Middle East policy shows Turkey's new desire for allies

Turkey making overtures to Egypt and Saudi Arabia is symptomatic of a wider aim to end its international isolation and be a player in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Expert comment Published 20 May 2021 Updated 30 June 2022 2 minute READ

Although there is no golden era in Turkish-Egyptian relations, the post-2013 period has been exceptionally bad. Turkey was the most vocal opponent of the Egyptian coup of 2013 which removed the country’s first democratically-elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi from power, while Istanbul became one of the main destinations for the Egyptian opposition fleeing the post-coup crackdown.

Ankara’s relations with the Abdul Fattah al-Sisi regime and the ‘anti-Arab Spring’ camp which included Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) nosedived as a result, and have been largely acrimonious and icy since, with the Libyan conflict and the Eastern Mediterranean crisis further aggravating the situation.

But Turkey is now recalibrating its Middle East policy, with Ankara using more conciliatory language and, more importantly, taking steps to repair the ties with Egypt with a Turkish delegation headed by deputy foreign minister Sedat Onal visiting Cairo and foreign ministers of both countries expected to meet towards the end of May.

It is plausible to anticipate Cairo and Ankara will exchange ambassadors and have more ministerial-level meetings, but a presidential-level meeting is not on the horizon

For Ankara, a demarcation deal with Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean outweighs all other considerations because such a deal further prevents the emergence of a regional energy and security order in the Eastern Mediterranean without Turkey. But Egypt’s priority is the Libyan conflict and the presence of the Egyptian opposition actors and media in Istanbul.

Given the long existence of shared border and security concerns, Libya is to Egypt what Syria is to Turkey, and so the broader context of Turkish outreach efforts towards Egypt is the sense in Ankara that the Middle East is in a post-Arab Spring era with the significance of political Islam – specifically the Muslim Brotherhood – in regional politics dramatically decreased.

Agreement through compromise

Instead of a full-fledged normalization, Turkey and Egypt will end up meeting each other halfway at best. Egypt is unlikely to sign a maritime demarcation deal with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean anytime soon, but will be mindful of Turkey’s claimed maritime borders and the parameters of the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal when signing deals with third countries or international energy companies.

In response, Turkey will likely adopt a more accommodating stance towards Egypt in Libya, with Ankara more receptive to Egyptian demands to withdraw pro-Turkish Syrian fighters from there. But this withdrawal will be conditional on the withdrawal of other foreign fighters from Libya, including Russian Wagner fighters, and Ankara continues to resist the demand for Turkish forces leaving, citing the argument they are there as a result of an agreement with Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

To placate Egypt, Turkey is pressuring the Istanbul-based Egyptian opposition media to tone down criticism of the regime, but is unlikely to ask Egyptian opposition figures to leave Turkey as many of them have acquired either Turkish citizenship or legal residence. It is plausible to anticipate Cairo and Ankara will exchange ambassadors and have more ministerial-level meetings, but a presidential-level meeting is not on the horizon.

Saudi relations in deep crisis

On the Turkish-Saudi front, relations were left in deep crisis by a personal vendetta between the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which developed following the killing of journalist Jamal Khassoghi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. This means a thaw in the relations is more difficult to achieve, and the prospect appears to be for a more turbulent period in Ankara-Tehran relations as the number of disputes between them increases.

Motivation for this desire to repair relations with the Arab states is the fact that any new nuclear deal between the US and Iran is highly likely to affect the regional blocks

But Turkish desires to mend the ties with Saudi Arabia are strong, as evidenced by Turkey foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visiting Riyadh despite the announcement eight Turkish schools are to close in the kingdom and the imposition of an unofficial boycott on Turkish goods. On the Yemen conflict, Ankara is likely to adopt a more pro-Saudi position and to continue reaching out to Saudi Arabia for a rapprochement.

Motivation for this desire to repair relations with the Arab states is the fact that any new nuclear deal between the US and Iran is highly likely to affect the regional blocks. In fact, Tehran and Ankara are increasingly engaging in acrimonious exchanges, leaving their relations currently rather tense – these growing strains in Turkish-Iranian relations further reinforce Turkish desire to mend the ties with the Arab states.

Turkey’s militarized regional policy – heavily in vogue from 2016-20 and relatively risk-free thanks to Donald Trump’s US presidency – has now run its course, with the exception of operations in Iraq. In its place, there are now three major factors shaping the new Turkish approach – the new US administration, a prospective deal between the US and Iran and its impact on regional blocks in the Middle East, and an anti-Turkey geopolitical realignment in the Eastern Mediterranean. From a wider foreign policy perspective, it is clear Turkey is working hard to end both its international isolation and its loneliness in the Eastern Mediterranean region.