Just how successful was Turkey’s Middle East charm offensive in 2021?

Behind the walls of the colossal presidential palace in Turkey’s capital Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with one of his fiercest rivals, Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in late November. The reason? Burying the hatchet after nearly a decade-long cold war that saw Turkey and the UAE vie for supremacy in the Middle East.

After the meeting on November 24, it was announced that Turkey and the UAE concluded a series of economic deals, a welcome development at a time when the Turkish economy was being buffeted by soaring inflation and a sagging lira. The good news did not end there - in the days after the meeting, Erdoğan declared plans to pay a return visit to the UAE in February as well as pursue steps to mend ties with other regional rivals: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Following MbZ’s visit, Erdoğan’s communications aide Fahrettin Altun proclaimed that the meeting ushered in a “new era in Turkey-Gulf relations with implications for regional stability".

Two years ago, Turkey looked as if it was in a fight against the world. Its military went into action in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh to turn the tide of war in favour of its allies, and it held firm in its support of friendly Islamist parties across the region. Erdoğan had no shortage of recriminations for those who stood in his way, but by the end of 2020 the official tone began to shift. Suddenly, Turkish officials were speaking of relations with rivals in Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi in more measured terms and it was leaked that efforts were underway to mend fences with Israel.

Why Turkey adopted this about-face was down to its recognition that the geopolitical winds were against it. The UAE and Israel were forging ahead with building their relationship with a shared wariness of Turkey in mind. Meanwhile, in the United States, Turkey’s chief patron in Washington, former President Donald Trump, was defeated by Joe Biden, prompting some soul searching in Ankara about what this meant for its ambitions. Finally, Turkish rivals in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf began pursuing closer cooperation, creating a loose axis of partnerships that left Ankara increasingly isolated.  

Turkey’s choice to change course coincided with a shift in Arab capitals as well. Unity among the Gulf monarchies has been on shakier ground in the last year while doubts about U.S security guarantees have intensified since Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sources of previous tension, such as Libya’s civil war, have waned in terms of priorities compared to a quest to deescalate rivalries, be it with Iran or Qatar, Turkey’s only regional allies.

But for all the toned-down rhetoric, there have been few signs of serious progress towards rebuilding Turkey’s relationships in the Middle East. It was always a big task to try and undo years of mutual distrust but despite efforts to mitigate these somewhat, enough remains to stymie progress.

An example of this is the on-again-off-again process of fixing relations with Israel. Initially, there was talk of a mutual restoration of ambassadors after three years of estrangement, but Erdoğan’s furious denunciations of Israel amid renewed hostilities with Hamas in the Gaza Strip derailed this. Since the ouster of Erdoğan foe Benjamin Netanyahu last May, relations with the Israeli coalition government of Naftali Bennett have been mixed. There was a flare-up in mod-November after the arrest of an Israeli couple in Istanbul on alleged espionage charges, but it was defused in part by high-level diplomacy by Israel. Erdoğan has now suggested that Israel’s President Isaac Herzog may visit Turkey.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel-Aviv, said that Turkish overtures to Israel have been consistent yet they have done little to reduce Israeli suspicions that any improvement would be sustainable. She added that improving relations with Turkey remains a non-priority for the Bennett government, much as it was with Netanyahu, but progress remained possible if limited.

“There is a continuity between this government and the previous one that repairing relations with Ankara is not a priority,” Lindenstrauss told Ahval News.

“Still, since all that is needed for the rapprochement in the formal level is the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv, this is a relatively simple step that also the new government, despite its internal divisions, will be able to pass.”

This dynamic is not dissimilar between Turkey and other Middle Eastern neighbours. While seeking better ties with Egypt, the Turkish authorities have pushed Egyptian exiles to tone down their criticism of the regime of President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi to further talks but refused to label the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Turkey also unnerved Egypt with its sale of armed drones to Ethiopia despite an ongoing dispute between Addis Ababa and Cairo over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

With Erdoğan set to travel to Saudi Arabia next month, the question remains whether or not he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Relations between Erdoğan and King Salman are cordial, but Erdoğan has yet to signal that he is ready to build fences with MbS after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of the prince, in 2018. Whether a meeting between Erdoğan and MbS will take place remains unknown after an earlier missed opportunity in Qatar, but it is difficult to imagine a wider Saudi-Turkish reconciliation without some accommodation with MbS as his father’s health declines.

“What is clear is that the king will not be alive forever,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics in Washington, said in an interview with Ahval News in November 2020. “The relationship will become much more difficult to manage once MbS becomes the king. At that point, Erdoğan will have no choice but to engage with MbS or not.”

Despite some progress, Turkey has not been able to wrest itself from a strategic encirclement in the region that it found itself in at the start of 2021 or to slow the pace of any consolidation of ties between its rivals.

The network of partnerships that formed between the states surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean basin and the Persian Gulf shows few signs of cracking in spite of Turkey’s diplomatic charm offensive. Joint military exercises, enhanced energy cooperation and political statements that go against Turkish interests continue to take place as Turkey continues hoping to make deeper inroads with Arab countries.

Caroline Rose, a program head at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C., explained that Turkey’s ongoing economic woes and its recognition that its past foreign policy actions painted it into a corner necessitated a “reset” within the region. However, she points out that Ankara still has its work cut out.

“I believe the results of a ‘reset’ in many Turkish bilateral relations have been moderate,” Rose told Ahval News. She said that its actions contributed to a “baseline de-escalation” that has been a positive development in the region, but cautioned that “there is still a long way to fully reverse hostile bilateral ties”.

Lindenstrauss from INSS also believes that there may be a positive way forward for Turkey. Pointing to the recent meeting with the UAE, she said that an example now exists for other cautious states to pursue engaging in renewed talks with Turkey that may be indicative of a broader trend in 2022 within the Middle East.

“The fact that the UAE was the first one to advance in the rapprochement with Turkey makes it easier for the other regional actors to proceed in normalising relations since there is no longer the question of who will take the leap forward and pave the way for the rest to follow,” said Lindenstrauss.

“The UAE rapprochement with Turkey is indicative also of a broader trend in the Middle East of easing of tensions, at least temporarily, between actors in the region who previously acted in an acrimonious manner toward each other.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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