Jan 03, 2018
Realizing the importance of protecting trade with Egypt, Pharaoh Ramses the Third built a shimmering port made of coral from the Red Sea. It stood on the island of Suakin in what is now Sudan. For 3,000 years, this port city was a powerful center of trade, welcoming Christians and Muslims alike. Ptolemy called it the “Port of Good Hope.”
The Glory that was the Coral City
At the height of its power, caravans laden with silk and spices, from as far away as Baghdad, traded with western merchants within the city’s walls. The port was a gateway for pilgrims to and from the holy city of Mecca and trade by sea flourished connecting Suakin to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.
Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire however sailors navigated sea routes around Africa abandoning Suakin as a port of call. The city fell into the slave trade further detracting from its status. British colonial rule brought a flurry of new life to the port, but in the mid 1800s a new facility at Port Sudan was built. In 1922 Suakin was abandoned by the British.
Having lost its place on the “Spice Road” and its strategic importance in the Sudan, the city and port fell into ruin and has sat in disrepair since the 1920s. On December 26th Ibrahim Ghandour, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, announced Turkey’s interest in rebuilding Port Suakin. The announcement comes on the heels of a visit by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish government has entered into an agreement worth $650 million with the Sudanese to expand its influence in the region. Both governments have agreed to greater cooperation with the building of new docks to handle commercial and military vessels. It is hoped that pilgrims to the Holy Lands will include Suakin as a point of departure adding tourist dollars to other sources of future port revenue. The recent lifting of a trade ban by the U.S. has allowed Sudan to look for more investment sources. Their minister of finance indicated that port development could generate foreign capital of up to $10 billion.
A Strategic Location
Lying 62 kilometers south of Port Sudan in a crest of the Red Sea, shipping agents note that Suakin could become an excellent first port of call after clearing the Bab al-Mandab Straights. It would allow Turkey to exert greater influence along the African Coast increasing its options for trade. The nature of the port, which is actually an island, would permit vessels to take on food, fuel, and water without clearing customs. This could facilitate quick and easy provisioning for international ships not currently trading with Sudan. This fall Turkey opened a $50 million military base in Sudan as part of its strategic plans for the region. Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Omar al-Bashir also established a “High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” with the intent of further strengthening military and commercial ties between their two nations.
A Military Presence
On November 14, 2017, the U.S. Navy completed the Dogu Akdeniz military exercises with Turkey. Similar joint operations have been conducted since 2013, as Turkey displays its naval prowess in the region. The Turkish government continues to seek strong ties with the U.S. and while Anti-American sentiment rises, joint operations strengthen the security of shipping in the Red Sea. A new military port in Sudan, if eventually open to our navy, would offer better coverage for the straights and Gulf of Aden.
The Future of U.S., Turkish and Sudanese Cooperation
Sailors from the American destroyer the USS Ross received rough treatment at the hands of Turkish militants in November during her port call in Istanbul. This seems to be the tip of a “Yankee Go Home” attitude growing among the civilian population. Turkey’s ties to NATO have also come under fire jeopardizing anti-terrorism activity along the African coast. Further escalation could spell trouble for joint naval operations in the region. Our relationship with Sudan improved as the outgoing Obama administration lifted 20 years of economic embargo. After two decades, trade with the U.S. will resume and it’s hoped that joint military efforts against radical factions will increase.
Will Port Suakin truly rise again?
A new military port in Sudan could be a base of operations for anti-terrorist activity along the coast and as far south as Somalia. It could mean more security to commercial vessels plying the Red Sea. But no timetable has been set for construction and at this point the port lies on a handshake between Presidents Erdogan and al-Bashir. Will Suakin truly rise again? And what will it mean for U.S. Naval operations?