Turkish officials celebrated the November 24 visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Ankara as the beginning of “a new era” between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. With the new agreements on energy and technology sectors, the UAE promised to establish a $10 billion fund for investments and $5 billion for a swap line to bolster the Turkish central bank’s currency reserves. Amid the controversy of the collapse of the Turkish lira, pro-government media hailed the deal as a major victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish president’s return visit—scheduled for February 2022—will mark his first trip to the UAE after a decade of turbulent relations between the two countries. Given that the Turkish government had accused the UAE of bankrolling the failed coup attempt in 2016, the latest steps are quite remarkable. Expressing his contentment with the “family like” reconciliation, Erdoğan promised to take similar steps to repair ties with Egypt and Israel.
Turkey’s change of heart toward its Gulf rivals is evident. In recent months, Ankara has taken steps to improve ties with Riyadh. The Khashoggi trial in Turkish courts now faces a deadlock as Turkish officials declared their confidence in Saudi court rulings on the issue. High levels of diplomatic engagement signal increasing economic cooperation. Erdoğan also welcomed Saudi Arabia’s interest in buying Turkish-made armed drones.
From a long-term strategic perspective, Turkey’s growing isolation in the Mediterranean set off alarm bells across the Turkish political spectrum. Thus, with de-escalating regional conflicts, Turkey seeks to heal self-wounds.
Ankara’s pivot to thaw the ice with Gulf regimes is based on a twofold calculus: from a long-term strategic perspective, Turkey’s growing isolation in the Mediterranean set off alarm bells across the Turkish political spectrum. Thus, with de-escalating regional conflicts, Turkey seeks to heal self-wounds. In the short term, Erdoğan’s warm messages to the Gulf are directly tied to Turkey’s economic crisis, which has worsened in the past few years. From the Gulf perspective, the prospect of warming ties with Turkey is equally desirable. The Biden Administration’s stark difference from its predecessor encouraged regional powers to pursue their financial interests and de-escalate tensions.
Turkey’s Attempt to Break the New Mediterranean Axis
Only a decade ago, Ankara was enjoying exceptional popularity across the Middle East with its famous “zero-problems” in its foreign policy doctrine. Turkey’s rising fortunes were not necessarily seen as a threat in the region. Comparing those days with today’s realities cannot be more dramatic. The militarization of Ankara’s foreign policy has led to a reverse trend in recent years, leaving Turkey with limited maneuvering capacity and growing isolation. A decade ago, Greece was far from being a candidate to replace Turkey’s position in Mediterranean politics. Today, Greece and Cyprus have formed a new Hellenic alliance that shapes new realities in the region at the expense of Turkey. The alliance does not only garner increasing US support but also attracts regional players. As an unprecedented move, for example, the Greek armed forces provided Patriot batteries to Saudi Arabia when Riyadh faced difficulties following the US decision to withdraw its Patriot missiles from the country. Greece has also strengthened its relations with the UAE, Israel, and Egypt and now frequently conducts joint military drills with these regional powers.
It is important to note that Turkey’s goal to establish naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean—known as the Blue Homeland doctrine—is an important matter of consensus between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkish nationalist civil-military bureaucrats. Since 2015, Erdoğan has cultivated strong alliances with ultranationalist forces to remain in power, including the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Kemalist neo-nationalist (Ulusalcı) cadres in the bureaucracy. These groups’ anti-western and Eurasianist perspectives have shaped militarist Turkish foreign policy in recent years. The discovery of energy resources coupled with the persistent Libyan civil war encouraged Turkish militarism in the Mediterranean. To be sure, the high price of Turkey’s growing isolation necessitated a strategic re-calculus—hence the move to repair ties with the Egypt-Israel-Gulf axis. In other words, the ruling Turkish alliance now realizes the limits of chauvinism and aims to put the brakes on the “anti-Turkey alliance” in the region. With the new approach to prioritize diplomacy, Erdoğan may expect good financial outcomes that could help in saving the Turkish economy while his political allies will reap the benefits of exerting more influence in shaping Turkish foreign policy.
Changing Geopolitical Context
On the other side of the coin, the Gulf regimes have read the changing signals from Washington and the transformation of the international context; thus, they are revisiting their policies toward Ankara. Trump’s White House was dominated by anti-Iran hawks whose policies gave strong support to isolate Qatar and Turkey. Washington’s push for an alliance between the regime of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the Saudi-led Gulf bloc was very consequential. Long branding itself as a cultural and economic hub in the region, the UAE has shifted its vision and assumed more political risk with bold controversial moves. Emirati involvement in Libya’s civil war had put Abu Dhabi and Ankara at opposite ends, fighting head-to-head through proxies. Turkey felt threatened by the UAE’s regional ambitions, including its developing relations with Greece and Cyprus as well as its deepening ties with Cairo. In the Horn of Africa, the UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis has weakened Turkish influence in Sudan. The Trump Administration also invigorated anti-Iran Gulf leaders to strengthen their ties with Israel. With the Abraham Accords, the UAE plays a cheerleader role for Arab countries’ official recognition of Israel at a time when Palestinian territories face an imminent threat of annexation.
The Gulf regimes have read the changing signals from Washington and the transformation of the international context; thus, they are revisiting their policies toward Ankara.
President Joe Biden’s Middle East priorities, however, are quite different compared to those of his predecessor. The Afghanistan tragedy raised questions about the United States’ long-term engagement in the region. Gulf regimes quickly noticed that they are burning bridges that may serve their own interests in a post-American order. For example, Turkey’s gradual recognition of the Assad regime may be a win for Saudi-Emirati efforts to curb Tehran’s influence over Damascus. Similarly, Turkey may be a useful ally of the Gulf states in shaping Iraq’s future.
Another notable change in regional politics is the diminishing role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was put on the terrorism list by some Gulf states. From Tunisia to Morocco to Sudan, Islamist parties have lost their vigor and are no longer perceived as a threat. In Tunisia, the most moderate face of the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from the government by a presidential coup. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party suffered a major electoral defeat—down from 125 parliamentary seats to a mere 13—and lost power for the first time since 2011. In Sudan, the Gulf regimes further strengthened their relations with the military elite that ousted Omar al-Bashir from power. Turkey’s steps were also noted by the Gulf: to court Cairo, Ankara started to shut down Muslim Brotherhood centers and banned TV shows of Egyptian opposition voices. In 2020, the Turkish government lifted a veto against Egypt’s partnership activities with NATO.
The Economic Woes Resulting from Regional Conflicts
The new Turkey-Gulf détente reflects a mutual need to compartmentalize economic relations from geopolitical tensions. Following the Arab revolutions that started in 2011, the escalation of regional tensions has consumed the finances of almost all powerhouse states. The involvement in civil wars in Yemen and Libya harmed not only the international image of the Gulf states but also the regimes’ finances. Ankara’s overstretched military engagements increased the burden on an already strained Turkish economy. In addition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey and the Gulf countries suffered from financial downturns and they are now exploring ways for recovery. Even if regional competition continues, both Turkey and its Gulf rivals have strong reasons to learn to compartmentalize economic partnerships in their transactions.
Even if regional competition continues, both Turkey and its Gulf rivals have strong reasons to learn to compartmentalize economic partnerships in their transactions.
The prioritization of economic ties is especially important for Erdoğan’s political career, which is currently under unprecedented. In the past year alone, the Turkish lira has lost more than 45 percent of its value against the US dollar. The plunge of the currency led to mass street protests in recent weeks. Turkey’s high inflation rate has reached its peak, 21.31 percent and unemployment has climbed to 14 percent. The deteriorating economy is now the top public concern in domestic opinion polls, causing alarm among the ruling elite. Frustrated and cornered, Erdoğan sacked his finance minister once again and declared an “economic war of independence.” In fact, Erdoğan announced the war against the “interest rate lobby” and foreign powers long ago and sacked three central bank governors since 2019. So far, Erdoğan’s war has not been successful in reversing the bad fortunes of the Turkish economy, but it is most likely that his “war of independence” will become a campaign slogan in the 2023 elections.
On the domestic front, warming relations with the Gulf have already offered some relief for Erdoğan. As an insider to the Turkish government’s extrajudicial decimation of the opposition—which accelerated following the 2016 coup attempt—the notorious ring leader Sedat Peker broadcast his criticism and allegations from his home in Dubai until Emirati officials asked him to stop in June 2021, at a time when Ankara and Abu Dhabi were holding reconciliation talks. Peker’s YouTube videos caught the attention of tens of millions in Turkey as they included revelations about government corruption in Erdoğan’s close circles and state-mafia relations. Although the UAE did not honor Turkey’s extradition request for Peker, it has effectively muted him.
Shifting Alliances in the Gulf
Turkey’s improving dialogue with its Gulf rivals is bolstered by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) official welcome of Qatar back into the family. After the al-Ula agreement of January 2021 that ended the blockade of Qatar, Riyadh-Doha relations showed signs of progress through high level visits. Using its robust ties with Ankara, Doha aims to facilitate a meeting between the Turkish president and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The emerging economic competition between the Saudis and Emiratis provides an opportunity for Qatar’s regional policy; despite the UAE’s objections, Doha may actually succeed in assuming a broker role in normalizing Turkish-Saudi relations.
Internal messy dynamics in the Gulf could benefit Turkey in expanding its capacity to maneuver and ending its regional isolation.
Riyadh’s increasing efforts to revitalize the GCC are notable. By leveraging its lead role in the GCC, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to divert trade and investment away from the UAE to the kingdom. To challenge the UAE’s status as the region’s business hub, the Saudi government announced that starting in 2024, foreign firms will need to establish their “regional headquarters” within Saudi Arabia in order to secure Saudi government contracts. The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi competition is significant for Doha and Ankara. While Saudi Arabia aims to get Qatar on board, the UAE prefers to make an opening to Turkey to decrease Ankara’s vigorous support to Doha. Thus, internal messy dynamics in the Gulf could benefit Turkey in expanding its capacity to maneuver and ending its regional isolation.
Future policy choices of the Biden Administration will shape the trajectory of détente between Turkey and the Gulf states. Despite initial hopes from Tehran, the US administration offers no real progress on returning to the nuclear agreement and lifting the sanctions. The Gulf states may expect Turkey to get closer to their camp against Iran; however, Ankara is likely to prefer pragmatism—as reflected in the Turkish government’s recent announcement of a “cooperation road map” with Iran. In recent weeks, Tehran provided more assurances on cooperation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish intelligence declared that some senior PKK members operating in Iran were brought back home. The nature of Washington’s future collaboration with the Syrian Kurds will also shape Tehran-Ankara engagement and the regional geostrategic calculus. Although it may be difficult to overcome their regional disputes, Turkey and its Gulf rivals will have reasons to compartmentalize the issues and continue to seek their interests through economic cooperation.