Transformations in Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Arab World – The Arab Wall
Transformations in Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Arab World

Transformations in Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Arab World

The Arab World Center for Research and Advanced Studies held a discussion panel on the 24th of May 2022, on the changes in Turkish foreign policy towards the Arab World and its consequences.  Ambassador Abdelrahman Salah was the principal speaker, with the participation of a number of in experts and researchers specializing in regional studies, including Dr Mohamed Ezz El Arab, Dr Mohamed Abbas Nagy, Ahmed Eleiba, Amr Abdel Aaty, Dr Hamdy Beshir, Karam Saeed, Mohamed Elfiky, Haitham Omran, and Mervat Zakaria. 

Ambassador Salah began by outlining the stance taken by Turkey towards the Arab world following  the popular protests of 2011, which he considered the first point of transformation under  President Recep Tayyib Erdogan. As Islamist groups rose to prominence in several Arab countries, the Turkish President sought to ride this tide, and present himself as the spokesperson for these groups, acting as a mediator between the region and the world. In conjunction with the attempt to exploit the fallout from the 2011 protests, Turkey, who had up to that point based its influence in the Arab region on soft power, began to use its hard power, and to provide support to militant Islamist groups in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s support for the various strands of Islamist groups in Arab countries brought it into confrontation with major Arab countries. Turkey’s stance towards Egypt after the fall of President Mohamed Morsi, as well as its other activities in the region created the perception in a number of Arab countries that Turkey is a threat.

However, in the last few months, Turkey once more changed its foreign policy towards the Arab World. Ambassador Salah outlined the main motives for this transformation as:

 Economic Pressures: Turkey is currently experiencing intense economic troubles; the Turkish economy that had been flourishing is now in need of attracting new investments, which it hopes to find in the Gulf. 

Divisions in Erdogan’s base: Erdogan had enjoyed strong support from a large electoral base, but some of his foreign policy stances began to erode this support, such as his inaction to the crisis of the Marmara ship, as well as his intervention in Syria. This led to dissent and public opposition from the prominent Islamist leader Fethullah Gulen, which was met by a crackdown from the regime on Gulen’s supporters and the various activities run by his organization. 

Turkey’s diplomatic Isolation: As a result of Turkey’s foreign policies, Erdogan started to feel isolated on the international and regional stage. In the Arab World, Turkey had strained relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus came together to reach agreements on delineating sea borders between them, leaving Turkey out . Turkey had issues with several Western powers, particularly as a result of trying to maintain close ties with both Russia and NATO countries. 

Avoiding a regional military confrontation: Turkey’s change in policy can also be attributed to its desire to avoid a military confrontation in the region, especially in Libya. Increased Turkish intervention in Libya led Egypt to declare a “red line” for Turkey, extending from  Sirte to Jeffra. As Turkey’s military forces were already overextended, due to its various regional military interventions, Turkey had no wish to enter into a military confrontation with Egypt. Egypt’s proximity to Libya gives it an advantage, and Turkey feared a confrontation would result in  heavy casualties and defeat.

Tensions with the EU: Erdogan’s support for militant Islamist groups raised tensions with Europe, as did his attempts to exploit the refugee crisis to make gains, such as his promise to stem the flow of refugees to Europe in return for establishing a 30 – 50 km “safe zone” on Syrian territory. 

Ambassador Salah also outlined his views on how the Arab countries should respond to Turkey’s new regional orientation. He argued that while the stances of the major Arab players, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia are not identical on this issue, with improvement in Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE going much faster than with Egypt, these Arab countries do have strong coordination. He argued that, in his view, these countries should focus on three issues in their relations with Turkey:

Support for Islamist groups: Erdogan’s support for Islamist groups is a major concern for the three countries, hence there must be an understanding that reducing his support for these groups is essential for improved relations. President Erdogan is likely to drag his feet on this issue, as almost 30% of his support base are religious conservative, and this is an important voting bloc. Erdogan needs their support as he has lost the support of the Kurdish voting bloc and is unable to ally himself with the secularists. Erdogan will also seek the support of non-Turks residing in Turkey who are affiliated to Islamist organizations, which number around 30,000 people. Following the election, Erdogan could respond to Egyptian demands by deporting them from Turkey to other countries with their Turkish passports.  

Turkish interventionism in the Arab World: The three states must also focus on the reversal of Turkish expansionist policies in the Arab region. The general decline in the capacity of some Arab states lately has created power vacuums which encouraged intervention by  non-Arab players, aiming to extend their influence in the region. With the rise of a strong Arab alliance, this can act as a counter force and limit external intervention in Arab affairs. However, if Turkey’s economic situation improves, and another power vacuum should occur, Turkey may once more resume its interventionalist policies. 

Confronting extremism and power vacuums: Major Arab players must address the issue of Islamist extremism in the region, which other countries in Europe, such as France, are also focusing on, due to its adverse implications on security. Moreover, Arab countries must move in to fill in that void that a retreat by Russia from the region could create, and should not allow Turkey to fill in that void. This is especially important in Libya, and Egypt, with its close relations with the various Libyan factions, can play an important role in this respect. 

Ambassador Salah alluded to President Erdogan’s claims that Turkey has significant influence over Iran, and his proposed land route linking the UAE to Turkey across Iran. While Erdogan is trying to use this card in efforts to improve relations with Gulf countries, the Ambassador believes that this is misleading, and that Arab Gulf countries have much more influence on Iran than Turkey. President Erdogan is up against extremely important elections next year, on which he hopes to establish Turkey’s second republic, the first having been established by the Turkish leader Ataturk. President Erdogan’s efforts to reduce tensions with his neighbors comes in the context of his efforts to win these crucial elections. The Ambassador also alluded to the possible consequences if Erdogan does not win these elections. These include the probable fragmentation of the conservative base, as there does not appear to be a figure which can gain consensus as a potential leader. There is also likely to be fragmentation of the current bloc of opposition to the president once he is no longer in power.  Erdogan’s potential fall from power will not necessarily serve Arab interests, as a new similar figure could once more emerge.