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Decoding Turkey’s Foreign Policy Recalibration in West Asia

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 14, 2022

    Turkey’s approach towards its West Asian neighbourhood in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings evoked sharp criticisms from regional countries, which accused Ankara of pursuing a neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamic foreign policy. The regional response partly emerged from the growing popularity of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the Arab streets, at least in the early phase of the uprisings. Turkey, on the other hand, was driven by global power aspirations, as articulated in the Strategic Depth doctrine promulgated by the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. This contributed to the sharp geopolitical competition among regional powers for influence, and shaped the outcomes of protest movements in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya.

    Turkey’s confrontationist approach led to serious diplomatic and political backlash leading to deterioration of ties between Ankara and other regional capitals, including Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Turkey­–Israel relations had already worsened, prior to Arab Spring, over Ankara’s stand on Israel–Palestine conflict, and support for the militant-Islamist Palestinian movement, Hamas. What this meant was that the so-called policy of “zero-problem” with neighbours turned into “zero-friends” in the neighbourhood.1

    A Foreign Policy Rethink?

    Since 2021, a discernible shift in Turkey’s approach towards neighbours in West Asia is noticeable. In the past year and a half, Turkey has initiated rapprochement with Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and has also initiated a rethink in its policy towards Syria and Libya. In March 2022, President Isaac Herzog became the first Israeli head of state to visit Ankara since 2007. There have been talks on enhancing bilateral economic ties, especially in the energy sector with an eye on tapping the potential for cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean (East Med). Erdoğan termed Herzog’s visit as heralding a “new era” in bilateral relations.2

    Turkey and UAE too have taken steps to improve relations. Mohammed Bin Zayed’s visit in November 2021 was a departure from the acrimonious relations since Turkey accused Abu Dhabi of meddling in domestic politics, and funding the July 2016 failed coup. Bin Zayed’s visit paved the way for a return visit by Erdoğan in February 2022. The two countries have focused on economic cooperation with a promise of US$ 10 billion Emirati investment fund in Turkey, and several agreements for collaboration in defence industry, climate change, healthcare, food security and other sectors.3

    With Saudi Arabia, the signs of a reconciliation emerged when Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Riyadh in May 2021. The tense relations between the two regional giants had ruptured over the Jamal Khashoggi murder case wherein the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received international backlash for his alleged involvement. Weeks before Erdoğan visited the Kingdom, and met the King and embraced Bin Salman, a Turkish court suspended the Khashoggi murder trial and decided to transfer it to Saudi Arabia. The focus of the discussion during Erdogan’s visit was again on tapping the economic potential.

    In the case of Egypt, although there are no high-level exchange of visits, the two have engaged in delegation-level talks between officials from the foreign ministries focussing on improving trade and commercial ties. Importantly, Ankara has asked Muslim Brotherhood-linked media houses in Turkey to tone down their criticism of the government in Cairo.4 This indicates that Turkey might be ready to be more accommodative of Egyptian concerns vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood than it has been in the past. Ankara has been keen to improve relations with Cairo eyeing the lucrative energy fields in the East Med wherein Egypt has emerged as major player through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Additionally, Turkey has taken steps to reach out to the Bashar al-Assad regime for peace and stability in Syria, and has reviewed its policy of military intervention in Libya.

    Drivers of Change

    The most important drivers for the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy approach lie in domestic political and economic developments. Turkey has been struggling with economic challenges since 2017, and the hopes for a recovery in 2019 were dashed with the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2021, the Turkish economy recorded a sharp upturn in GDP growth at 11.7 per cent, but the World Bank has projected a modest growth of 2 per cent for 2022.5 Notwithstanding the uncertain growth trajectory, other economic indicators, including record inflation at 70 per cent in April 2022, devaluation of Lira, rising poverty and Covid-induced slump in tourism and export sectors, underline the seriousness of the economic challenge facing Turkey.6 President Erdoğan in his re-election bid in the 2023 elections does not want to leave any stone unturned to revive the economy, which is vital for winning the vote of his conservative-nationalist support base.

    Given that economic situation can harm Erdoğan’s electoral prospects, he is focussing on improving trade and commercial ties with West Asian countries to help recover the export slump. Turkey also depends on imports for both agricultural and manufactured products. That it can also bring the tourists from the regional countries is an additional advantage. Besides Erdogan’s foreign policy failures have become a domestic political issue, which the opposition, buoyed by their performance in the 2019 municipal elections, can raise to undermine the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) electoral prospects. Hence, the chance of presenting Erdogan’s foreign policy volte face as an achievement in an election year can be a worthwhile factor in Ankara’s conduct in the region.

    The foreign policy recalibration is also linked to regional and international politics. The Middle East has over the past two years witnessed a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics with many parallel ongoing talks and negotiations including, for example, between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the rapprochement between the Arab Gulf and Israel after the Abraham Accords. Additionally, Iraq has taken initiatives for talks among regional countries held in Baghdad, while UAE had taken lead in re-inducting Syria into the Arab fold. This can be attributed to several factors but the two most important developments that have impinged on the regional trend are the need for economic recovery after Covid-19 and the change in US approach to the region with the transition from the Trump to the Biden administrations. The flux in international politics and the resultant gradual shift in US focus away from the Middle East is also one of the driving factors for Ankara to pursue a more reconciliatory approach regionally, underlining the desire for recognition as a “middle power” in international politics.

    Challenges and Implications

    While the change in Turkish approach is refreshing, one cannot ignore the challenges Ankara faces in this pursuit. With Israel, serious difference over the Palestinian issue remain, and Turkey has not indicated any reversal in its policy of supporting Hamas. Similarly, with Egypt and Arab Gulf countries, the challenges remain because of Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, with Saudi Arabia, the claim to global Islamic leadership can adversely impact the reconciliation. More importantly, there is no evidence to suggest an ideational change guiding Turkish foreign policy conduct. That is, Ankara continues to be guided by the neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamic principles that had led to deterioration in ties with the regional countries in the first place. The change in foreign policy conduct are rather tactical wherein the foreign policy managers in Ankara now view a reconciliatory approach as more beneficial in securing Turkey’s interests and advance its regional ambitions.

    Nonetheless, the change in Turkey’s foreign policy approach in West Asia can be seen as an encouraging sign that can help reduce regional tensions. It also underlines a desire on part of Ankara to pursue diplomacy rather than confrontationist politics. Seen together with the wider regional trend of diplomatic engagements and geo-economic prospects, Turkey’s foreign policy recalibration generates some hope. Unfortunately, those familiar with the fractious nature of Middle East politics know that this is way too optimistic.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.