Alwaght- President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials in recent months have been engaged in considerable diplomatic moves in the Arab world that can be considered as a prelude to a new Ankara strategy.
In the past years, Turkey cut ties with Syria, the Israeli regime, Armenia, Greece, the UAE, and Egypt or reached lowest level of diplomatic relations with them. The Country also deeply escalated tensions with the US, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. But as the new year arrives and the world prepares for post-coronavirus and post-Trump period, Ankara opts to de-escalate tensions with the Arab world.
Home, regional, and international factors may push Ankara leaders to mend ties with the Arab parties. But before shedding light on these factors, we need to see how the Turks take their moves to improve the tense ties with the Arab countries.
New Turkish-Arab de-escalation wave
In the past month alone, considerable actions were taken in the course of relaxing the largely-stressed ties with the Arab countries that can mark a period of “breaking the ice” of relations between Ankara and the Arab world after a period of substantial tensions. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are noticeably the main points of focus of the changing Turkish diplomacy. Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, Turkey engaged in widespread confrontation and tensions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as it supported the Muslim Brotherhood– an Islamist movement seeking dominant political power in the Arab world. But the game and the equations are changing now.
Cairo and Ankara, experienced deeply-upset ties after a military coup led by the then army chief Abdul Fatah el-Sisi ousted the Turkish-advocated Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, in the past month sent out signals of willingness to patch up things. Especially when an Egyptian delegation led by the deputy intelligence chief visited the Libyan capital Tripoli on December 27 and met with the Turkish-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), contacts were reported between the Egyptian and Turkish security and intelligence officials in Libya. Odds are that the two sides for the first time in years reached essential coordination and agreement on regional cases, on top of them the Libyan crisis.
Egypt is not the only target of a Turkish reconciliation campaign. Saudi Arabia is another country with which Turkey thinks to bury the hatchet. The January 8 visit to Turkey of the Lebanese Designate-PM Saad Hariri, who is favored by the Saudis for the post and a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen, signals Turkish openness to improved ties with the Arab kingdom. This visit is paid while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been highly sensitive to Turkish foothold gain in the Arab states.
But Lebanon’s media have talked about a secret mission to Hariri: Mediation between Ankara and Riyadh. Al-Jadid TV of Lebanon reported that Hariri “ had secret mission” in his trip to Turkey. The broadcaster added that the mission was to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and came with a green light from the UAE as an actor standing on the Saudi side. Furthermore, the Special Envoy of the Foreign Minister of the State of Qatar for Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution Motlaq al-Qahtani said Doha was ready to act as interlocutor between the Saudis and Turks. This marks a new level of the Turkish-Arab movement towards rapprochement.
Also, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash hoped to see Turkish-Egyptian relations improved. He also said that Abu Dhabi was interested to mend ties with Ankara. Although the Emirates stipulated Ankara should abandon support to the Muslim Brotherhood before any de-escalation, the de facto ruler of the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed does not want to fall behind in the Arab-Turkish détente.
Erdogan seeks to strengthen AKP’s home position
A large part of the new foreign policy approach adopted by Erdogan-headed Justice and Development Party (AKP) has to do with the balance and equations of power at home. Erdogan and the co-leaders of the AKP know that they need to improve the messy economic conditions in the country in the next two years if they want victory in 2022 general and 2023 presidential elections. Otherwise, they should incur a heavy loss.
Since 2018, tensions with the US government and the coronavirus crisis left the Turkish government struggling with enormous economic woes as it tried to get things under control. In 2019, for example, the national currency lira stumbled, losing about half of its value against the US dollar. In September last year, lira hit an all-time low, again, with 7,486 liras dealt for one dollar. The economic shrunk considerably, dropping to 0.4 percent in 2020 compared to 7.4 percent in 2017.
In the dire economic conditions of Turkey, the destructive role of the American sanctions and the Emirati and Saudi manipulation of Turkey’s foreign currency market is traceable. As the country moves to the next year parliamentary elections, Erdogan aspires to rebuild friendship with the Arab countries to cut their rogue hands from the national economy and currency market. In the recent months, Arab countries led by Riyadh have designed an anti-Turkish boycott program that would target Turkish products in the Arab markets. If implemented, it could leave Erdogan and his party grapple with a higher level of an economic crisis.
Since the closing months of Barack Obama administration, American-Turkish tensions set to rise, reaching the highest levels under Donald Trump. The confrontation reached the stage of sanctions announced against Ankara by Washington. On December 17, the Department of State imposed restrictions on Presidency of Defense Industries of Turkey under CAATSA sanctions regime.
Erdogan is aware that the incoming Biden administration would be tougher on Turkey than Trump’s. Talking to the New York Times in 2019, Biden advocated a new US approach to the “autocrat” Erdogan and called for his removal from power and backing to opposition parties.
Although last week a delegation was sent to Turkey by Biden to de-escalate, the US support to the Syrian Kurds, the F-35 delivery stall, the S-400 Russian Air defense system purchase by Ankara, and also extradition of the Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen who is accused by Erdogan of masterminding the 2016 military coup carry the potentials to unleash crisis to their bilateral ties.
The best option, Erdogan thinks, in the period of Biden is repairing relations with the Arabs so that he can alleviate diplomatic pressures on Ankara and prevent rise of a possible US-led anti-Turkish regional front assisted by the Arab countries.
Reducing anti-Ankara pressures in Libya and the Mediterranean
Another driver behind Turkish efforts to reestablish good relationship with the Arab countries is the pressure put on Turkey in the Mediterranean. Following a cooperation pact with the Government Of National Accord of Libya in 2018, Erdogan embarked on a policy of maximum presence in the Mediterranean Sea for energy ambitions. Also, Erdogan intervened directly in the Libyan civil war in favor of the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj against General Khalifa Haftar forces.
These two Erdogan policy paths put a range of actors like Greece, the Israeli regime, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Cyprus, France, and even the US in the face of Turkey. All of these actors for a reason or another are discontented with the Turkish strategy in the Mediterranean. The key difference point between the Arab states and Turkey is the latter’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government in Tripoli. Now with de-escalation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Erdogan wants to at least remove the pressures Turkey is subjected to in Libya.