Erdoğan’s Middle East charm offensive

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has embarked on a programme of re-engagement across the Middle East, seeking improved relations with several nations.

He recently welcomed Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to Ankara, signing several bilateral agreements with the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is now expected to travel to the UAE later this month, paving the way for Erdoğan to make his own visit in February.

The Turkish president appears to have surveyed the external political terrain and realised he needs to repair broken relationships. Yet, he has sought to do so while not loosing face. Sheikh Mohammed did Erdoğan a favour by coming to the Turkish capital. Had Erdoğan gone to Abu Dhabi first, he would have looked like the supplicant, a role he hates to play with anyone.

Erdoğan has also taken steps towards mending ties with Israel and Egypt in recent weeks, although a trip to either of those countries remains off the table for now. What is bringing about this shift in Turkey’s, that is to say Erdoğan’s, attitude towards these neighbours? Israel’s rapprochement with many Arab states via the Abraham Accords process nurtured by former U.S. President Donald Trump may hold the key.

Not all Arab states have moved to put their relations with Israel on the same level as other ‘friendly’ (non-hostile) states, but official animosity has all but ended. U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy team will never credit their Trump administration predecessors and instead point to the Palestinian Authority opening a consulate in East Jerusalem as central to lowering tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbours. However, experienced professionals realise that the Arab-Israeli rapprochement engendered by the Abraham Accords has changed the Middle East for the better. 

Meanwhile, hostility towards Erdoğan in both the U.S. Congress and Biden administration means there is little appetite in the White House to reach out to their equivalents at the Turkish presidential White Palace (Ak Saray).

For the time being, the United States will instead focus on more pressing issues in the Asia-Pacific and Russia’s destabilising role in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The selection of pro-Biden/anti-Trump Republican Jeff Flake as U.S. ambassador to Turkey underlines this reality: Flake brings knowledge of Turkey to the posting but does not carry much political weight with the Biden foreign policy team. 

It is worth noting that Turkey could play a positive role for the West in Afghanistan, where its relations with Pakistan are particularly valuable. But the Biden team has put an end to U.S. engagement in the country, dashing any Turkish hopes that cooperation there could provide leverage or goodwill in Washington.

This has left the Turkish president with little choice but to repair regional relations as best he can on his own. Key here is Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Egypt – Riyadh has the money. His mishandling of the economy means that securing foreign investment and opening export markets for Turkish goods are now more important than ever.

The base of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) includes many construction companies that have benefitted from a boom in housing and commercial developments financed directly or indirectly by the government. Many have also found lucrative contracts outside of Turkey, business they need now more than before given the perilous condition of the government’s finances.

Erdoğan knows his political fortunes are tied to the economy, and if the price for securing his future is better relations with Turkey’s Arab neighbours, he is willing to pay it. He has shifted tactics and made foreign policy U-turns before, always with the aim of remaining in power.

Washington is unlikely to help Erdoğan in this endeavour, but neither will it seek to hinder him. For better or for worse, it will take something drastic to pull the Biden admission’s focus onto U.S.-Turkey relations. The Turkish president likely knows this and will calibrate his engagement in the region with little concern for U.S. interests.

Whether Erdoğan can generate the drastic economic rebound necessary through a slow reopening to the Arab world remain an open question. But one thing is certain: The Biden administration will be paying scant attention.

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