Turkey in the Middle East

‘Make Friends Not Foes’: Turkey Goes Back to Basics in the Middle East

Since the Arab Spring, Ankara has dreamed of redesigning the region; an ambitious policy that showcased itself in Turkey’s relations with Egypt, as well as the Turkish intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Those expectations, formulated by then-Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, however, had to be tested by realpolitik, and have since been largely unfulfilled. Turkey is now returning to basics, including by centralising counterterrorism in its regional military policy and seeking to make friends with states that Ankara once competed with. Nowadays, Turkish diplomats are trying to resuscitate broken relations with Ankara’s near neighbours such as Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Egypt.

In a time of looming economic crisis and nearing elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now realises that old tactics will not suffice in this new Middle East. Thus, after several years of tensions following the failure of the Davutoglu doctrine—and Ankara’s ‘strategic isolation’—Turkey now needs to re-establish its position amongst regional countries and build a reputation as a reliable and credible partner.

The Davutoglu Doctrine and Ankara’s Return to Realism

In the Davutoglu era (the early 2000s), Ankara pushed for a different Middle East where Turkey strived to become the ideological leader that could serve as an example for the region. During this period, Turkish policy in the Middle East and North Africa was characterised by doctrinal optimism and an emphasis on Islamic identity and turning the historical Ottoman empire territories into a free trade zone with high levels of cultural interaction. Turkey sought to lead this integration and act as a mediator, thus improving its regional influence by leveraging its soft power of historical-cultural affinities.[i]

In practice, Ankara moved to realise its ambitions through intense diplomacy, efforts to foster relations between Middle Eastern countries and plans for regime changes in Syria and Egypt. Yet, these dreams were destroyed when Bashar al-Assad triumphed in Damascus, and Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was toppled by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo. After these bitter experiences, the Davutoglu doctrine lost both its force and its applicability.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s relations with its regional allies deteriorated fast. Egyptian-Turkish ties worsened as Ankara improved its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. The 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—marking the bloody Israeli seizure of Turkish-organised humanitarian aid to Gaza—signalled a major blow to Turkey’s ties with Israel. In Syria, Ankara also failed to replace the Assad regime, despite that regime change was a top Turkish priority. As Turkey’s relationships with its regional neighbours soured, the Turkish administration coined a new term in 2013, “precious isolation,” to describe this turning point and increase its exclusion from regional affairs.

A quest for normalisation shapes Turkey’s regional outlook.

Yet, in a time of economic crisis and looming political instability at home, Ankara has learned that there is much more to be gained from making peace with its neighbours rather than fighting them. At present, Turkish foreign policy is far from being neo-Ottomanist. Instead, a quest for normalisation shapes Turkey’s regional outlook. For example, after trying to overthrow Assad, Turkey has embraced
realpolitik by realising that diplomatic engagement with him is key to solving the Syrian crisis. This was clearly illustrated by then-Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek’s speech at Davos[ii] and in Erdogan’s recent speeches which also signalled such an opening.[iii]

This policy shift has also occurred in Turkish security thinking. Following the failed coup d’état attempt in 2016, Turkey’s national security agenda shifted its focus from democratising surrounding nations to defeating the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) / Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and ISIS terrorist networks in Syria. In other words, defending Turkish territorial integrity became the ultimate factor guiding Ankara’s regional agenda. Amid increasing regional tensions and terrorist attacks, Turkey has realised that its latitude in the Middle East is limited.

Opportunities Await: Turkey Pursues Rapprochement

Thanks to the Abraham Accords, the Middle East is already undergoing a process of rapid normalisation. Ankara has sought to capitalise on such an opportunity, particularly since the Accords’ Arab Gulf-Israel rapprochement is envisioned as extending to additional countries. Finding itself abandoned by its Western allies in its transition to 4.5th/5th generation air warfare, the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and the aftermath of the S-400 procurement, Ankara is striving to make peace with its former friends, both in its near abroad as well as the West.

Although Turkey’s NATO membership should be the most meaningful factor in defining its relationship with the West, Ankara’s friendship with Israel can also mitigate the lost time and opportunities in Turkey-U.S. defense relations.

In this journey, Israel—a country with which Turkey shares a history of strong trade and military ties—was the first stop. On August 16th, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director-General Alon Ushpiz and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal signed an agreement to normalise relations. The deal will include increased cooperation on areas such as energy, tourism, security and trade, as well as the reinstatement of ambassadors, ensuring full diplomatic restoration. Although Turkey’s long-standing NATO membership should be the most meaningful factor in defining its relationship with the West, Ankara’s friendship with Israel can also mitigate the lost time and opportunities in Turkey-U.S. defense relations and improve Turkey’s credibility and trustworthiness in Washington’s eyes.

Turkey has also endeavoured to normalise its ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Past months marked the start of diplomatic visits between Riyadh and Ankara, signalling that Saudi Arabia might be next Middle Eastern country that Turkey reconciles with. Yet, when it comes to Ankara’s policy of regional détente, its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is only the tip of the iceberg. Turkish-Saudi relations deteriorated following various events such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and worsened after Ankara supported Doha following the Saudi-engineered blockade on Qatar in 2017.

Nevertheless, reconciliation remains mutually beneficial. Primarily, Turkey and Saudi Arabia share strong commercial ties and a major economic partnership. By this summer, Saudi investments in Turkey were estimated to amount to $2 billion,[iv] with a bilateral trade volume of c.$8 billion.[v] A relatively large share (30%) of Saudi investments in Turkey lie in the construction and real estate sector, with joint plans to triple this in the coming years. Saudi Arabia, in much the same way, is hailed to be the leader in digital transformation, 5G telecommunications and artificial intelligence amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),[vi] which can offer significant advantages for Turkey.

Still, the true motivations that link Riyadh and Ankara are strategic. Both sides are aware of the heightened threat environment in the Middle East and the increasing need to cooperate over shared security concerns. This explains why there was never a rupture in Turkish-Saudi defense cooperation even when relations reached their nadir. On the contrary, the Saudis have expressed consistent interest in Turkish defense technologies, both in terms of purchase and joint production. In 2019, for example, Saudi Arabia purchased several Turkish-made Karayel-SU drones.[vii] Two years later, Riyadh and Ankara announced plans to co-produce the drone, and stated that the program will involve building a batch of forty Karayel-SU unmanned combat aerial vehicles between 2021 and 2025.[viii] Some news outlets claim that Riyadh is now in line to acquire the Bayraktar TB-2 that has proven effective in battlefields from the Caucasus to North Africa and Ukraine.[ix]

Turkish-Saudi rapprochement can complicate Tehran’s foreign policy and proxy operations in Syria and Iraq.

Reconciliation between Riyadh and Ankara also holds great geopolitical value and will aid regional stability. Put precisely, an alliance between two of the region’s most powerful Sunni states creates a meaningful counterbalance to Iran’s growing influence in the region. Turkish-Saudi rapprochement can complicate Tehran’s foreign policy and proxy operations in Syria and Iraq, and contain the actions of militias aligned with Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.[x] Despite the belief that Turkey’s current quest for normalisation in the Middle East lies on purely economic grounds, the true significance of this entente lies in its strategic gains; not only for Riyadh and Ankara, but for the region’s stability as a whole.

Here, U.S. stakes are also remarkably high. Greater cooperation and collaboration between its allies and partners mean stronger U.S. geopolitical outreach to the Middle East, especially in a volatile and highly-fragmented region. Consequently, better Saudi-Turkish and Turkish-Israeli relationships might support a healthier regional dialogue, reinforce existing trends toward regional normalisation, and provide opportunities for American foreign policy planners to secure their own interests in the Middle East.

[i] Kasapoglu, Can. “The Turkish-Israeli Relations Under the Davutoglu Doctrine in Turkish Foreign Policy.” 2012. Ege Strategic Research Journal (3), 1-20, https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/69517.
[ii] “Şimşek: Suriye’de sahadaki durum belirgin bir şekilde değişti.” Bloomberg HT. 20 October 2017. https://businessht.bloomberght.com/piyasalar/haber/1360265-mehmet-simsek-turkiye-esadsiz-bir-anlasmada-israr-edemez.
[iii] “AKP signals possible Erdogan – Assad contact: ‘Diplomacy level might increase.’ Duvar English. 16 August 2022. https://www.duvarenglish.com/turkeys-ruling-akp-signals-possible-erdogan-assad-contact-diplomacy-level-might-increase-news-61136.
[iv] “Turkey-Saudi Arabia Economic and Trade Relations.” Republic of Turkiye – Ministry of Foreign Affairshttps://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-commercial-and-economic-relations-with-saudi-arabia.en.mfa#:~:text=The%20value%20of%20Saudi%20investments,be%20around%20USD%202%20billion.
[v] Shahbandar, Oubai. “Saudi Arabia and Turkey must maintain strategic partnership.” Arab News. 22 June 2022. https://arab.news/537mu.
[vi] Narayanan, Nirmal. “Saudi Arabia’s 5G experience among the best in GCC, says report.” Arab News. 04 September 2022. https://www.arabnews.com/node/2156006/business-economy.
[vii] Oryx. “Will Saudi Arabia Buy Bayraktar Drones?” 2 September 2022. https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/09/will-saudi-arabia-buy-bayraktar-drones.html.
[viii] Bekdil, Burak Ege. “Two Saudi companies to produce Turkish drones”, Defense News, March 22, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/unmanned/2021/03/22/two-saudi-companies-to-produce-turkish-drones/.
[ix] “Saudi Arabia in talks to buy Turkey’s Bayraktar drones.” Middle East Monitor. 25 May 2022. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220525-saudi-arabia-in-talks-to-buy-turkeys-bayraktar-drones/.
[x] Bakir, Ali, and Eyup Ersoy. “Saudi-Turkish reconciliation is a cause of concern in Iran.” Middle East Eye. 19 May 2022. https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/saudi-arabia-turkey-reconciliation-iran-concern.

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