Unpacking Erdogan's Charm Offensive In The Gulf (It's Complicated)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent tour of Gulf states is proof that the Turkish president aims to repair his country's diplomatic ties in the region, all the while looking for investment for Ankara's floundering economy. Quite the reversal of fortunes considering that not so long ago Gulf countries faced accusations of sponsoring the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
ISTANBUL — After traditional stops in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently went on an official tour of Arabian Gulf countries, highlighting the importance he pays to the region. The Turkish markets were promptly boosted by news of economical collaboration and investment opportunities.
The goal of Erdogan’s rushed visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar is obvious: it's the economy, stupid, no matter how much government pundits try to argue that both sides are looking for multidimensional collaborations. Turkey needs foreign investments, and the sooner, the better.
The easiest doors to knock on are those of the deep-pocketed kingdoms and emirates of the Gulf. Qatar, especially, is an emirate that Turkey has been close to even at its loneliest times, but relations between the two countries have been rather problematic lately. The Gulf countries, in particular, were not so long ago presented by government-friendly media in Turkey as the sponsors of a coup attempt in 2016 against the Turkish president. However, problems date back from even before that, when the coup in Egypt unfolded.
Back in 2016, Erdogan was acting as if the coup was orchestrated against himself, accusations were leveled according to which Saudi Arabia and the UAE were arming the military regime, putting the two sides at odds. The murder of Saudii journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul just rubbed salt on that wound.
Why remember those tensions now? More often than not, politics force unlikely actors to stand together. However, it is essential to fully comprehend what has changed and why past conflicts were forgotten. Turkey refused to face certain truths in order to have a principled foreign policy. Turkey got disconnected from the region as the actors supported by Ankara during the Arab Spring failed one after the other. Erdogan flexed his muscles and his voters loved it, but this did not help foreign relations. In the end, we have found ourselves within an oddity that some have called our “precious loneliness.”
It’s undeniable that Turkey’s bargaining position is weak.
The recent moves by Turkey show that the country know understands there is nothing to gain from this “loneliness.” In the wake of the NATO summit last month, Turkey is seeking to rebuild bridges with Gulf countries once more. For Erdogan, there is no need to be hawkish in foreign relations since the elections have already been won anyway, giving him full freedom to realign himself with the needs of international politics.
UAE's President Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Abu Dhabi on July 19, 2023.
Turkish Presidency/APA Images via ZUMA
A bleeding economy
Turkey urgently requires foreign financing. The Turkish economy model may have won the elections for Erdogan but we've made mistakes such as lowering the interest rates and offering insurance against exchange rates to the bank accounts in Turkish lira. Russian President Vladimir Putin used to be the investor who kept the lights on in our country. Delaying the natural gas debt, for example, helped Turkey manage its foreign reserves to this day.
The Gulf countries have been aiding Turkey financially since before the elections, but it looks like in the short term, we will completely be dependent on our new friends.
Indeed, the Turkish economy is in a very bad state. This makes financial aid more crucial as it weakens the hand of Erdogan against his hosts. The pro-government media may try to sell these visits as triumphs, but it’s undeniable that Turkey’s bargaining position is weak, with its government hoping to make it to the next elections through foreign finances.
Surviving the elections
There is a downside to this strategy, no matter how the commercial side of things will end up. Turkey’s direction has been manageable due to its financial troubles since the economic problems started to be swept under the rug. Turkey’s peers see that the Achilles’ heel of Ankara is its constant need for foreign resources and use this for their own gain.
Turkey's economic vulnerability is far beyond what it was even just a few years ago. Maybe Turkey has been spared going to the IMF, but it is currently trying to acquire capital transfer through negotiations and compromises that we don’t know about. Erdogan may have survived the presidential and parliamentary elections, but the looming shadow of the country's upcoming municipal elections means that he needs support now more than ever.
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