Turkey realigns its relations with Egypt and its rivals in the Gulf

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Turkey realigns its relations with Egypt and its rivals in the Gulf


Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish and Egyptian officials will meet around a table on Tuesday amid a thaw in relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbors after nearly a decade of mutual mistrust and often outright hostility.
The Ankara meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers is the second round of Turkey-Egypt talks after the Cairo summit in May, which was the first direct high-level talks between the countries since 2013.

The contact is the latest between Turkey and the Arab states with which it fell out following the Arab Spring of 2011, which saw anti-government movements in the Middle East and North Africa overthrow a number of leaders of the long-standing and threatening others.

Turkey, which has supported groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood, saw its chance to seize a leading role in the region and pressured Arab regimes to reform in the face of popular protest.

Instead, many of those she supported suffered setbacks and Ankara found herself isolated.

Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Sanad Loza, left, meets with Turkish counterpart Sedat Ona, right, at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo, Egypt, May 5, 2021 [File: Mohamed Hossam/EPA]

In Egypt, a rift widened between the two countries in 2013 when military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and ally of Turkey.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also became strong rivals to Turkey, as both saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their ruling dynasties.

Differences with the Saudis were highlighted following the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pointed the finger at the inner circle of de facto Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).

Turkey also became involved in the civil war in Libya in 2019, supporting the UN-recognized administration in Tripoli while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia supported the other side.

An Egyptian, Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini blockade against Turkey’s ally Qatar from 2017 also added to tensions with Ankara. The resolution of the Gulf crisis earlier this year removed a major obstacle to reconciling divisions.

Last week, Erdogan spoke by phone with UAE chief Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, two weeks after welcoming the UAE’s national security adviser.

Although Erdogan and the Saudi crown prince have yet to speak directly, the Turkish president discussed improving relations with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in May.

Post-Arab Spring “Aggressive” Approach

Analysts said a change in the dynamics of the region created an atmosphere of rapprochement between Ankara and its former adversaries.

“After the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the mood was completely different,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute. “The threat perception of Arab regimes had peaked, popular uprisings were overthrowing autocratic regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood was on the rise. “

This led to the adoption of an “aggressive and security-oriented approach” which saw Turkey as a major threat, she added.

Signs of a US withdrawal from the region, evidenced by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, also shattered confidence in Washington’s regional role.

Combined with the realization that aggressive foreign policy ventures after the Arab Spring were not working, this led the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians to take a more diplomatic approach.

“Now they’re thinking, ‘OK, we live in an area where the United States isn’t going to be present and the security-focused approach hasn’t produced the results we wanted,’” said Tol.

Change of mentality

The Arab trio are also less concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood than in the early 2010s, Tol continued, adding that “the whole mentality in the region has changed.”

Eyup Ersoy, a member of the international relations faculty at Ahi Evran University, said Turkey had “given up on its steadfast support for the Muslim Brotherhood and was less vocal on the issue.”

Removing a “fairly difficult” rival coalition would give Turkey more leeway in the region and recognize its “regional influence,” Ersoy added, as well as eliminate the prospect of “endless conflicts by power of attorney ”.

Better relations with Cairo and Abu Dhabi would also further isolate Greece, Turkey’s traditional rival in the eastern Mediterranean, he said.

Economic factors have also weighed heavily on the economies of the coronavirus-hit region and better relations are expected to lead to improved trade and higher levels of investment, experts said.

“The increase in investments, especially from the Gulf, will be very important for Turkey given the stagnation of the national economy and the chronic current account deficit,” Ersoy said.

While it is likely that there will be an increase in regional cooperation between the four, some degree of competition and mistrust will remain.

In particular, the personal animosities that have built up over the years would make it difficult to return to normalcy and may be limited to defusing their rivalry, said Galip Dalay, a researcher at the German Institute for Political and Security Affairs.

“This is most evident in Libya, where none of them have really changed their position but they are not actively stepping up,” he said.

Referring to Erdogan’s demonization of el-Sisi after the latter’s overthrow of Morsi, Dalay added, “Shaking Sissi’s hand or even having a picture with Sissi would be very difficult psychologically and politically for Erdogan.

Meanwhile, Tol highlighted the antagonism between Erdogan and the Saudi prince.

“MBS will not forget what Turkey did with Khashoggi,” she said. “The era that began with the Arab uprisings has been so traumatic and difficult for these regimes and the way Turkey has behaved during this period has left a mark that will not go away easily. “



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