Erdogan's geopolitical nightmare
Following the failure of EU accession talks and Erdogan’s realisation that the most Turkey could expect would be the unclear status of a satellite state, it turned to the East. The Turkish presidentʹs main foreign policy goals have been to establish friendly relations with all Muslim nations – particularly those in the Middle East – and bonding with the Sunni Arabs.
Indeed, relations improved considerably in the early 2000s under the rule of the Justice and Development Party – commonly known as the AKP. Professor Selcuk Colakoglu, director of the Ankara-based Turkish Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, agrees that the AKP’s foreign policy was utterly compatible with Turkey’s traditional pro-West foreign policy installed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
By 2010 the AKP government was engaged in positive relations with almost all the major Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Libya. The AKP even made positive amendments to Turkeyʹs Kemalist foreign policy tradition by attempting to foster relations with all its neighbours, including Greece, Armenia, and Syria. Ankara also made overtures towards global powers such as Russia and China, hopeful that soft power tactics would boost Turkey's status as a trading state.
Cold snap after the Arab spring
But the Turkish-Arab romance ended after the Arab Spring uprisings that led to the overthrow of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Turkey’s leadership welcomed the revolutions as firm supporters of political Islam, while most of the Gulf states except Qatar, saw the uprisings as a highly destabilising factor.
Turkey’s Islamist governmentʹs close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria caused a rift to develop between Ankara and other Arabic countries, with the exception of Qatar. Professor Colakoglu notes that these ties were not surprising: almost all Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist-affiliated political movements in the Arab world were aping Turkey’s AKP, in an attempt to gain power in their countries by democratic, peaceful means.
The rift between Turkey and the Arab states and specifically Saudi Arabia gradually deepened, prompted by the military coup in Egypt and the Qatar crisis. In October 2018, things finally came to a head following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.