The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we turn the spotlight on Turkey, as Erdogan recently visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in nearly five years. This is just the last step in Ankara’s renewed diplomatic dynamism at the regional level to relaunch its role.
Following Russia’s declaration of war against Ukraine on February 24th, the universe wherein Turkey had imagined its role and place in the world in recent years dramatically changed. Said universe was premised on the assumption of a multipolar world order where Ankara could attain its interests through a geopolitical balancing act between different centres of power, not least between Russia and the West.
Turkey has significantly recalibrated its foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. After having played a proactive role in the region, for over a year Ankara has gradually softened its assertive foreign policy, as it has grown increasingly aware of the need to defuse tensions, break out of its regional isolation, and mend fences with regional competitors due to international, regional, and domestic shifts.
The implications of the recent normalisation process between the UAE and Turkey will not be limited to the future regional balance of power. Over the last decade the two countries had expanded the competition arena beyond the traditional Middle East borders. Following the so-called Arab Spring, the two countries have exploited regional crisis and states' endemic fragility to boost their strategic positions. Accordingly, Turkey and UAE shifted competitive dynamics to third-party contexts.
Turkey’s newfound willingness to engage states it long antagonised, most notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel, holds the potential to lead to a reshuffling of international relations in the Middle East. Across the region, these developments could herald a further weakening of Sunni Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots, and could also buttress the anti-Iran partnership linking the Gulf states to Israel.
Turkey has launched a normalisation initiative with several countries with which it has had problematic relations for the last decade. Egypt has been one of them. The relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom after the toppling of then-President Mohammed Morsi by a coup in 2013. Turkey immediately became one of the staunchest critics of the coup and new President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and its leaders.
The war in Ukraine, where Ankara plays a mediation role between Moscow and Kyiv, may produce changes in Turkey’s international posture and relations. This comes at a time of recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy: the normalisation of diplomatic relations has become the main driver behind Ankara’s action in its neighbourhood, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The successful visit of Israel’s president Isaac Herzog to Turkey on March 9-10 has the potential to be the beginning of a new phase in Turkey-Israel relations. Herzog’s visit can be compared to two previous important visits of Israeli presidents to Turkey. One was the 1992 visit to Turkey by Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, which ushered in what was later termed as the “Golden era” of Turkey-Israel relations in the 1990s.
On Sunday 23 January, Turkish Cypriots will head to the polls in the parliamentary elections, following the resignation of the precarious nationalist right-wing coalition formed by the National Unity Party (Ulusal Birlik Partisi - UBP), Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti - DP) and Rebirth Party (Yeniden Doğuş Partisi - YDP). Turkish Cypriot parliamentary elections are held every five years, since the first election in 1976.
In recent years, Africa has become an arena for international competition in which global balances and hierarchies have been reshuffled. The US’ gradual retrenchment and China’s simultaneous explosive growth have left power vacuums that other players have tried to fill. Among these, Turkey has gained increasing influence. In Africa, the Anatolian country can afford to play a role that exceeds its actual capacity as an emerging mid-level power.
Greco-Turkish maritime disputes, couched in competing narratives of national sovereignties, are nothing new. Plus, it has also long been the case that the two sides cannot agree on a framework within which to address their disputes. In spite of the intermittent flare ups, these disputes have traditionally taken the form of a smouldering yet frozen conflict. Despite the relative respite in the tension since early 2021, this only came after a period of high tension in the Eastern Mediterranean between 2016 and 2020.
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.