Dropping long-held convictions to seek deeper ties
Having just secured another five years as president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan took off on a whirlwind trip, visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE) respectively between 17-20 July. Erdogan agreed to improved defence cooperation with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as sealing a number of trade deals.
Although Turkey has maintained a military base in Qatar for almost 10 years now, the path to strategic partnership with the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been paved with obstacles. As recently as 2018, bilateral trade volume between the UAE and Turkey dropped to less than 7 billion dollars, almost half the 15 billion dollars clocked up between the two countries in 2017. A shift in Turkey's policy towards the Gulf countries in 2021 has since seen the volume of trade recover – in 2022, it was worth 10 billion dollars.
The positive trajectory continued last month: in July 2023, Erdogan signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates worth approximately 50 billion dollars, asserting that "thanks to these agreements, our relationship is now a strategic partnership".
The United Arab Emirates pledged to ramp up financial help for Turkey with deals that could be worth more than $50 billion https://t.co/KCA7o405LG
— Bloomberg (@business) July 19, 2023
Crisis resolution prerequisite for strategic partnership
Galip Dalay, associate fellow at Oxford University with a focus on Turkish politics and Middle Eastern affairs, said that it remains uncertain whether the entire 50 billion dollars' worth of agreements will materialise, some being long-term projects and others mere expressions of interest. Dalay did, however, concede that the agreements reached this time round are more detailed, more comprehensive and generally more serious in tone than previous attempts to come to terms.
In his opinion, however, the situation is more complicated: "There are two dimensions to the row between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey: political and geopolitical crises." Dalay continued that "the political crisis mostly originated from the Arab Spring when Turkey supported the Islamist groups. Now, after ten years, the Gulf countries' concerns are much less".
Also a research director at Al Sharq Forum, Dalay explained that the geopolitical crisis was ongoing, even though the will to overcome it appears to be growing. "The gap between their geopolitical ambitions and their economic needs was getting too big: normalisation only came when they needed to close this gap. At the end of the day, geopolitical activism shouldn't undermine the economic needs of countries. Now let's see if the normalisation in economic cooperation paves the way for geopolitical normalisation."
The geopolitical crises in question include the civil war in Libya, the conflict in Sudan and a struggle for more influence in Iraq. In all these areas, Turkey's appetite for active involvement has de-escalated the more its attention has shifted towards strategic cooperation with the Gulf countries.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, observed that Turkey and the UAE seem to have moved past the tensions that heated up between Abu Dhabi and Ankara at earlier stages in the post-Arab Spring period. “Focused less on ideological agendas, and much more so on economic, commercial, business, and trade relations, countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as the UAE and Turkey are conducting foreign policies which are increasingly pragmatic and less ideational,” he adds.
In May, when Erdogan first announced he would be making another visit to the Gulf, he said it would be to thank the Gulf countries for the assistance provided to Turkey’s Central Bank, which was struggling to find reserves. Saudi Arabia's response to this show of gratitude came in the form of an offer to buy Turkish-made attack drones. Defence industry cooperation could well prove a major emphasis of Turkish-Saudi relations moving forward. As Dalay commented, this could extend to more than the mere purchase of defence industry products: joint projects or the purchase of stakes in Turkish companies long-term cannot be ruled out.
Commenting on the defence industry cooperation with the UAE, Cafiero said: "Turkish drones will probably play an extremely important role in shaping the future of this bilateral relationship as the UAE seeks to purchase more Turkish drones, which have done much to contribute to Ankara’s growing clout in many parts of the world from Africa to the Middle East and the post-Soviet space."
History of a crisis
Tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Turkey and Qatar on the other had been ongoing since the Muslim Brotherhood, a group considered as 'terrorists' by the first duo, were elected in Egypt in 2012. They were subsequently toppled by a military coup, the latter being given the seal of approval by both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
In June 2017, four Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) cut diplomatic ties and closed their borders with Qatar, which they accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. They also demanded that Qatar close the Turkish military base located on its territory.
The UAE had already recalled its ambassador from Ankara. Meanwhile, Turkey accused the UAE of supporting those who attempted to overthrow President Erdogan in a coup in 2016. The row rumbled on for years and spread to other conflicts in the region, such as the civil war in Libya, with the UAE and Turkey supporting different sides.
By 2018, Turkey's economy was in severe trouble. The following year the Turkish lira lost more than 50 percent of its value. With a view to attracting more foreign investment, Turkey began looking to rebuild old friendships in the Gulf.
At the time, tensions with the UAE had reached boiling point. The UAE had provided safe haven to Sedat Peker, a convicted Turkish mobster, who was on the run. Peker began releasing videos on social media and making unverified claims of very high-level corruption, not to mention murders and drug dealing by top Turkish politicians. For President Erdogan, rebuilding relations with the UAE was no longer all about the money.
Things were to prove less than straightforward in the case of Saudi Arabia, too: in October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi opposition journalist, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish Presidency ensured the international media gained access to all the information and intelligence from the scene linking the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Khashoggi's murder.
In response Saudi Arabia imposed an unofficial ban on Turkish products. Bilateral trade between the two countries had been over 5 billion dollars in 2019; by 2021, it had dropped to 3.5 billion dollars. Of this, Saudi Arabian imports to Turkey accounted for more than 3 billion. In 2021, as happened with the UAE, tensions reached such a point that Turkey was forced to back down.
Once Turkey indicated that it would be prepared to overlook the Khashoggi murder and reports of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, another rapprochement – this time with Saudi Arabia – was on its way.
Resolution of Gulf crisis central to rebuilding relations
In January 2021, Qatar and the Gulf countries involved in the blockade against it came to terms and the blockade ended. Soon afterwards, there was an uptick in communications between Turkish ministers and their counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
In June 2021, Sedat Peker went on social media to say that he had received a warning from UAE officials and would not be publishing any more videos. The same year, there was a flurry of high-level activity, which culminated in the signing of trade agreements between Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
The most recent agreement, signed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2023, was the biggest to date and comes with a strategic partnership deal. Turkey also got the UAE to sign off on the extradition of a number of wanted individuals. How this will affect Peker's situation remains unclear.
Saudi Arabia proved a tougher call than the UAE. Erdogan began talking about a visit to Riyadh to meet with Mohammed bin Salman in late 2021. But it didn't happen until April 2022, when Turkey – in a highly symbolic move – closed the Turkish court case against the suspects implicated in the Khashoggi murder, all 26 of whom were Saudi citizens.
Since the mutual visits made last year by Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman, economic cooperation between the two countries has gradually begun to improve. Bearing in mind the Khashoggi scandal, exchanges between Riyadh and Ankara in recent times will have been less than diplomatic, which is why re-establishing ties is taking longer than Turkey may like, or even expect.
"Saudi Arabia also sees itself as the big brother in the Gulf. If Turkey gains ground in the region, it will affect Saudis 'natural territory of dominance'," concluded Dalay. "That's why they are moving more carefully."
© Qantara.de 2023