Ankara Eyes Oil Exploration in Somali Waters

By February 2020Turkey

On 20 January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that the Somali government had invited Turkey to conduct E&P operations in the country. Issued during his return from the Berlin conference on Libya, this statement reflects both Erdogan’s dissatisfaction with the course of the cease-fire negotiations and his willingness to further escalate against the UAE and Saudi Arabia by widening the geography of competition.

Recent independent appraisals have discovered the potential for 30bn barrels of crude in Somali waters, spread across 15 blocks. Although the size of the reserve is appetizing for IOCs, the sustained presence of pirates off the coast of Somalia remains a major risk. The Turkish Navy would have to redirect ships to protect its operations in the area.

Turkey’s direct military relations with Somalia go back to 1993, when its armed forces joined the UN Peacekeeping Operation there. This contingent has remained ever since, and in 2011, Ankara opened its largest overseas base there. Hosting 200 Turkish military personnel, the base maintains a training program for the Somali military forces. After Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia and Niger, Somalia is the fifth-largest market for Turkey in Sub-Saharan Africa. Besides trade and market share, Turkey is also competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE for influence over the rapidly growing Muslim-majority populations of said African countries.

Therefore, Turkey’s recent declaration of its interest in sending exploration vessels and drillships to Somali waters is a direct escalation against Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their continued involvement in the Libyan civil war. The 19 January Berlin Conference on Libya resulted in vague promises on limiting clashes between the parties to the civil war and the establishment of a cease-fire monitoring mission. From Turkey’s point of view, the conference yielded no tangible results and there has been no change in Egypt’s willingness to back the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), under the command of Khalifa Haftar. Turkey assesses that the main drive behind Egypt’s continued support is the dual financial guarantee provided by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To that end, taking the competition to Somalia is Ankara’s way of distracting both countries’ focus on Libya and straining their commitment.

We assess that Turkey may actually feel the most strain, however. Its forces are now stretched across the border with Syria and Iraq; supporting exploration and drill missions across Cyprus; bolstering the naval presence in the Black Sea to deter Russia; deployed in Libya to support the Tripoli government; and soon to be expanded in Somalia under this new initiative. Although the military is capable enough to handle these multiple deployments, the Turkish economy is less so. A significant military presence in Libya and Somalia will be financially difficult to sustain, and the dollar/lira exchange rate fluctuations render fuel, equipment and parts increasingly expensive.

While Ankara’s deployment in Libya is justified financially, given that Turkish contractors seek to recover $20bn worth of suspended contracts that they had been awarded during the Qadhafi period, Somalia is a very different environment. It is unclear how much Turkey would gain financially from developing Somali oilfields or whether the investment, along with the military presence, would actually benefit Erdogan’s strategy over the long term. In our view, Turkey will struggle to engage in exploration and drilling operations in newly discovered offshore blocks at the same time that it needs its drillships in the eastern Mediterranean.