Erdogan’s War With Arab Monarchies Is Over

With its economy in a tailspin, Turkey is repairing ties with former enemies in the region.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
An electronic sign displays a message in Arabic welcoming the Turkish president in UAE, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, on February 14, 2022.
An electronic sign displays a message in Arabic welcoming the Turkish president in UAE, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, on February 14, 2022.
An electronic sign displays a message in Arabic welcoming the Turkish president in UAE, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, on February 14, 2022. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

With inflation at a 20-year high, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned to foreign policy to help pull his economy out of a tailspin. Erdogan has been reaching out to ideological foes in the Middle East in the hopes that their investments can revive a plummeting lira, reduce unemployment, and ultimately ensure his return to power in Turkey’s 2023 elections. 

Over the last few months Ankara has eased ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most prominently, the United Arab Emirates. He was welcomed in the Emirates in mid-February with all the pomp reserved for close friends. Burj Khalifa in Dubai was lit in the colors of the Turkish flag with “hos geldiniz” (Turkish for “welcome”) projected on it. During his visit, 13 agreements, including on military and security issues, were signed. It was a surprisingly warm reception for the leader of a nation that, until recently, had been accused by the host government of pursuing hostile policies. 

Turkey and the UAE backed opposing sides in various recent crises and conflicts in the Middle East, with each eying to further its ideology and influence. They were engaged in a ferocious proxy battle as Turkey backed political Islamists to the hilt and the UAE was determined to discredit and destroy them. 

With inflation at a 20-year high, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned to foreign policy to help pull his economy out of a tailspin. Erdogan has been reaching out to ideological foes in the Middle East in the hopes that their investments can revive a plummeting lira, reduce unemployment, and ultimately ensure his return to power in Turkey’s 2023 elections. 

Over the last few months Ankara has eased ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most prominently, the United Arab Emirates. He was welcomed in the Emirates in mid-February with all the pomp reserved for close friends. Burj Khalifa in Dubai was lit in the colors of the Turkish flag with “hos geldiniz” (Turkish for “welcome”) projected on it. During his visit, 13 agreements, including on military and security issues, were signed. It was a surprisingly warm reception for the leader of a nation that, until recently, had been accused by the host government of pursuing hostile policies. 

Turkey and the UAE backed opposing sides in various recent crises and conflicts in the Middle East, with each eying to further its ideology and influence. They were engaged in a ferocious proxy battle as Turkey backed political Islamists to the hilt and the UAE was determined to discredit and destroy them. 

Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated Islamists in various Arab uprisings stems from his ideological convictions and his general desire to expand Turkey’s influence across the Middle East. His opponents often said he harbored fantasies of returning Turkey to its former role as regional hegemon during the Ottoman sultanate. 

Turkey’s allied Islamists, however, threatened not just dictators but also the monarchs of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. To undo their rise, the UAE supported Egyptian field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi; backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar against Turkey; supported political Islamists in Tripoli, Libya; and softened its stand toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib, Syria. Last week, the UAE became the first Arab country to officially host Assad since the onset of Syrian uprising. 

Turkey’s recent rapprochements are a quiet admission of the decline of political Islamism and an acknowledgement of its own regional limits. After a decade of trying to reshape the Middle East, both Turkey and the UAE can claim victories in their rivalry. (Turkey succeeded in securing a rebel-held enclave in Idlib that works as a de facto buffer between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, who it sees as a threat to Turkish security. Turkey also dug in its heels in Libya and intervened militarily to prevent Haftar’s military victory.) Both sides are now ready to take a new look at their relationship. The UAE is mostly motivated by its desire to build regional cooperation to oppose Iran and diversify its largely fossil fuel-based economy. 

Erdogan is essentially motivated by economic concerns. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies—a Washington-based research institute—said for Erdogan, the shift in policy is primarily aimed at winning the next election. “Erdogan hoped that a detente with the UAE would attract Emirati as well as other foreign capital to Turkey in the runup to the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023,” Erdemir said. 

The Turkish lira has lost nearly half of its value while inflation jumped to 54 percent in February and unemployment rose to a staggering 11.2 percent in late 2021. Public anger has been growing, and Erdogan desperately needs to assuage a burgeoning youth population across the ideological aisles before he goes to the polls. To replenish state coffers, he needs urgent investments, for which he requires sheikhs with deep pockets. Following his visit to Turkey late last year, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan pledged $10 billion in investments and a nearly $5 billion swap deal in local currencies to bolster Turkey’s dwindling foreign currency.

Despite antagonism between Turkey and several Persian Gulf monarchies, the region contributed 7 percent of foreign direct investment in Turkey compared to 8 percent by the much bigger U.S. economy. At a time when the Turkish economy is in turmoil, the shift in policy made sense. But for Erdogan, the distance between rivalry and regional cooperation was determined by the need for self-preservation. However, the UAE’s policy is mainly driven by political imperatives. “Abu Dhabi, threatened by the growing Iranian hegemony in the region, saw detente with Turkey as a cost-effective way to build a counterweight to Tehran,” Erdemir said. 

An improvement in ties will allow both nations to put hostilities on the back burner and address more important issues, including the debilitating economic cost inflicted by the pandemic. “This will allow both leaders to focus their energies and resources on more immediate challenges,” Erdemir said. But he added that cordial relations between Turkey and the UAE will lower tensions in various theaters where the two nations are locked in bitter proxy struggles—although only in the short term.

However, stronger economic ties will not translate into resolutions for any of the regional conflicts. They might only encourage more restraint and avoid escalation. “It doesn’t end all of the rivalries that still exist in places like Syria, Egypt, and Libya, but it means that Turkey is signaling it’s going to be more pragmatic,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and Africa analyst at Rane, a risk intelligence firm. 

Rapprochement certainly does not mean an end to the old conflict between political Islamists and monarchs or that Erdogan has abandoned his ideology. To the contrary, he has continued to fund the spread of political Islam through the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi, (TDV), a public foundation with a yearly budget of 1 billion Turkish liras. The TDV is tasked with building mosques and religious schools in foreign countries with the aim of promoting political Islam. It has reportedly been active in nearly 150 countries and has more than a thousand branches inside Turkey. In 2020, it funded more than 8,000 students and various organizations in many countries under various programs. 

On one hand, Erdogan has signed up for peace with its adversary, but on the other, he is carrying on with his project of spreading political Islam and creating the next generation of political Islamists to challenge regional monarchies. 

Erdemir added that Erdogan’s efforts to promote political Islam globally through the Directorate of Religious Affairs and Turkey’s various state and quasi-state aid agencies will continue. If he emerges victorious from the 2023 elections, “it is likely that he will return to pursuing an agenda shaped by political Islam,” Erdemir said. 

Bohl said that the core reasons for political Islam’s success in the Middle East remain in place. “With the collapse of democracy in Tunisia, the region is back to authoritarian leaders who rely on corruption and rentier approaches to govern,” Bohl said. “That will still drive disenchantment. People will want an alternative to these dictatorships.” 

A slew of social reforms undertaken in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are intended to tackle some of that disenchantment while investments in Turkey are a tool to create economic interdependence. The hope is that creating more constituencies with an interest in strong mutual ties will make it harder for Erdogan to adopt outright hostile policies in the future. In that way, the monarchs hope to earn some leverage over Turkey’s decision-making. Whether that will work in the long term is another question entirely.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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