A major reason for why Turkey has recently approached Saudi Arabia and Egypt is how Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions have backfired. If Erdogan’s plan was to stretch Turkish zone of influence from the Gulf/the Middle East to Africa, its aggressive and antagonistic pursuits have largely left it isolated in the region. With its economy almost exhausted, and its foreign policy options, particularly Erdogan’s favourite option of increasingly utilising Turkish armed forces to pursue foreign policy objectives in foreign territories, reaching its limits, the Erdogan regime has been forced to take a step back and reorient its trajectory. At the same time, the Middle East itself is undergoing a significant change. Besides the UAE and Israel alliance, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have approached, and there is a visible change of tone in Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran as well. The need to reorient relations with the erstwhile rivals in the Middle East has been duly reinforced by the way the Biden administration has simply refused to treat Turkey as an indispensable partner. Turkey, for the/NATO, is very much expendable, a reality that has forced itself upon Erdogan in a very discomforting way.
This is evident from the fact that all rapprochement efforts have originated from Ankara rather than Riyadh or Cairo. What also reveals weak Turkish position is how Turkey has so far failed to achieve a breakthrough with Saudia, although the latter has agreed to continue talks with Ankara in the near future. The failure is evident from a Saudi affirmation to implement their decision to shut down Turkish schools operating in various Saudi cities. This is despite Turkish efforts to convince the Saudi authorities to reverse their decision. The decision to shut down schools not only reflects the gulf that today exists between the two countries, but is also a part of Saudi campaign to boycott Turkish products in Saudi Arabia. This has already led to a humongous decrease in Turkish exports to Saudia. Whereas the year 2020 saw an overall 24 per cent decrease from US$3.1 billion to US$2.3 billion, in January 2021 Turkish exports fell by 92% from US$290 million to just US$21 million. Therefore, with Turkey at the receiving end of its aggressive pursuits vis-à-vis the Kingdom, the latter is quite likely to mould bi-lateral talks in ways where it can use Turkish weak position to its advantage; hence, weak prospects of a real breakthrough between two erstwhile rivals.
As far as Turkey’s overtures to Egypt are concerned, the fact that Ankara has moved from calling Egypt’s al-Sisi a “tyrant” to pursuing a ‘positive agenda’ reveals Turkey’s moves to reset its ties completely with Cairo, although the latter, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has shown only a lukewarm response so far. Moving from vowing to “never talking” to al-Sisi, the Erdogan regime has called for the “opening a new chapter” in their bi-lateral ties. It has already led Ankara to take a series of high-profile steps to meet key Egyptian demands with respect to limiting the activities of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist opposition figures who had taken up residence in Turkey following the 2013 coup. This is addition to how Turkey has asked three of Egyptian opposition channels based in Istanbul to tone down their criticism of the Egyptian regime. There is as such a growing acceptability of al-Sisi in Turkey. This acceptance, however, is not a result of Erdogan’s sudden change of heart, but has its roots in wider regional geo-politics.
To a significant extent, Turkey’s resumption of diplomatic contacts with Egypt after a gap of almost 8 years since the military coup that overthrew Morsi’s elected government in Cairo 2013, reflects an on-going Turkish bid to woo Egypt into a deal with Ankara with regards to the control and share of resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, a region that Turkey once through it could keep under its control arbitrarily. While a deal with Turkey could allow Cairo to add up to 21,500 square kilometres to its EEZ, advancing Egypt’s ambitions of becoming a regional hub from which to export its gas to global markets, it remains that both Ankara and Cairo are still quite far from reaching a maritime demarcation deal that would bring about a new balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only because both countries continue to remain suspicious of each other and there is a long-standing mistrust between Erdogan and al-Sisi, but also because neither of the two leaders would want to be seen as being the first to back down. On top it is the fact that Egypt will also not want to jeopardize the major economic aid it receives from its Gulf partners, including Saudia, which strongly oppose Turkey and are themselves far from a full normalisation.
For the Erdogan regime, changing the course of its policy is extremely crucial. While Saudia and Cairo may have their own reasons to encourage rapprochement from a position of strength only, it remains that the Erdogan regime is hard-pressed by the fast changing domestic economic and political realities that demand a meaningful change on the external front, one that would help the regime more closely manage its domestic challenges.
One of the biggest challenges for Erdogan is its fast eroding popularity. At the last 2018 general election, the AKP scored 42.56% of the vote, while the MHP, its coalition partner, won 11.1%. By February this year, as polls indicate, these shares had fallen to around 29% for the AKP and 7% for the MHP. Under Turkey’s current electoral rules, parties with less than 10% are eliminated, creating the prospect of a major electoral defeat for Erdogan’s People’s Alliance (AKP + MHP) in the next election, a possibility that Erdogan is trying to arrest not only through his ‘new’ economic reforms package, but also through a thorough recalibration of Ankara’s ties with two of its most important rivals in the Middle East and North Africa.
While a major breakthrough is still not in sight, it remains that a thaw with Egypt and Saudi Arabia could still give Erdogan just enough leeway to consolidate his fast declining political fortunes. This thaw is going to have serious implications for how Ankara and Cairo have been resisting each other in Libya. A thaw would allow Ankara to shift its focus away from external tussles to the challenge of winning next elections.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.