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Erdogan in the Gulf: Strengthening Economic Ties and Navigating Regional Politics

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the Gulf region’s most influential states: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. This visit was significant as it marked the full recovery of deteriorated relations between Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. During the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar supported popular uprisings, setting them apart from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Furthermore, Turkey openly backed Qatar to break the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in 2017. The hostility ended when the blockade on Qatar was lifted with the signing of the Al-Ula Agreement in January 2021. Since then, Qatar and Turkey have repaired their relations with the blockading countries.

Expanding Economic and Defense Ties

Erdogan’s recent tour aimed to restore ties and potentially initiate an alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, it is crucial to note that the primary purpose of the visit was economic. Turkey has been facing a crisis mainly due to fluctuations in foreign currency and the government’s attempts to address the problem. The financial challenges were compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, twin earthquakes in February, and the Russia-Ukraine war, further hindering recovery.

After several years of struggling with his unorthodox economic policies, President Erdogan shifted towards more globally-accepted economic norms. To address the financial issues, he sought foreign support, both in terms of cash and investment. Instead of turning to the IMF, with which Turkey had an unpleasant history, Erdogan sought urgent financial assistance from the Gulf states to boost the Turkish economy.

Erdogan’s visit met his expectations. During the tour’s first leg, Erdogan secured multiple deals with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, covering defense industry and energy agreements. The most notable deal involved Turkish drone maker Baykar Tech, which secured a significant defense export contract with the Saudi Defense Ministry to sell armed drones, including the high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) armed drone, Akıncı. A Turkish official disclosed that the deal’s exact value was over $3 billion.

In addition to direct sales, Baykar Tech agreed to establish a production line in Jeddah, transferring the technology and know-how of advanced drones to Saudi Arabia. This collaboration is seen as Riyadh’s most significant gain from the visit, with expectations of further purchases and co-production of other weapons and munitions.

Regarding Qatar, as the two countries already maintain advanced relations, Erdogan’s visit was primarily a friendly gesture en route to Abu Dhabi. Although some deals were signed, significant agreements had been previously concluded.

Arguably, the most noteworthy leg of Erdogan’s tour was his visit to the UAE. During this part of the tour, Erdogan and UAE leader Muhammad Bin Zayed signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) encompassing trade deals worth $50.7 billion. Notably, the Turkish governments had not previously signed trade deals amounting over $50 billion with any other country before. The agreements included the UAE’s commitment to provide $8.5 billion for reconstruction projects in earthquake-hit regions in southern Turkey, offering a $3 billion credit to the Turkish export-import bank (EximBank) to support Turkish exports, and purchasing an undisclosed quantity of Turkish weapons, including drones and missiles. Erdogan’s visit to Abu Dhabi emerged as the most lucrative one among all stops on his tour. The size of the deals signed in the UAE was unprecedented for Turkey, marking a significant economic achievement.

Drawing New Regional Geopolitics  

While the primary objective of Erdogan’s visit was to seek support for the Turkish economy from the three Gulf states, its potential political repercussions are likely to be more significant in the near future. The Gulf countries that Erdogan visited are engaged in political and economic competition, which sometimes leads to conflicts among them. Recent media reports suggest a disagreement between the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, continuing behind the scenes. During Erdogan’s Gulf tour, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman issued a threat to the UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, warning of possible sanctions that could be more severe than the blockade imposed on Qatar in 2017.

As a regional power in the Middle East, Erdogan-led Turkey may play a role in mitigating tensions between these nations. Therefore, the deepening relations between Turkey and the GCC states could give Ankara an instrumental mediation role in resolving any potential rifts, and the Turkish government may willingly assist its Gulf allies in solving their problems. The prospect of Turkey building military bases in the UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be surprising, given that Turkey already has an army base in Qatar since 2017.

In 2011, there were King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud mentioned the possibility of Turkey replacing the United States as the security guarantor for Saudi Arabia, particularly concerning Iran. Although this idea was not realized due to differing views on the Arab Spring, the ongoing regional threat posed by Iran and uncertainties regarding the U.S.’s commitment to Gulf states’ security might prompt Saudi Arabia and the UAE to consider requesting Turkish military presence, including the possibility of establishing bases or seeking military training from the Turkish army.

Combining Gulf economic power with Turkish military capabilities could strengthen relations and foster friendly competition among these nations. Diversifying allies has become a necessity in the region, as the policies of major powers do not guarantee the security of Gulf states. Turkey, with its assertive foreign policy, robust military, and historical ties with the Arab world, can serve as a valuable partner.

From an economic perspective, Erdogan’s visit is expected to significantly relieve the Turkish economy through Gulf funds, procurements, and investments. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE may benefit somewhat less from economic cooperation than Turkey, forging a regional partnership with Turkey for security, mediation, and upholding a peaceful environment in the Gulf could be prudent.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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İbrahim Karataş is an Associate Professor in International Relations, based in Istanbul, Turkey. He writes columns for Turkey’s Daily Sabah and Yeni Akit dailies and has written more than 30 academic articles and books.


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