When President Erdogan visits the Gulf states after his election victory or greets a head of state from the autocratically governed countries in Turkey, one thing is certain: the bilateral relations are praised in the highest tones by the state-controlled media here and there. More than astonishing after all the feuds in recent years that Turkish politics has allowed towards the Gulf monarchies. What contributed to this new cuddle course?
When Erdogan visited Qatar in early summer, his success in the elections in Turkey was widely celebrated there: his face shone from skyscrapers and hospitals in the capital Doha, the two states are close allies, Ankara helped the rich Gulf state when other Arab states boycotted the emirate from 2017 to 2021. But leaders from the once enemy United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were also among the first to congratulate Erdogan on his election victory in mid-May.
Just last month, the President of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, and Erdogan were seen walking out of a restaurant in Istanbul, holding hands. Those gentlemen who were still irreconcilably opposed to each other in crisis-ridden Libya and who supported rival groups militarily. For years, the Turkish media had dubbed Mohammed bin Zayed the “black prince”. But last March, the Emirates and Turkey signed an agreement that would boost trade between the two countries to $40 billion over the next five years. It was ratified three days after Erdogan’s election victory.
There is a long political continuity in the way the leaders of the Gulf States rely on personal relationships, they hope for a rapprochement. After the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Erdogan’s government sided with the rebels and welcomed the end of the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while the rulers in the Gulf feared that their autocratic state apparatus would be phased out.
However, times have changed massively: the economic and currency crisis in Turkey was getting worse and worse, Erdogan urgently needed new strategic partnerships, despite ideological rivalries. Probably a main reason for Erdogan’s trip to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. After all, it is about many billions and about investments.
Erdogan seems to be learning from his past mistakes! Turkey has previously made bad decisions in the region of today’s Gulf monarchies, dating back to the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East. While Turkish children only heard good things about the Ottomans in schools, the picture in the Arab capitals was different: the Turks were always seen as occupiers. Even today, the relationship between Turks and Arabs is a love-hate relationship.
Erdogan’s Middle East policy can currently be described as “pragmatic”. He is speaking again to the Saudis he has avoided since 2018 when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in their consulate general in Istanbul. He used to claim to speak for the umma, the community of Muslims. On election evenings, he celebrated his victories by saying that not only Turkey had won, but also the people of Sarajevo and Damascus. Wherever the Ottomans ruled, Erdogan felt responsible. Today he is seeking reconciliation with Egypt’s head of state, Abdelfattah al-Sisi, with whom he previously did not want to sit in the same room. Erdogan’s new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, is supposed to talk to the Syrian Assad regime, if only to solve the problem of the refugees, because almost four million Syrians still live in Turkey. Sentiments are growing more aggressively across the country. In response, Erdogan has promised to build houses for at least some of them in Syria. At the same time, the Syrian dictator Assad has particularly good cards again: he was only recently accepted back into the Arab League, into the club where Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently looking for new friends. Assad survived the war at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people, now he’s seen as socially acceptable again in the Middle East, perhaps even for Erdogan.
Who needs whom in this relationship, and who therefore has to accommodate whom? Today it is Turkey that is approaching the Arab states, out of financial need. Turkey urgently needs foreign currency. The lira continues to fall in value, soon rising interest rates will end Turkey’s growth on credit. And in spring 2024 there will be elections in Turkey again: local elections in which Erdogan wants to take Istanbul’s city hall from the opposition.
Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state, said that Turkey should never get involved in an internal Arab dispute. It is precisely this rule that Erdogan has violated several times: in Egypt he supported the Muslim Brotherhood, in the war in Syria the rebels, and later also the Islamists. There were two crises in which Erdogan chose the wrong side over the years – namely that of the losers. The military won in Egypt and Assad triumphed in Syria.
Erdogan’s idea was to pursue pure power politics, to shape the Middle East as the new sultan. He is still popular with many people there. He is considered democratically elected, in contrast to the dictators and kings of the region, he is seen there as an Islamist and as an advocate for the Palestinians. But what do the Arab Gulf States gain from the rapprochement? They are pursuing a foreign policy in all directions, don’t want to offend anyone for economic and security reasons, they want to hear all sides. In addition, the Gulf States have gained an influential NATO ally in Erdogan, who also owes them something. “After Sunday’s election, you will see how these leaders come here and how I will visit them to show my gratitude,” the Turkish president said before the election. How he will show his gratitude remains to be seen. Conversely, Turkey may have to accept all the terms of the Gulf States.
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