Judging by the reaction of the Arab media, the fuss about restoring cordial relations between Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries is gradually subsiding. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed “regret” that Saudi transport planes and six F-15 fighter jets were sent to Crete to participate in a joint exercise with the Greek Air Force. This comes days after presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Bloomberg that “a new chapter can be opened, a new page can be turned in our relationship with Egypt as well as with the Gulf countries to help regional peace and stability”.
The Dubai-based Al Bayan newspaper also commented harshly on Erdogan’s harsh statement, writing that the Turkish president’s well-known arrogance returns when he tries to tell a large country what it should or should not do. Ever since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia in January ended the boycott of Qatar by its neighbors, the Turkish, Qatari and Muslim media have been actively promoting the idea of improving Turkish-Arab relations. Some have suggested that Qatar and others will play the role of mediator to get Turkish-Saudi relations back on track, at least. But an unnamed Saudi source told Arab News that there is no Qatari mediation with Turkey and that relations between Ankara and Riyadh are direct. This is not a full-fledged diplomatic contact, as their media claim, but only at the level of intelligence, the source noted. He stressed that the Saudi authorities have not taken any action to stop the people’s blockade of Turkish goods, which has resulted in Turkish exports to the kingdom decreasing by more than 90%. Saudi Arabia’s imports from Turkey in December were 50.6 million Saudi riyals ($13.5 million), a 95% decrease from $1.02 billion a year earlier, according to the Saudi General Statistics Office. Meanwhile, trade between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, is on the rise, having almost doubled since January 2020.
It should be noted that Cairo openly and actively supports the position of the Gulf states in their confrontation with Ankara, with which Egypt’s relations have recently deteriorated sharply. Most Egyptians, writes the newspaper Al Ahram, are well aware of Erdogan’s unkind intentions toward their country, and they do not care about reconciliation with Turkey as long as he remains in power, because that would be an undeserved reward for a regime that has contributed to instability in their country. Many believe that the Turkish regime must pay for the thousands of Egyptian lives lost in the brutal war on terrorism that has been going on since 2013 and even before, and in which the Turkish regime plays an important role in fueling, supporting and harboring the very terrorists who organized the attacks. The blood of thousands of Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and Iraqis, as well as of Kurds, is on the hands of the Erdogan regime, the newspaper continues. This is apart from the thousands of members of the Turkish opposition who were killed or wounded during his dark rule. Accordingly, the Egyptian public is not interested in improving relations with Turkey as long as the current regime remains in power. Erdoğan’s plans also fail to take into account the Egyptian government’s counter-strategy, which over the past seven years has included major economic and military reforms that have quite literally catapulted both the Egyptian army and the economy to new highs.
In addition, Egypt, which in this case is supported by the Gulf states, has made strong alliances with Greece and Cyprus, two countries that are considered enemies of the Turkish regime. It is also expanding its alliances with Jordan and Iraq and strengthening its ties with Egypt’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Cairo has also developed stronger ties with European opponents of the Erdogan regime, such as France, Austria and other countries that have been visibly adamant against the Turkish regime’s Islamist policies.
These steps on the economic front culminated in the creation of the Cairo-based East Med Gas Forum, whose members are all Eastern Mediterranean countries, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but excluding Turkey. This move left Erdogan in a bind, as his regime said it would not recognize the forum. To his great disappointment, however, this gas forum was a quick success and was recognized by the United Nations, with the European Union and the United States as permanent observers. Erdogan faces European economic and diplomatic sanctions, threats of sanctions from the United States and deteriorating diplomatic relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors. “He is trying to extend an olive branch tainted by the blood spilled by his regime,” notes the Saudi newspaper Agab News. “That overdue proposal, however, will not be met with much interest or enthusiasm by either Egypt or the Gulf states. They have no real interest in providing sustenance for the ailing regime that has destroyed the Turkish economy and helped create chaos in the Middle East. The fact that the Turkish president is now capitulating, stopping his incessant empty threats and getting off his high horse, stating that there have been “misunderstandings” with the Arab world since 2013, is simply evidence of the Arabs’ political and diplomatic victories.”
Commentators in Saudi Arabia and Iran see Turkey’s desperate maneuvers and Erdogan personally regarding the Persian Gulf and Egypt as an attempt to compensate for its cold relations with the new Joe Biden administration in Washington, which so far have not worked out. Erdogan is also trying to distance himself from Iran in order to somewhat appease Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But there are objective factors here, which lie in the rivalry between the two countries in Syria and Iraq.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science in the UAE, recently tweeted that Erdogan needs to fulfill certain obligations before he can reconcile with the Persian Gulf states. These include ending the occupation of Syria and Iraq, withdrawing its mercenaries from Libya, refusing to support the Muslim Brotherhood (formation banned in Russia) and incitement against the stability of Egypt, apologizing for the attack on the Saudi leadership, immediately withdrawing his forces from the Persian Gulf and revising plans for Ottoman expansion. By “his (i.e. Turkish) forces in the Persian Gulf,” Abdulla means the Turkish military base in Qatar, established during the Qatar crisis, which Erdogan considers a strong bargaining chip in negotiations with the Arab leadership of the region.
There is skepticism in many Gulf circles suggesting that Erdogan simply wants the Gulf and Arab countries to accept his occupation in Syria, the military incursions into Iraq, and the infiltration of his supporters, whom they call terrorists, into Libya. That is why recent statements by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh about the possible restoration of Syria’s position in the Arab world were seen by Turkey as an unwanted response to Erdoğan’s interference in Syria. Regarding Libya, the position of Saudi Arabia and the UAE insists on an international effort to expel the terrorist mercenaries Erdoğan brought in at the time. Incidentally, the Gulf countries fully share Egypt’s position on arrangements in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Cairo and Ankara have serious disagreements.
These are essential prerequisites for starting full-fledged diplomatic negotiations with Turkey in order to restore normal relations. The Persian Gulf believes that as long as Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, there can be no normal relations between them. That is their basic principle that cannot be dismissed. Media reports of Turkey’s alleged reconciliation with the Persian Gulf states, disseminated by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the region, keep surfacing. But the Persian Gulf media, which closely reflect the views of their governments, hardly support this idea, and a possible rapprochement in the near future is still far from what Turkish officials have been saying.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.