Turkey has flipped the script on its regional isolation. But will it amount to real change?

Turkey has been working away at recalibrating its foreign policy by tracking down new allies and issuing conciliatory statements—and it’s a crucial part of the country’s bid to become a regional leader, energy hub, and economic powerhouse. But are Ankara’s steps toward recalibration big enough to really change the regional landscape?

Last month, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal hosted his Egyptian counterpart in Ankara for rapprochement talks focusing on regional issues. The latest talks follow a first-round visit to Cairo in May, where Turkey and Egypt hashed out bilateral concerns. It’s a remarkable moment, since these visits marked the first high-level political consultations between the two powers since the 2013 military coup in Egypt, an event that led to a rapid deterioration in Cairo’s relationship with Ankara.

But the recalibration isn’t just with Egypt. For several months now, Ankara has taken steps to normalize regional relationships that had been fraught with problems. It has reached out to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to end hostility. It looks like Ankara is trying to arrange a modus vivendi with these countries to end Turkey’s isolation in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

But it’ll take more than friendship-building and conciliations to bridge the gap between Turkey and other Middle East states.

What’s behind the meetings’ doors

Over the past two decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) dramatically transformed Turkish foreign policy. In the 2000s, the AKP focused its foreign policy on fostering interdependence and promoting inter-regional relationships. The AKP aimed to pivot toward the Middle East, which Ankara had previously neglected. The AKP also intended to reach the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, where Ankara’s contacts have been rather limited. Back then, Ankara adopted a more proactive role and aimed to use its strategic location at the intersection of all these regions as well as its cultural and historical ties with its neighbors to become an influential global actor. It relied on interdependence and multilateralism to achieve this aim.

At the time, the AKP’s agenda wasn’t yet the revisionist example seen in recent years. When former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was Turkey’s foreign minister, he preached a policy of having “zero problems towards neighbors,” relying on political dialogue and on Ankara playing a role as a mediator—as it did when it mediated peace talks between Syria and Israel as early as 2007. This philosophy also showed that Turkey regarded its soft power as important and intended to maintain the status quo in its relationships. During that time, Ankara had started negotiations for European Union (EU) membership, and Western allies hailed Turkey as a model of democracy in the Middle East. The AKP’s foreign policy in the 2000s was also in line with Turkey’s domestic politics, which emphasized cultural harmony and economic development instead of the identity politics that reigned during the 2010s.

The Arab Spring that began in 2010 marked a turning point in Turkey’s foreign policy. While long-seated dictatorships in the Middle East shattered, Ankara embraced the uprisings and even supported the Muslim Brotherhood. And after the Arab Spring shook neighboring Syria by igniting a devastating civil war, Turkey engaged militarily. This period marked the end of Turkey’s previous nonintervention policy in the Middle East. In recent years, Turkey extended its military posture beyond its own borders with its Mavi Vatan (or Blue Homeland) concept that sets Turkey’s sights on neighboring waters; cross-border campaigns into Syria, Libya, and northern Iraq; and relatively new military bases in Qatar and Somalia.

In 2013, the counter-revolution in Egypt saw the army oust the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and then President Mohamed Morsi. The incident was alarming to Erdoğan and the AKP. Since coming to power, he had feared that Turkey’s secular military would seek to remove him from power—as it had done to several previous Turkish leaders—possibly in coordination with popular street protests. The developments in Egypt coincided with the most severe domestic challenge to the AKP since coming to power in 2002. The AKP’s plans to transform Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a replica of the Taksim Military Barracks from the Ottoman Empire and a shopping mall erupted in mass protests that quickly spread across Turkey and met police crackdowns.

Turkey became one of the most vocal opponents of the Egyptian coup, and it refused to accept new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s legitimacy. Events within Turkey also stirred the pot: The AKP adopted a four-finger hand gesture that was used by Muslim Brotherhood supporters and protesting crowds in Egypt—though the AKP argued the gesture had a slightly different meaning to them. Erdoğan also lodged verbal attacks against al-Sisi for domestic audiences. Turkey-Egypt relations spiraled downward.

Diplomatic shots fired elsewhere

Turkey’s relations soured with countries that saw the Arab Spring’s popular demonstrations as an existential threat to their rule. Since then, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become embittered. This rift gave way to a battle of ideologies: Turkey and Qatar aligned themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood, while Egypt and the other Gulf countries got closer to Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, with some holding military drills together and expanding cooperation in the energy sector.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 added fuel to the fire. It led to Ankara’s unprecedented denouncement of the Saudi government following the killing that occurred in Istanbul, pointing out Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman specifically. In return, Saudi Arabia imposed an informal boycott on Turkish products. Their rivalry due to their regional aspirations and Ankara’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood extended with their support of opposing groups in the Syrian conflict.

Additionally, Turkey’s military involvement in the Libya conflict angered Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia perceived that involvement as a threat to regional security and interference in the internal affairs of an Arab country. Egypt and Turkey supported opposing parties in the Libyan conflict. Turkey’s military and intelligence assistance to the Government of National Accord reversed the military balance in Libya, forcing all actors involved in the conflict—including Egypt—to rethink their military and political strategies. Additionally, Egypt was alarmed with the deal reached between Ankara and Libya’s internationally recognized government on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean that could complicate energy explorations in the area and the East Mediterranean Gas Forum’s efforts to export gas to Europe.

Turkey’s relations also entered a prolonged political stalemate with Israel when Israel stopped Mavi Marmara, a ship that attempted to breach the Gaza Strip blockade. Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish activists on board. The May 31, 2010, incident resulted in a six-year diplomatic rift between Turkey and Israel that saw diplomatic relations downgraded, and military and intelligence cooperation—which had been the linchpin of bilateral relations—reduced. In 2016 the two countries agreed to normalize their relations. However, just two years later, in May 2018, Turkey and Israel expelled each other’s ambassadors following deadly clashes on the Israel-Gaza border during the “Great March of Return” protests, around the time when the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Turkey still does not have ambassadors in Syria, Egypt, or Israel. But in the meantime, it has been recalibrating its foreign-policy strategy, as shown by Ankara’s use of conciliatory language and messages of goodwill to repair its problematic relationships with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Missed train to normalization

As Turkey moved away from political dialogue, a mediator role, and its noninterference policy, Davuoğlu’s “zero problems towards neighbors” strategy became “precious loneliness,” as described by Erdoğan’s chief policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalın. Turkey had few regional allies—and fewer neighbors that did not have problems with Ankara. Turkey’s neo-Ottoman discourse, anti-Western statements, gunboat diplomacy, and domestically fueled foreign-policy moves alienated most of Turkey’s previous allies. The country also notably lost a chance at EU membership as it faced a huge influx of refugees whom European nations didn’t want to have free passage into their borders. EU-Turkish relations began to be viewed almost exclusively within the framework of the refugee deal reached in 2016. Additionally, Turkey’s membership in NATO has been questioned following its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems.

In the Middle East, on the other hand, 2020 was a remarkable year for normalizing relationships. Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed a normalization pact brokered by the United States on September 15, 2020. Then, Sudan and Morocco filled out the Abraham Accords peace quartet. The spree increased the number of Arab countries that recognize Israel from just two: Egypt, which had entered a peace treaty in 1979, and Jordan, which did the same in 1994.

Plus, the region is moving forward­—even without Turkey. In September 2020, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority turned the East Mediterranean Gas Forum into a regional, intergovernmental organization with headquarters in Cairo. Turkey was noticeably absent.  

Additionally, Gulf Cooperation Council countries signed the al-Ula Declaration in January, marking an end to a three-year blockade against Qatar by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This development also meant that Qatar-Turkey relations were no longer exclusive. It opened a door for Turkey to reach out to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries—of course, depending on Qatar’s mediation.

The Middle East is also evolving at the hands of major international players. There’s now pressure on all regional actors to look for new allies and new opportunities for collaboration as the Biden administration pulls the United States back from the Middle East. And while Turkey is starting to gravitate closer to Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf countries, Russia and China are increasing their presence in the region, with possibly monumental effects.

Finally, COVID-19 acutely hit Middle East economies. Reeling from the blow, Turkey now needs to attract foreign investment after spending heavily on a militarized foreign policy. To do that, Ankara hopes that its attempts to acquire new allies and issue conciliatory statements will appeal to foreign investors—and that these attempts may also help boost trade relationships. Since the pandemic, most of the region’s economies have felt similar blows and are therefore itching to find similar remedies, signaling opportune timing for Turkey.

Erdoğan’s calling campaign

As regional dynamics change, Turkey is making overtures suggesting that it’ll work harder to end its isolation and to become part of the economic and energy leadership in the region.

Erdoğan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz have discussed bilateral ties by telephone, notably just before the November 2020 Group of Twenty summit. They agreed to settle disagreements through dialogue rather than escalate them with foreign-policy jabs. And after five years of low engagement, the foreign ministers of Turkey and the UAE had a phone call, followed by an Ankara visit from the UAE’s national security advisor and an August telephone exchange between Erdoğan and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Finally, energy officials from Turkey and Qatar attended the Gastech conference in Dubai last month, yet another sign of easing tensions.

Turkey’s relations with Egypt have been improving as well, as demonstrated by the May and September consultations. As for Israel, the possibility of normalization has been hotly debated in recent years. In July this debate gained momentum when Erdoğan called newly elected Israeli President Isaac Herzog to congratulate him and reemphasize the importance that Turkey-Israel ties hold in the region. During the opening of a Turkish exhibition in Jerusalem, Herzog returned the gesture by saying, in reference to meeting with Erdoğan, “I am sure that when we gather around a table with coffee, we can carry our whole region to a better future with cultural and other cooperation.”

But where’s the real change?

For now, Ankara’s steps and conciliatory approach have paid off for its overall mission to improve its international standing and become an economic and energy leader in the region. It seems that all parties in the Middle East support gradual de-escalation with Turkey. However, the gaps formed during the prolonged political stalemate of the 2000s are still significant, and some bilateral ties are still weak.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE still cringe over Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Israel points to Turkey’s support of Hamas—originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. These countries wonder how much Turkey could actually compromise, since its support of these groups is ideological in nature. Turkish military presence in the region, especially Libya, is another crucial issue, particularly for Egypt.

Among these countries, there is also doubt about Turkey’s rapprochement motives. It is worth wondering whether Ankara is sincere or whether its conciliatory actions are a new tactic to break the alliance created by the energy cooperation among East Mediterranean Gas Forum members excluding Turkey.

Turkey, on the other hand, is trying to reach out to these countries to break its ring of isolation. Even as doubts and distrust remain between Ankara and its regional neighbors, there are certainly some opportunities for cooperation and to arrange a modus vivendi.

Karel Valansi is a political columnist for T24 and Salom focused on the Middle East. She is a lecturer at Istanbul Kültür University, PhD candidate at Kadir Has University, and the author of The Crescent Moon and the Magen David, Turkish-Israeli Relations Through the Lens of the Turkish Public. Follow her on Twitter @karelvalansi.

The views expressed in TURKEYSource are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

Further reading

Image: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his counterpart from Egypt, Sameh Shoukry, arrive for a group photo during the 'Second Berlin Conference on Libya' at the foreign office in Berlin, Germany on June 23, 2021. Photo via Michael Sohn/Pool via REUTERS.