Rather than establishing still closer ties with Arab countries, Turkey has now become Saudi Arabia and the UAEʹs fiercest rival when it comes to regional dominance and the leadership of the Sunni world. Turkey’s expanding military influence is raising fears in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, where memories of colonial rule under the Ottomans run deep.

Indeed Turkey’s inability to cement its influence throughout the Arab world points to the need to be on good terms with Saudi Arabia. Jordan, where Turkey has failed to sustain a limited free-trade agreement, is a case in point. To make matters worse, improved relations between Israel and the Gulf states are contributing to Turkey’s deepening fears of isolation.

It remains to be seen how Turkey will handle the recent crisis with the Saudis over the Khashoggi murder and how successfully it will balance multiple conflicting goals with Gulf Arab countries, which, despite their many political differences, remain the major investors in Turkey. 

The Turkish Investment Promotion and Development Agency estimated that the value of Gulf investments in Turkey is $19 billion, accounting for 9.4% of all foreign investment. Saudi Arabia is a major market for Turkish companies, while over half a million Saudi tourists visit Turkey every year.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry talks to reporters during a joint press conference with UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa after their meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo on 5 July 2017, discussing the Gulf diplomatic crisis with Qatar, as Doha called for dialogue to resolve the dispute (photo: picture alliance/Zumapress/APA Images/Stranger)
Failure to join the club: "rather than establishing closer ties with Arab countries, Turkey has become Saudi Arabia and the UAEʹs fiercest rival when it comes to regional dominance and leadership of the Sunni world. Turkey’s inability to cement its influence throughout the Arab world points to the need to be on good terms with Saudi Arabia. To make matters worse, improved relations between Israel and the Gulf states are contributing to Turkey’s deepening fears of isolation," writes Salacanin

Erdogan needs to turn a new page

Turkey's failure to establish better relations with the Arab countries is seen by many as a strong blow to its soft-power agenda and neo-Ottoman dreams.

Preferring to remain anonymous, one academic source claims that Erdogan and Davutoglu have never pursued a neo-Ottoman agenda, their emphasis being pan-Islamist instead. He continues "this neo-Ottomanist discourse is very Western and purely uninformed. Erdogan is becoming increasingly ʹnationalistʹ; his foreign policy resembles Turkey’s foreign policy of the early and mid-1990s. The Islamist element was severely weakened, if not extinguished, in September/August 2015!"

Professor Colakoglu, on the other hand, adds that as long as the AKP government sustains its Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Islamist policy, any normalisation of relations with Cairo and Riyadh in particular is likely to remain a pipe dream. According to our anonymous source"no Arab government except perhaps Qatar and secretly Oman wants to touch Erdogan’s Turkey with a barge pole, but I suspect the Muslim Sunni masses will continue to love him – especially Ihvan supporters."

Professor Colakoglu is also of the opinion that Islamist foreign policy is not a fully fledged strategy; compared with the Kemalist foreign policy, it lacks the necessary practice on the ground. Ever since the AKP switched ideologies – from Muslim democracy to political Islam – in 2011, introducing hard power tactics to replace its soft power policies, Turkey has been losing ground. These days, the AKP government is promoting a more pragmatic road map for its Middle East policy, consisting of a blend of Islamist and Kemalist emphases. Should Ankara follow Kemalist foreign policy guidelines, Turkey might stand a chance of normalising its relations with other actors in the region.

Moreover, since Turkey’s economic realities depend on the free market economy, its deep-rooted affiliation with Western institutions such as NATO, the EU, and the Council of Europe is likely to push Ankara to remain loyal to its pro-West axis in the long run. All indicators point to Erdogan returning to the fold sooner or later.

Stasa Salacanin

© Qantara.de 2019

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Comments for this article: Erdogan's geopolitical nightmare

The west has been waiting for years for Erdogan to return but the only thing that happens is he is going further away and more importantly the Turkish people have developed such anti-west feelings that it will be hard to reverse. It is time for the West to admit that Turkey is not a reliable ally and build plan B to mitigate risks.

Jefferson18.02.2019 | 17:05 Uhr