Turkey’s Regional Relations Reset Falls Short
Ankara has backed away from its more aggressive foreign policy amid domestic economic strain
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt to reset relations with neighboring rivals in the Middle East is being met with a lukewarm response as his domestic popularity continues to decline.
Ankara has publicly said it wants to improve ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia while a diplomatic trip is planned for early May to Egypt with the same aim.
However, countries in the region have had mixed reactions to Turkey’s overtures.
The Turkish state news agency reported on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia would be closing eight Turkish state-run schools in the kingdom, two days after Erdoğan’s top aide said he hoped ties with Riyadh could be repaired.
Ankara suffered a similar embarrassment in March when it announced talks had resumed with Egypt but a report from Egypt’s state news agency downplayed the importance of the communication.
“They feel kind of annoyed and frankly frightened by Erdoğan,” said Atilla Yeşilada, an Istanbul-based economist. “Erdoğan to them is a dangerous revolutionary who likes to meddle in other people’s business.”
For Egypt, the danger is members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian journalists who have found a safe haven in Turkey away from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime.
Egyptian journalists based in Turkey reportedly have been told by Ankara to mute their criticism of Sisi, who came into power after the military toppled a Muslim Brotherhood-backed president.
However, Yeşilada told The Media Line that Ankara hasn’t stopped the work of the top people in the Muslim Brotherhood, and Arab countries are weary of assuming Ankara would limit the group’s influence if a deal were brokered.
Yeşilada believes Erdoğan would wait until the summer to see how the tourism season unfolds before deciding whether to expel members of the Muslim Brotherhood to curry favor with Egypt.
Arab countries like Egypt would be lucrative sources of foreign direct investment, something Turkey’s economy has strongly relied on for growth but which is currently lacking.
The Turkish president is keenly aware of the political impact of the economy after his party’s defeat in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race was partly blamed on the country’s poor finances.
A survey by the Turkish research company Metropoll released on Wednesday showed Erdoğan’s disapproval rating has risen to 51.6%, an increase of nearly 5%.
“He really needs to do something to regain his groove this year,” Yeşilada said. “Social turmoil, early elections, a split in the party, anything can happen.”
That sense of emergency was clear when Erdoğan announced a countrywide lockdown starting Thursday that will last until May 17.
The country has some of the highest daily COVID-19 case counts in the world and a continuing surge threatens to put a major dent in tourism, a crucial sector of the economy.
The struggling economy also has forced Turkey to push to warm relations with the European Union, which were at a low point due to competition with Greece over maritime rights in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Turkey knows that it needs capital inflow and the EU is still the biggest investor in Turkey,” said Hürcan Asli Aksoy, the deputy head of the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The need for improved relations was especially felt after several of Ankara’s regional rivals, including Egypt, Greece and Israel, agreed to cooperate in exporting gas to Europe.
Many analysts believe Turkey has, in turn, felt boxed in and its feeling of isolation has only been exacerbated by its unilateral aggressive foreign policy in Syria and Libya, where it has sent forces or supported those in the country.
Aksoy said that Egypt seems to be the most open to improving ties but, even so, Ankara is the more enthusiastic partner.
Overtures to Israel have been met with much more silence.
Aksoy said Turkey used to be the only majority Muslim country to have good ties with Israel, which is mostly surrounded by foes and which made having a regional power on its side beneficial.
That reality has changed as Israel has agreed to normalize ties with several Arab countries while at the same time accusing Ankara of supporting Hamas.
Erdoğan at the end of last year said he wanted to improve relations and reportedly named an ambassador to Israel after recalling Ankara’s top diplomat to the country in 2018.
But Aksoy said a more right-wing bent in domestic politics for both countries has made the prospect of better relations more difficult.
“You can see Turkey has lost its attractiveness to Israel,” she said.