carrier Turkish Airlines became the first international airline to operate commercial flights to Mogadishu in 20 years.
“It’s the new emerging imperial spirit,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a foreign affairs commentator at the daily Milliyet newspaper. “It’s part of the global role they want to play, in order to be a regional hegemon.”
Under the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Erdogan, Turkey has garnered international prestige as a Muslim-majority country with a functioning multi-party democracy and surging economy.
Over the past decade Turkey’s trade ties with foreign countries have burgeoned, particularly with poorer Islamic nations where Turkish construction and manufacturing firms have found a ready market. Turkey’s exports to Africa have increased from $2.1 billion in 2003 to $10.3 billion last year.
Alongside this, Ankara has involved itself in the politics of other countries in its region, styling itself as a peacemaker.
“Turkey wants to legitimize its role on the world stage and make out that it is not interested in just trade and economics, but humanitarian issues too,” says Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Turkey’s Zirve University.
Turkey’s interest in Somalia is also driven in part by domestic politics, says Mr. Bacik.
Being prominently involved in peace-building efforts in an impoverished Muslim country both endears the AKP to its conservative base, and further adds to voters’ sense of Turkey’s growing greatness in the world.
“In Turkish public imagination, Somalia has been symbolic of poverty in Africa for a long time. People are aware of Somalia,” says Bacik.
Last August during the holy month of Ramadan – a time when Muslims traditionally demonstrate their faith with charity – Erdogan placed a strong emphasis on Somalia, saying it was "incomprehensible" for Turks to ignore the country’s plight.
By twinning religion and charity, he was putting pressure on the country’s main secular opposition party, says Bacik. “The prime minister is using this very effectively in domestic politics.”
But how effective Turkey’s involvement in Somalia will be remains in doubt.
“Turkey’s role can be helpful but it’s not going to be decisive,” says Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist and Somalia expert at Davidson University in North Carolina. “The prospects for peace and stability in Somalia are being driven by much bigger factors than individual countries playing facilitating roles.”
Bacik believes Ankara is not yet attuned to the local politics of the country. “Turkey is very much reading the region according to its own perception of Africa, rather than the reality," he says. "There is no awareness of the local conflicts within the country.”
As a newcomer, it has the advantage of having few enemies and so can operate with relative safety, says Mr. Menkhaus.
Despite the mood of optimism in Istanbul, the prospects of peace and stability in Somalia remains uncertain.
“They have the political grace to go in there right now and not be targeted by anyone… but that won’t last long,” he warns.
There have already been signs of possible trouble ahead. Al Shabab has denounced Ankara as a stooge of the West, and detonated a car bomb yards from its Mogadishu embassy in November last year.
Al Shabab, after losing territory to African Union forces, have mounted a guerrilla and bombing campaign, last week attacking the Somali president’s convoy in a part of Mogadishu thought to have been cleared of Shabab's forces.
“It’s not going to be an easy ride,” says Menkhaus. “We have to be very realistic about our expectations.”