In recent months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent warm messages to Gulf Arab countries with which he had antagonistic relations over the past decade. The first concrete response to these messages came from the United Arab Emirates: National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with Erdogan in August 2021, followed by an official visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to Turkey in December. In February, Erdogan made an official visit to the UAE with a large delegation for the first time since 2013. With his visit to the UAE, Erdogan was seemingly suggesting that pragmatism is the new zeitgeist of the region; the UAE responded to this with a splendid welcome, conveying the message that the old hostilities had been replaced by the institutionalization of a new order – that of diplomacy, reflected in the Abraham Accords and a more general effort to disengage from previous conflicts. (Another noteworthy diplomatic move along these lines was the official visit of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Bahrain in February). These budding signs of outreach, with each visit seeming to build on the momentum of previous ones, can help the Gulf reinforce its role as a hub of regional diplomacy.
The Decline of Cosmopolitan Islamism and Rise of Gulf-Centered Territorial Nationalism Set the Stage
Social movements that accelerated and considerably expanded with the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings ultimately took on a political dimension. The main demand, in general, was the construction of a new social contract that would replace the existing regime structures – a contract viewed by the regimes as a threatening nonstarter. Given the Sunni Arab demographic advantage in the Gulf and other Arab countries, the movements sought broad political representation rather than a narrow elite ruling configuration. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, the strongest representative of organized politics in the region, unsurprisingly had an opportunity here. At the time, Turkey provided geographical depth to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar provided rhetorical breadth through its media and intellectual organizations.
The aim of Turkey and Qatar supporting the social movement processes of the Arab Spring was to adapt this current into a manageable and manipulable political identity that the local populations of the relevant countries could identify with. The Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwanism, with its broad appeal, established primacy. The cosmopolitan affiliation of this ideology (in the sense that it is not subject to any territorial limitations) and its fervent demands for political representation set off alarm bells for the monarchies of the Gulf.
On one hand, the destabilizing effect of the Iranian-led pan-Shia identity on the Shia minority groups in the Gulf Arab countries, and on the other, the regaining momentum of the pan-Islamic (Ikhwanism) fervors, brought these countries into a simultaneous struggle on two fronts. In response to cosmopolitan Islamism, they began to implement social reform projects in their countries (particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that they had delayed for years. At the same time, there was a consolidation of power in the regimes and use of coercion against opposition groups to intimidate adherents and undermine their appeal. A fierce struggle broke out within the regimes between the neo-technocratic elites, who tried to modernize society with regard to internal dynamics (addressing the needs of the youth bulge joining the workforce as part of economic diversification projects), and the old establishment (their networks) who were the defenders of traditional values and institutions. As a result of this trajectory, the Gulf states, following the Arab Spring, moved away from Turkey, whose powerful elites situated and used Islamism as a founding element of domestic social interactions and fostered the imagined Ummah, or Muslim community, that could be directed from Ankara as a foreign policy leverage tool. Another source of Turkey’s discontent with the Gulf was the shift and purge of the traditional local elites in various Gulf regimes with which it had cooperated. Erdogan and his policy team’s disagreement with the new technocratic elites of the Gulf states (particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE) was not merely a circumstantial conflict of interests but a new world view that was accelerated by historical social dynamics. This cleavage is visible in the contrast between the religious-identity-centered “Ummah” and the new focus on national identity.
This phenomenon was clear in Turkish domestic politics. For Erdogan and his party to maintain their dominant position in Turkey, he had to transcend his bond with his electorate beyond merely political affiliation. Throughout the 2010s, he cultivated a stern Islamist identity that included moral and religious obligations. However, the emerging social trends in the Gulf were challenging Erdogan’s influence and ambitions in Turkish domestic politics as well as his vision of being the leader of the global Ummah, or at least the Muslim community in the broader Middle East. The post-Arab Spring developments and the nationalist turn in Turkish politics thus pushed Erdogan to begin adapting to the new orientation in the Gulf.
The New Order of the Abraham Accords: Pragmatism, Fear, and Alignment of Interests
Since 2020, the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic move to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states facilitated by former President Donald J. Trump’s administration, have been transforming the intra-state order in the region. Before the Abraham Accords, there seemed to be no country in the Gulf region considering establishing an open and transparent diplomatic relationship with Israel. However, with the reaction to the Ikhwan politics, kicking off with the Arab Spring and lasting nearly a decade, there was a reaction against the Islamists’ narrative that Israel was an anomaly in the region. The Abraham Accords process highlighted how pure national interest, not historical obligations or religious values, is driving bilateral diplomatic relations for the countries involved.
In crafting policy, the focus on nationalism was also effective in the background in the move from the centrality of pan-national ideology to specific national interests. Arab leaders who decided to establish a relationship with Israel made the calculus that this would not provoke meaningful and widespread opposition from Islamist movements in the region and their local populations, primarily because regimes over time had weakened these movements with sustained repression, among other reasons. Another facilitating factor was that countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were weakened in terms of ability to lead in Arab politics and society. This vacuum in leadership in the region pushed the Gulf states to make more aggressive, bold, and autonomous foreign policy decisions.
Turkey’s initial condemnation of the Abraham Accords gradually shifted toward an expressed understanding of this process. Turkey came to understand that the new bloc in the region was not temporary. Meanwhile, opportunities that Ankara had gained from moving closer with Doha following the 2017 boycott of Qatar by its Gulf neighbors were reversed or attenuated with the reconciliation at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al Ula in January 2021.
While Turkey’s foreign policy reflects realistic assessments of the limits of Ankara’s power, Turkey also takes advantage of new alliances that will provide it with important advantages. Businesspeople aligned with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are eager to take advantage of this new reality in the region. They want to reopen Turkey to the Gulf to maintain their economic power. As the economic crisis deepens in Turkey, the need for financial resources is increasing, and they see crucial economic opportunities in the Gulf.
In addition, Turkey (despite its active participation in the Syria-focused Astana peace talks with Iran and Russia), shares a common threat perception with Gulf Arab states regarding Iran, at least in key aspects. Turkish news outlets have reported on numerous acts of espionage by Iranian agents against both Israelis and Iranian dissidents on Turkish soil, which were uncovered and foiled by Turkish intelligence agencies. Moreover, the Turkish security bureaucracy is seemingly sending the message that it sees Iran as an immediate threat, and that it shares some security commonalities with Gulf Arab states and Israel.
The United States’ Withdrawal and China’s Arrival: Collaborations in the Great Geopolitical Imbalance of Power
The attitude of the U.S. administration during the 2011 Arab Spring period frightened the stable monarchies of the region, and the Gulf states perceive the United States’ interest in the Middle East to be waning. The United States’ inability to create a partnership with Gulf Arab states and a policy consensus in the Middle East, in tandem with increased security threats in the region, have pushed the Gulf Arab states to reconsider their strategic cooperation.
This absence of a structured and solid U.S. vision for the region, putting to one side the Abraham Accords, seems to have increased the interest of Gulf leaders to turn toward China and Russia. Another motivation for Gulf states to look to China and Russia could well be that these countries do not impose any political preconditions on technology transfers. Gulf states are also looking for partners in their social reform projects, such as increasing women’s participation in the labor force and youth empowerment, and collaboration in new technologies (e.g., 5G technology). Further, Gulf Arab states see building relations with China as security leverage against Iran.
Turkey is also looking to strengthen ties with China and Russia. Turkey has long been establishing partnerships with China and Russia in financing infrastructure investments. Turkey is also exerting more diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria and Libya.
Strained relations between Turkey and the United States have exacerbated the deterioration of a security umbrella against Iran. And the perceived U.S. disengagement from the Middle East has left Turkey facing a dilemma between dependence on its NATO membership and the quest for autonomy.
Opportunistic Behavior or Structural Transformation?
Erdogan is preoccupied with an escalating economic crisis and its domestic social and political repercussions. With the 2023 Turkish presidential election swiftly approaching, Erdogan has only a short period to take palliative measures to try at a minimum to alleviate the economic difficulties of his voter base, if not the population writ large. The narrowing of Erdogan’s leverage in domestic politics pushes him to take bold steps in foreign policy. On the eve of the election, Erdogan is certainly trying to project an image of a success story and a prominent leader on the global stage.
Erdogan’s current political needs and interests presently align with the ongoing macro-structural processes in the region. But at this stage, Erdogan is trying to keep up with the processes rather than directing them. Bureaucratic institutions in Turkey (especially Turkey’s security apparatus) are trying to rationalize the new alignment between the pragmatism of the leader and the structural transformation of the region. This may take some time. At the end of the day, Turkey is getting close to becoming a de facto member of the Abraham Accords.