A vocal and xenophobic opposition coalition is challenging Erdogan’s dominance in Turkish politics. His possible defeat will have significant ripple effects across the region, especially in the Gulf.
Over the past two years, we have witnessed a significant diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and its rivals in the Gulf. After years of diplomatic animosity, Ankara has made friendly gestures towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia, leading regional states, to restore diplomatic relations and foster close partnership. For many years, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have opposed Turkey on a number of regional issues due to conflicting ideologies. Relations became more tense under President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has attempted to make Turkey an undisputable regional leader by projecting its power across the region.
Although Turks originally backed Erdogan’s quest for regional dominance, accepting diplomatic tensions with the Gulf states, recent economic woes, and the growing unpopularity of the ruling AKP government ahead of the upcoming general elections have pushed the country to re-examine its relations with the Gulf region. However, many Turks have yet to see the benefits of this detente. The sustainability of this reconciliation is, therefore, uncertain, especially amid growing nationalist sentiments, xenophobia, and anti-refugee discrimination in Turkey. The opposition coalition’s vocal criticism of the Gulf states and heightened anti-Arab sentiments within Turkey’s political elite will likely reopen a massive rift between Ankara, Riyadh, Abu-Dhabi, and Doha.
A Reluctance to Reconcile
Turkish opposition parties see Erdogan’s reconciliation with the Gulf states as little more than a ploy to salvage his sinking polls before the critical 2023 elections, not as a serious effort to redirect Turkish foreign policy. Since 2020, Turkey has endured a severe debt crisis and is desperately in need of foreign capital; improving the economy has been the AKP’s main priority. As it happens, the Gulf states have been willing creditors. From the point of view of the Turkish opposition, the AKP’s decision to transfer many strategically important Turkish assets to the Gulf monarchies in exchange for investments threatens national interests, especially since the inflow of Gulf cash has failed to halt the lira’s plummeting value. As such, the upcoming elections will be critical not only for the Turkish opposition and Erdogan but also for some the Gulf states since they rely on Turkey as a regional security partner. Qatar hosts a Turkish military base, and many GCC states rely on Turkish-made weapons to bolster their armed forces’ capacities in an increasingly hostile region.
The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has employed anti-Arab rhetoric in a bid to secure the support of the local secular elite and mobilize them against the AKP government and, in turn, distance Turkey from the Gulf. Granting too many concessions to the Gulf monarchies, they claim, risks compromising the country’s “pure Turkishness.” Historically, Kemalists of Turkey often used the “Arab” collective to symbolize “backwardness and conservatism.” In a bid to replace Erdogan, opposition forces led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the CHP and likely presidential candidate, vowed to scale back engagement with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and reopen the investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In nearly all of his speeches, Kilichdaroglu urges the authorities to avoid close engagement with Turkey’s immediate neighborhood unless necessary.
Kilichdaroglu is not the only opposition leader in Turkey that questions its rapprochement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Most opposition parties have harshly criticized Erdogan’s regional policy, expressing particular discontent with the AKP’s behavior towards the Gulf region and its policies regarding the mass influx of Syrian refugees in the last several years.
Indeed, the growing visibility of Syrian and Iraqi refugees accompanied by sharp increases in illegal immigration across Turkey have triggered anti-Arab sentiments and a deep skepticism about restoring cooperation with the Gulf states. In her recent speeches, Meral Akshener, the leader of the ultranationalist IYI Party, went further, saying Turkey has become an “immigrant warehouse” and a “near garbage dump” for Europe, which has shunned migrant flows. As such, she proposed that Turkey deport an estimated 3.7 million Syrians to supposedly protect Turkey’s “demographic composition and Turkish identity.”
Even some of Erdogan’s former top allies and ministers, including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Abdullah Gul, have begun to criticize the ruling government’s foreign policy agenda and inability to tackle the economic crisis.
The Gulf states could witness a swift deterioration of relations with Ankara if the opposition coalition assumes power. Qatar would suffer most from President Erdogan’s possible electoral defeat, due to its long-term partnership with Ankara in several strategically important fields, particularly the military. An opposition government would likely withdraw the Turkish troops stationed in Qatar in 2015 and shut down its military base on the peninsula. The new government could also revoke Turkey’s security partnerships with the Gulf states. The outcome of Turkey’s next election will, therefore, have drastic consequences across the region.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.