This year marked the start of a gradual shift in Turkey’s regional foreign policy. After having played a proactive and assertive role in the broader Mediterranean in recent years, Ankara has adopted a less confrontational stance, as it has turned increasingly aware of the need to break its regional isolation and to make friends again. International, regional, and domestic developments have led Turkey to open new channels of dialogue with its neighbours in an attempt to defuse tensions and repair relations. At the international level, the arrival of the new Biden administration in Washington, promoting a “diplomacy first” approach in foreign policy along with a less conciliatory attitude towards Trump’s laissez faire approach as regards Middle Eastern rivalries, indirectly paved the way for a readjustment in regional countries’ stance. The latter indeed were keen to present themselves to the new US President as stabilisation promoters as well as reconciliation-oriented players. Turkey was no exception, although the task was extremely challenging, due to the number of setbacks that have characterised its relations with the United States in recent years.
Against this backdrop, the Al-Ula accord, which favoured the full restoration of diplomatic and economic relations between Qatar and the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) after a three-and-half-year blockade was the first concrete step in the ongoing process of regional readjustments. Starting from the Gulf, normalisation efforts have gradually involved other countries in the region, in which an increasing sense of conflict fatigue has also emerged after years of confrontation and expensive proxy wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The disruption of economic activities and trade due to the pandemic and the need for recovery also played as an incentive to explore ways to overcome regional crises and disputes. Doha’s rapprochement with Riyadh and, to a lesser extent, with Abu Dhabi set in motion a redefinition of geopolitical dynamics, paving the way for a gradual downscaling of competition between the Qatar-Turkey axis and the Quartet. In this evolving context, Ankara also took steps to gradually recalibrate its military-based policy and reset relations with its main Arab competitors.
Beyond international and regional shifting dynamics, Turkey’s militarised foreign action along with regional isolation also proved to be barely sustainable. In fact, domestic public opinion hardly supported Ankara’s interventionist foreign policy. While there was a cross-the-board consensus on military operations in Syria, it was hard for the Turkish people to see a threat to their national security in distant crises, such as in Libya. In addition, economic considerations emerged, as Turkey could not sustain the economic cost of both geopolitical tensions and its activism in the region. Against the backdrop of a precarious economic situation – mainly related to its weak national currency combined with an increasingly high inflation rate that has driven up living costs in the country – a change of course in regional relations emerged as the main viable option. Undoubtedly, economic pragmatism plays a significant role in Turkey’s attempts to mend its ties with old partners in the region and beyond.
Over the year, Ankara has addressed its diplomatic efforts mainly to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, reaching mixed results thus far. Two rounds of talks with Egypt have reopened bilateral contacts after an eight-year-long break. However, though the “two sides affirmed their willingness to take further steps … and agreed to continue consultations,” the path to reconciliation seems to be long still and a full restoration of bilateral ties is unlikely to be reached soon. Distance between Turkish and Egyptian leaderships is still large, though it may not be as unbridgeable over time. Since the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s former President Mohamed Morsi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his homologue Abdel Fatah al-Sisi haven’t spared each other mutual accusations. Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the region represents one of the main bones of contention, especially after Istanbul turned into a regional safe haven for the movement’s exiled members. While for Egypt Turkey ought to make concessions first, both sides would have good reasons to find a compromise in their bilateral disputes, from Libya to the Eastern Mediterranean gas. Beyond diplomatic strains, however, bilateral trade has continued to flourish, though there is much room for improvement. With over 100 million people, the Egyptian market is very promising, and the country may also serve as a gateway to reach other large markets in Africa. Moreover, from a Turkish perspective, Egypt could represent a good alternative to diversify its gas supply, especially for GNL, and to reduce its heavy dependence on Russia. However, it would be unlikely to expect developments on the issue of gas wherein Turkey-Egypt bilateral talks would only be one aspect of a wider and complex regional game that also includes the redefinition of disputed maritime borders. While channels of dialogue remain open, many knots have to be untied and significant steps forward in Turkish-Egyptian bilateral relations are unlikely for the time being.
Conversely, a different story comes from the United Arab Emirates. Surprisingly, what was once seen as Turkey’s main regional rival turned out to be the first country to reset ties with Ankara. The recent meeting between UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and President Erdogan in Turkey, the first in nearly a decade, set the seal on a process that had started months ago and marked a turning point after a long rift that saw the two countries on the opposite sides of main regional conflicts. Undoubtedly, economic interests were the main driving force behind reconciliation. While Abu Dhabi is increasingly betting on economic diplomacy to foster its post-pandemic recovery, Ankara is looking for new investments and economic partners. During the visit, dozens of cooperation agreements – including in energy, trade, and environment – were signed. Furthermore, the UAE allocated a $10 billion fund for strategic investments in Turkey. Talks about a possible swap agreement between central banks have also been reported. It would not be the first time that Turkey seeks swap deals to build reserves and support a falling lira, amid a currency crisis (in those days alone the national currency dropped by 15%). In 2020, for example, a swap agreement worth $15 billion was signed with Qatar. As Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is expected to travel to UAE in December, further steps are likely to be taken over the next months to strengthen the renewed partnership, with implications that may also affect the region’s geopolitical balance. While it remains to be seen how this rapprochement will affect Turkey’s reconciliation efforts with other regional players, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel, geopolitical and economic considerations would suggest that Turkey has many stakes in continuing on this path in 2022, however difficult that might be.