A shifting geopolitical landscape has seen both Ankara and its former Gulf rivals rethink their policies toward each other.
Ties between Turkey and the Arab world are experiencing a major thaw in ties after years of tense relations – a swift rapprochement that has taken place within the span of a year.
On the back of attempts to mend relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt being pursued earlier this summer, the Middle East witnessed another seismic geopolitical shift after Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) decided to dispense with their differences and turn a new page in their bilateral relationship.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s (MBZ) visit to Ankara in November to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led to the announcement of a $10 billion fund for investments in Turkey including several agreements to boost cooperation across sectors like energy and health.
Then on Monday, before embarking on a two-day trip to Qatar, Erdogan said he welcomed “the reopening of dialogue and diplomatic efforts to avoid misunderstandings in the Gulf region”.
“We will continue to develop our relations with our Gulf brothers, without any distinction, within the framework of our common interests and mutual respect,” the Turkish president emphasised.
Ankara’s ties with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo were far from cordial in recent years.
After the failed coup of July 2016, Turkey pointed to the UAE’s collaboration in launching the aborted attempt.
Ties deteriorated further following the blockade of Turkey’s ally Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017.
Frosty Turkish-Saudi relations would take a nosedive after the murder of Saudi dissent Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.
Tensions continued to be fueled by each country’s involvement in regional conflicts and support to opposite parties. The Syrian civil war, the conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and the political transition in Tunisia all became avenues where confrontations were played out.
Last year, Turkey accused the UAE of destabilising the region with its involvement in Libya and Yemen, while Abu Dhabi and other Arab states criticised Turkey’s military and political actions. Disagreements extended to the eastern Mediterranean as well.
This distrust of course played out most notably after the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, when the Gulf monarchies’ threat perception peaked as popular uprisings were bringing down autocratic regimes.
Gulf monarchies supported counter-revolutionaries throughout the uprisings while Turkey encouraged the initiatives and efforts of the peoples of the region who demanded democratisation and backed forces committed to toppling the region's autocrats.
That led to the adoption of "an aggressive, security-oriented approach" that viewed Turkey as a major threat, said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre of Turkish Studies.
But now, the Arab trio of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt have come to the realisation that an aggressive post-Arab Spring foreign policy approach was not working, Tol added.
The UAE and Bahrain meanwhile took steps to normalise relations with Israel, which signalled the Gulf was moving towards a new security-oriented approach as US hegemony in the region started to wane.
TRT editor-at-large Yusuf Erim believes increased diplomatic overtures “should not be viewed in isolation but rather as part of a bigger picture which shows a changing dynamic in the region.”
“The election of US President Joe Biden, the lifting of the GCC blockade on Qatar, the Aramco attack [in Saudi Arabia], a possible return to the Iran nuclear deal” are some of the events that have accelerated rapprochement, he said.
Among other reasons, Erim pointed to Washington’s pullout from Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s focus on China as an impetus for forging new alliances.
One of the reasons it’s been suggested for the push to normalise ties are the economic benefits for all parties involved.
There is a good reason for that, especially given the pandemic-induced cataclysm that many economies across the world have experienced.
Ankara is looking for reliable foreign investment in order to accelerate liquidity flows, and Gulf states are also in search of profitable investments. This creates a win-win situation for the region.
Qatar already provides Turkey with the equivalent of $15 billion in currency swaps, a limit that was raised from $5 billion offered in May 2020. Following MBZ’s visit last month, it emerged that the UAE and Turkey were exploring a $5 billion currency swap to bolster Turkish foreign currency reserves.
Import-oriented Gulf economies likewise are fostering deep ties with a huge market like Turkey, which has a solid manufacturing base.
The Istanbul Finance Center, a landmark project expected to be launched midway through 2022, is one that has recently drawn great investment appetite from Arab countries.
“I see Turkey as a bull market that will go up. Foreign interest is quite high, particularly regarding real estate, financial technology, information technology, agriculture, manufacturing, industry, health, education, banking and finance sectors. We are working on six or seven important projects,” said Izzat Dajani, deputy chairperson of the board at Egyptian-based investment consulting firm Capital Compass.
Dajani stressed that with major global production and logistics disruptions following the pandemic, Turkey offers an attractive foreign investment landscape thanks to its strategic location, business opportunities, the pool of skilled labour and competitive exchange rate.
But will economic interests be enough to paper over political differences?
Some observers think the emphasis will be on managing and resolving problems over time, and while there will be a rise in regional cooperation, a degree of competition and mistrust could remain for a while.
Personal animosities that have built up during the years would make a return to normalcy difficult and may be restricted to de-escalating their rivalry, said Galip Dalay, a fellow at the German Institute for Security and Policy Affairs.
“This is most apparent in Libya, where none of them has really changed their positions but they’re not actively escalating, he told Al Jazeera.