After eight years of hostile relations with several nations across the Middle East, the Turkish government now appears to be investing heavily in diplomatic efforts to mend its strained ties with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, Israel.
In late August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as well as with UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Despite Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions to turn Turkey into the region’s leading power by dominating the Arab world, Ankara instead found itself politically isolated during and after the Arab Spring. This was largely due to its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now the question remains whether Turkey is prepared to abandon its ties with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in order to end its regional isolation and improve its relations with the Arab world.
In 2013, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power by the secular-dominated army. Turkey blasted the political changes in Egypt and refused to recognize Sisi’s legitimacy when he became the new Egyptian president.
Consequently, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador after accusing Turkey of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs. Egypt also recalled its own ambassador from Ankara. Egyptian-Turkish relations reached an all-time low while Ankara continued to insult and incite against the new Egyptian leader.
The political gulf between Turkey and much of the Arab world extended far beyond egos and personal vendettas. At its heart was a clash of ideologies. Turkey and Qatar believed it was in their interest to establish close ties with the subversive Muslim Brotherhood. By contrast, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia felt threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and actively fought against it.
“Turkey’s growing isolation and shrinking economy brought it to rethink its regional foreign policies,” Dr. Assa Ofir, an expert on Turkish affairs, told The Media Line.
In addition, Turkey is concerned about the emerging military alliance between Greece, key Sunni Arab states and Israel.
“Ankara is worried about the Hellenic alliance, it’s wary about Greece performing military drills with Emiratis and Saudis and it needs to revive investments in the Turkish economy from these countries. This is the background to what is happening today. Basically, Turkey would like to sabotage the Hellenic alliance and to stop it from growing,” Ofir said.
Ofir also believes that U.S. President Joe Biden’s cooler policy toward Turkey has forced Ankara to rethink its own regional policies.
“Erdoğan seems to be wary of [President Joe] Biden and his new policies toward Turkey. That’s what pushes him closer to Egypt and other Arab countries,” concluded Ofir.
Turkey gradually realized that its decision to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood came with a heavy political price. As a prerequisite for improved ties, Egypt demanded the extradition of Muslim Brotherhood leaders residing in Turkey. Fearing extradition to Egypt, several Muslim Brotherhood leaders appeared to be fleeing from Turkey in April 2021.
In the past, the Turkish government believed that it would strengthen its own position in the Middle East by striving to isolate the Jewish state in the region. Despite being a non-Arab state, Turkey presented itself as the natural leader of outdated pan-Arab causes, “defender” of Jerusalem and established strong ties with the radical terrorist organization Hamas, a Palestinian Arab offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
However, Turkey’s efforts to isolate Israel failed. Instead, Ankara increasingly found itself politically isolated and friendless in a rapidly changing Middle East.
The historic Abraham Accords in 2020 between Israel and four Arab states including the UAE, forced Turkey to dramatically rethink its previous hostile policies towards Israel. In December 2020, the Turkish leader Erdogan publicly called for improved ties with Israel and appointed a new ambassador to the Jewish state after ending a two-year political standoff with Jerusalem. Turkey is also increasingly interested in energy trade with Israel, which has emerged as a leading producer of natural gas.
Erdogan’s Turkey is conflicted between the country’s Islamic affiliation and the fear of being left out from the rapidly emerging new Middle Eastern alliances between the Sunni Arab world, Israel and Greece. Only time will tell what strategic direction Turkey will take.