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What did Turkiye gain from normalising its regional relations?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) is welcomed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) on September 19, 2021 [TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) is welcomed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) on September 19, 2021 [TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish foreign policy during the era of the Justice and Development party witnessed several stages of change, primarily coinciding with, and influenced by, local and regional developments. However, the last few years have shown it to be as if it has become a daily policy that is closer to reactions than to a fixed policy based on a clear vision. It is true that the liquidity of the situation in the region – and more recently the world – has a prominent role in this, but it is neither the only reason, nor the logical explanatory framework for this.

In 2016, for many reasons, challenges, and crises at home and abroad, Ankara raised the slogan of "more friends and fewer opponents", but it remained a slogan that did not materialise, especially since other regional parties did not interact with it as Turkiye had expected and wanted.

In fact, the following years brought deeper polarisation between Turkey and a number of regional parties, especially some Arab Gulf States, against the background of the crisis of the siege on Qatar and the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean and developments in Libya, Iraq, etc.

READ: Swedish Supreme Court rejects Turkiye's extradition request

Since the beginning of 2020, there has been talk about normalising relations and calming differences, but this time not only by Turkiye, but by various parties, and for very many reasons. The two most important reasons are first, the desire of the US to reduce the intensity of the dispute among its allies in the region and increase reliance on them in resolving regional files and, second, the economic crisis that affected everyone on the side-lines of the previous global economic crisis, then the repercussions of the Covid pandemic and, recently, the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Hence, Ankara has taken clear steps and, perhaps, even leaps towards several countries and parties in the region that were considered during the past decade regional rivals and opponents, most notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel, along with Armenia and Greece.

However, what distinguished this path of rapprochement with the aforementioned parties was that it showed Turkiye as the most in need of calm, dialogue and rapprochement and the most desiring of it. This was reflected, in the form, style and discourse, at the very least, with a sense of urgency under conditions that were not actually encouraging, as was the case with its steps towards Israel, which was clearly facing a problem of governmental instability and would most likely go to new elections (that could change the entire ruling coalition), which is what ended up happening.

On the other hand, it seemed that Ankara was the only one who paid the price for this rapprochement or the greater share of it, which happened in the case of Egypt with the opposition media operating on Turkish soil, as well as in the case of Saudi Arabia, with the Khashoggi file. I emphasise that that is what the situation appeared to be, or the impression generated by many and, perhaps, the other parties were keen to highlight it, despite the fact that the course of calm and rapprochement is preceded with the desire, will and efforts of the various parties, and for common and similar reasons as previously mentioned.

Is Israel angry with Qatar and Turkey's growing relationship?

Is Israel angry with Qatar and Turkey's growing relationship? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Although it is still early to assess the results of the path that is still being followed, we can say that Turkiye gained the relief of external pressures on it, and the tone of the regional parties towards it seemed less severe and harsh than before, especially since the path came in light of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, which turned into a war that raised the value of the roles played by Ankara, and increased its importance in the eyes of the West, in general, and the US, in particular. This is in addition to the urgent need for it in the security systems emerging regionally and internationally after the war.

On the economic front, which is most important in Turkiye's opinion, according to the locally promoted narrative, it seems that the return is still much lower than expected. It is true that it witnessed some positive developments, such as Saudi Arabia's lifting of the travel ban on Turkiye, in addition to the promises of Emirati investments, but it seems that the return is much less than what was anticipated or predicted.

This shows that the Turkish predictions about the pros of the path and its economic returns was not accurate, that the main motive for it was political and not economic, to begin with, that things did not go as Ankara wanted and planned, or all of the above.

Originally, the expectation for a rapid increase in trade exchange with the mentioned parties was not logical nor was the agreement with Israel regarding gas, as expected. Even increasing investments, which is the best tool for Ankara as it meets the needs of its economy, was not expected to be provided by the mentioned Gulf countries quickly and/or without a political price. It is understood that the path of normalisation and calm is based on avoiding the controversial files temporarily and not resolving them, in addition to the fact that the concerned countries did not change their visions and strategies in the region.

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Therefore, it was not expected that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, would pump hard currency into the Turkish economy, which would certainly be a supportive factor for Erdogan ahead of the elections, so far, as of writing this article, these counties have not presented any strong indications or evidence that its views for its foreign policy have changed or that they made any deal with him that would include their support for him through investments.

In conclusion, although it is still too early to judge the path of peace in the region, specifically between Turkiye and a number of regional parties, the assessments that accompanied it in its early days over-estimated the return from it, especially on the economic level. We say this while we realise that the entire path is not guaranteed to continue in the long term, as it is subject to several developments, including the American position and the regional axis to be formed in the face of Iran, and so on. This prompts caution in assessment, prediction and foresight, in light of the state of regional liquidity that pushes for foreign policies closer to them being on a daily-basis, once again.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 18 July 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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