Of the myriad political relationships that bear President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s imprimatur, relations with the Gulf sit at a unique place. Under Erdogan, Turkey has managed difficult competition and subsequent cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, a historically significant relationship with Saudi Arabia (which was strained over recent years and only recently put back on track), and a burgeoning strategically oriented relationship with Qatar. Turkey’s expanding multifaceted engagement with the Gulf – a product of the initially shared economic dynamism between the two regions, in addition to Erdogan’s personalized style of conducting foreign policy with key Gulf leaders – may be at stake with Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections set for June 2023.
With the country’s escalating economic woes and Erdogan’s increasing unpopularity, Turkey’s opposition is gaining traction as it seeks to gain control of the government in the upcoming elections. As the country is experiencing growing currents of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Arab sentiment, the opposition has vowed to reexamine Turkey’s relationship with the Gulf.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, and the likely presidential candidate of the joint opposition cohort, has pledged to reopen the investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi if he assumes power. Likewise, he has been critical of Erdogan’s attempts to engage with Abu Dhabi, brandishing him a “beggar” in search of funds to finance his reelection. In relations with Qatar, the Republican People’s Party has a long record of accusing the government of acquiescing to Qatari purchases of strategically significant Turkish assets.
Kilicdaroglu has largely been skeptical of the government’s attempt at resetting ties with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. His party has questioned the nature of the rapprochements, accusing the government of renouncing previously held positions for the sake of economic benefit and tarnishing Turkey’s prestige. Turkey’s opposition views the process as transactional, aimed at benefiting Erdogan’s reelection campaign, rather than part of a considered foreign relations strategy.
Anti-Arabism in Context
Combined with growing anti-Arab sentiment, partly due to the increasing visibility of Syrian refugees and deteriorating local economic conditions, the opposition has fused a Gulf-skeptic worldview with the population’s overwhelming dislike for migrants, peddling claims that Turks will soon become a minority in their own country. Migrants and Gulf Arab tourists are increasingly conflated with one another, as both are seen as threats to preserving “Turkishness,” particularly in popular areas like Istanbul and the Black Sea, which have seen renewed interest with the ending of pandemic restrictions. Such xenophobic sentiments, initially channeled by fringe political movements are finding increased traction among the populace, to the extent of helping shape the political agenda of the Republican People’s Party and other parties in the opposition.
Moreover, the collective “Arab” has often been the great other in Turkish nationalist conception. This prejudice is reinforced by the country’s former secular elites – whose discourse often described the Arab world as backward and vehemently conservative. The Republican People’s Party largely views Turkey’s immediate geographic neighborhood as an area best avoided and only engaged with when necessary. It regards relations with the Middle East as superfluous, which could have implications for Turkey’s policy in the region if the party’s candidate, Kilicdaroglu, wins against Erdogan in the upcoming presidential election.
What Could Change?
Enhanced relations with the Gulf have largely been the product of Erdogan’s personal endeavors – unlike Turkey’s long-standing relationship with the West, which is bound by institutional frameworks that often supersede domestic politics. Erdogan has shepherded Turkey’s Gulf policy – the rivalry with the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as the recent rapprochements. An opposition-led government could thus easily change the course of relations, as there is little institutional framework, except for strong trade links, that could deter such decisions. At the very least, a new government in Turkey could spark a process of disengagement, which could see much of the proliferation of relations between the two sides lost.
While reopening the Khashoggi case would be legally impossible, as it has been closed and transferred to Saudi courts, such an attempt could galvanize support for a Kilicdaroglu government for breaking with Erdogan’s foreign policy. Such a decision could also find support among Erdogan’s former allies, with the transfer of the Khashoggi case rumored to have created fissures within the ruling party itself. Former Erdogan loyalists turned opposition figures – such as former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – have also voiced similar sentiments for renewed prosecution of the Saudi operatives that killed Khashoggi. Such a course of action, whether it surmounted legal barriers to real action or not, could create another massive rift between Ankara and Riyadh.
Relations with the UAE appear less contentious and hence less prone to risk, largely due to the concerted effort by Erdogan and Mohammed bin Zayed to move past their rivalry. However, the UAE has also been a common feature of Turkish domestic political discourse, with earlier claims by Erdogan loyalists that Abu Dhabi was complicit in the failed coup attempt of 2016 now increasingly finding traction among the ranks of the Republican People’s Party. Kilicdaroglu could thus revisit such claims at the leadership level if elected as president. Moreover, the UAE’s desire to become involved in strategically significant sectors of the Turkish economy, such as drone production, could also exacerbate tensions. Kilicdaroglu has already stated that his government would not honor any defense contracts that Abu Dhabi is negotiating with Erdogan, a position stemming from a fundamental skepticism toward the notion of Gulf influence in critical sectors of the Turkish economy.
Turkey’s strategically oriented relationship with Qatar is perhaps the relationship that would most suffer from Erdogan’s possible defeat in elections. An opposition government would not be inclined to continue Turkey’s military presence in Qatar and the operation could be scaled back or shelved entirely. Opposition lawmakers had initially opposed Turkey’s troop deployment to Qatar in 2017 and have continued to question the reasons behind the establishment of the military base. Furthermore, robust cooperation in regional matters and joint strategic calculations could become fatigued due to a lack of executive will in the new Turkish government, as such ties at present are the product of the close relationship between Erdogan and Qatar’s emir. In the event of a change of government in Turkey, Qatari officials could find that the cadres that replace Erdogan’s have little interest in continuing to enhance the relationship.
At the broader level, acquiescing to – and helping strengthen – populist sentiment, an opposition government could rethink Turkey’s visa policies and the sale of real estate to foreigners – two issues that are increasingly contentious due to the rise of anti-foreigner sentiments in the country. Investigations could be launched into the sale of real estate to Gulf nationals, and visa privileges could be revoked. This in turn would necessitate a response from Gulf capitals, possibly damaging ties and reducing the scale of tourism.
After a year of reconciliation efforts between Ankara and Gulf capitals, looming elections threaten to cast a shadow on those recently restored relationships. If Erdogan does indeed falter in the upcoming elections, the politicization of relations with the Gulf in the Turkish domestic context will test the maxim that foreign affairs can survive the devastation caused by populist politics.