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What’s behind Turkey’s new charm offensive in the Middle East?

By on May 9, 2022 0

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on what he calls “a new era in foreign policy”. He has recently made strenuous efforts to mend relations with a few Middle Eastern countries with which he has been at odds for a few years. One of these states is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What motivated him in this direction?

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained for most of Erdogan’s nearly two decades in power. Although the two countries share a common allegiance to the Sunni sect of Islam and Western-oriented foreign policy postures, their histories, national identities and geopolitical dispositions have led them to be suspicious of each other. most of the time.

Erdogan’s early attempts, particularly during his tenure as prime minister (2003-2014), to expand Turkey’s role in the Middle East worried many of his regional neighbors. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the exception of Qatar, saw the Turkish leader’s decision as part of a foreign policy offensive aimed at reviving the empire. Ottoman Empire, which once ruled most of the Arab domain, and capturing the leadership of Sunni Islam, which Riyadh has always sought to defend.

The crisis came amid a downward spiral in relations after the brutal killing by Saudi agents of dissidents and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The event shocked the world and Erdogan blamed the “highest levels” of the Saudi government for ordering the gruesome killing. Erdogan pointed the finger at the controversial Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman. Riyadh’s denial and assertion that it was carried out by “rogue” Saudi elements did not ring true with Ankara or, for that matter, many Western sources, including US intelligence findings that the President Joe Biden published in early 2021.

However, after months of looking for a rapprochement, involving Ankara dropping its demand for a trial of Khashoggi’s killers in Turkey, Erdogan paid a two-day official visit to the kingdom in late April, where he met not only with King Salman bin Abdulaziz. , but also his son, Mohammad bin Salman. On his return, in an assessment of his visit, Erdogan said, “We have agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate great economic potential through organizations that will bring our investors together.” Although no specific plans were announced, the Turkish leader said his support for the kingdom’s bid to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh and the acceleration of economic, trade and investment relations as important for the regional cooperation, peace and security.

Erdogan’s charm offensive to improve relations with Riyadh follows similar efforts with the United Arab Emirates and Israel. He also said he would like to see a change in relations with Cairo. Relations between Ankara and Cairo have deteriorated over Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood government which came to power electorally following pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt, but was overthrown by General-President Abdel Fattah el -Sisi in 2013. They were also affected by the two sides backing rival groups in Libya’s long power struggle.

Three factors seem to be at work to motivate Erdogan. The first is that Turkey is facing a dire economic situation, marked by runaway inflation, falling currency and investment values, and rising unemployment. Any influx of cash and investment from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and some of its equally wealthy Arab partners could help alleviate some of Turkey’s economic problems.

The second is that Erdogan faces an election next year amid heightened opposition to his rule at home. Although he still enjoys considerable support from his ruling Justice and Development Party, he no longer retains the popularity he enjoyed before his harsh crackdown on the opposition following of the failed 2016 coup against him.

The third factor is the war in Ukraine. Erdogan’s friendship in recent years with Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been questioned since the invasion, and he has also maintained close ties with Kyiv.

Erdogan has good reason to look to the Middle East to improve strained relations, as he has also softened his criticism of US-led NATO allies. It remains to be seen whether this is likely to improve his chances of re-election. But it should never be underestimated.