Turkey seeks to resume ties with Cairo and Riyadh.
Turkey seeks to consolidate its position as a key power in the geopolitical framework of the Middle East. It also aspires to gain influence in the Arab world, where it is increasingly isolated. To achieve his goals in the region, Recep Tayyip Erdogan aims to improve relations with some countries in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkish officials met with Egyptian representatives in Cairo on Wednesday. They will meet with Saudi officials next week, with the aim of strengthening political and commercial ties.
Turkey suspended relations with Egypt in 2013, following the coup against Mohamed Morsi, the elected president and a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation is considered terrorist by some countries such as the United States, Russia and Egypt. Moreover, according to some analysts, the Brotherhood is closely linked to jihadist groups.
Erdogan is the organisation's main political ally, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is in direct confrontation with the organisation. Since 2013, the Egyptian government has focused on defeating the Muslim Brotherhood. After the coup, Morsi was arrested and died in prison in 2019. However, Egypt has continued to arrest and execute members of the organisation. Turkey has received many people fleeing Al-Sisi's persecution; moreover, the Brotherhood has organised meetings in the country under Erdogan's authorisation. This has led to a boycott of Turkish products in Egypt.
However, in the interest of gaining influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan has decided to radically change his foreign policy towards Egypt. The Turkish president aspires to break the deadlock in the Mediterranean Sea in order to obtain natural gas, for which he has already clashed with Greece and thus Brussels. To achieve this goal, Ankara must make a deal with Cairo, as Egypt's presence in the region is key. What does Egypt have to gain from all this? According to The Middle East Eye, Turkey has lifted its blockade against Egypt so that it can enter into a process of cooperation and partnership with NATO. “Turkey supports Egypt to progress its partnership with Nato as part of Mediterranean Dialogue [a forum for Nato and Mediterranean countries], and Ankara backs Egypt’s participation in all activities within the framework", a source told the media outlet. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu alluded to these reports last week, noting that "Turkey had made some goodwill gestures towards Egypt within NATO". Turkey is a key member of the Atlantic Alliance and could therefore offer concessions to Cairo.
Turkey began its rapprochement with Egypt in March, when it asked Egyptian opposition television channels to tone down their criticism of the Al-Sisi government. Subsequently, last April, Cavusoglu announced that Turkey would send a delegation to Egypt in early May. The plans have come to fruition and Turkish-Egyptian talks began in Cairo on Wednesday. The main objective is to normalise the strained relations between the two nations. The summit is headed by Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Sanad Loza and his Turkish counterpart Sedat Onal.
"These exploratory discussions will focus on the necessary steps that may lead towards the normalisation of relations between the two countries, bilaterally and in the regional context", the two countries' ministries said in a joint statement. If the politicians manage to resolve some of their differences and establish common ground during the meeting, Cavusoglu said he would hold talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry. Also, according to Reuters, the two ministers could agree on the appointment of ambassadors and a maritime agreement, Turkey's main goal. Shoukry has already expressed his satisfaction with Ankara's gestures and the possible rapprochement. "Egypt is eager to start talks and create relations based on international law that serves the interests of both countries", he said.
Turkey also wants to improve its economic relations with Egypt. "Parallel to the development of diplomatic relations with Egypt, we want to strengthen our trade and economic ties in the coming period", said Turkish Trade Minister Mehmet Mus. Ankara claims that Egypt remains its largest trading partner in Africa.
The situation in Libya has also been on the table during the talks. According to some reports, Egypt placed Libya among the priorities to be discussed at the meeting. The North African country is another point of contention between Ankara and Cairo. Each country has supported different sides. Moreover, Turkey has sent units of Syrian fighters to the country, something Al-Sisi condemned. "Rapprochement with Egypt...will certainly help the security situation in Libya", Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's spokesman and adviser, told Reuters. However, Ankara has assured that despite the UN's call and Egypt's demands for foreign forces to leave the country, Turkish officers and Syrian fighters will stay. “We have an agreement that is still holding there with the Libyan government”, Kalin stressed, referring to a 2019 pact that facilitated Turkish intervention in the country. It appears that, despite Turkey's aspirations to improve relations with Egypt, it will not budge on Libya.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood may cloud possible rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo. The shadow of the Brotherhood lurks over future relations between the two countries. Turkey still opposes calling the Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation". For Cavusoglu, "it is a political movement that is trying to come to power through election”. During the Cairo meeting, the Egyptian authorities have asked Turkey to hand over several members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara will have to rethink its relationship with the Islamist entity if it wants to establish bilateral relations with Cairo.
Ankara's politico-religious stance has allowed it to move closer to countries such as Qatar, with which it maintains close relations. Turkey also has a military base in the Gulf country. This union has caused relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to cool, worsening notably in 2018, due to the murder of Jamal Khasoggi. The Saudi journalist was murdered in Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul, creating a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan accused the crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, of organising the "savage" murder. "The order came from the highest levels", the Turkish president said. He also called on Saudi Arabia to allow those responsible to be tried in Turkey, where the events took place.
The ties between Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood is another point that does not favour Turkish-Saudi relations. In 2014, Riyadh blacklisted the Islamist organisation. Last March, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs together with the Ministry of Education launched a campaign to warn against the "danger of the Muslim Brotherhood". The Saudi government stresses the danger to "the region and the country, undermining the social fabric and destabilising security".
Since 2018, with the murder of Kashoggi and Erdogan's subsequent accusations, Saudi Arabia has called for a boycott of Turkish products, banned Turkish TV series and closed Turkish schools in the Kingdom. In October 2020 the head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, Ajlan al-Ajlan, called for a boycott of "everything Turkish, be it imports, investments or tourism". The Turkish president responded to this decision by assuring "we will continue to fly our flag in this geography forever with the permission of Allah”. As a result, trade between the two countries has been reduced by 98% since 2020.
On the other hand, last April, the Saudi Ministry of Education announced that "activities at the Turkish schools will be terminated at the end of this academic year". The ministry also decided to amend textbooks in 2019 to refer to the Ottoman Empire's presence in the Arabian Peninsula as "occupation".
Riyadh continues to challenge Turkey through an agreement signed with Athens on defence. "Greece and Saudi Arabia are linked by strong friendships, have common concerns about current geostrategic challenges and a common vision for the future", said Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, the Greek defence minister.
As the media outlet Al-Monitor points out, Erdogan's traditional approach to Saudi Arabia is based on religious respect. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud is considered the 'guardian' of Islam's holiest sites. Erdogan, therefore, must maintain respect for the Saudi king, while regarding the crown prince, MBS, as "the real troublemaker".
In a bid to develop and improve relations, Turkish minister Cavasoglu will travel to Saudi Arabia next week. The visit is the first since the 2018 murder of Kashoggi. The summit was agreed in a phone call between Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz. “During the call, relations between the two countries were discussed. The Turkish President also congratulated the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on the occasion of the blessed Eid al-Fitr”, the Saudi news agency (SPA) reported. Turkish advisor Kalin has assured that Ankara will look for ways to repair the relationship "with a more positive agency with Saudi Arabia". Turkish media outlet TRT reported that both Erdogan and the Saudi king "agree to keep the channels of dialogue open to improve bilateral relations and solve the problems between the two countries".
However, the process of rapprochement with Riyadh will be more complicated than with Cairo due to misgivings about Erdogan's policies. As one Arab analyst tells Al-Monitor, "Saudi Arabia is the Arab country most concerned about Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions". "There is a perception in Riyadh that Turkish Islamism is on the rise", adds the analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Kashoggi murder trial is another contentious issue between the two countries. Saudi Arabia last year sentenced eight people to between seven and 20 years in prison for the journalist's death. Ankara stated that the verdict did not meet its expectations and asked the Saudi authorities to cooperate in clarifying the case. However, in order not to further worsen relations, Turkish advisor Kalin declared that they respected "that decision".
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is trying to improve relations with Iran. Riyadh has been more enthusiastic about this rapprochement than Ankara. Establishing ties with Tehran may mean, for Saudi Arabia, a suspension of Houthi attacks in Yemen, a security priority for the Kingdom. Moreover, Iran's growing nuclear capability threatens Saudi Arabia, which has prompted this rapprochement.
Relations between Ankara and Brussels are not at their best. The EU-27 have agreed to impose sanctions against Turkish authorities over the confrontation with Greece in Mediterranean waters. Despite Turkey's geographic relevance to the EU in the refugee crisis, ties between the two are strained.
The same is true of the United States. President Joe Biden has recently acknowledged the Armenian genocide, creating discord between the two NATO powers. Erdogan's government has sharply criticised this decision, although Biden has stuck to the plan he promised during the campaign.
Turkey, with an economy hard hit by sanctions and the pandemic, needs to improve its ties with Arab countries in the region. Ankara, faced with its desperate situation in the region, has even shown interest in establishing a rapprochement with Israel, with which it has not had relations since 2010.
Another key country in Ankara's foreign policy is Russia. The two countries have recently initiated talks for Moscow to send a new batch of S-400 missiles. Russia will also start supplying the Sputnik V vaccine to Turkey from this month.
Erdogan's great aspiration, however, is the Middle East. Ankara will do its utmost to become an established leader in the region. Erdogan's expansionist pretensions have been seen in northern Syria, where he is seeking to gain ground and influence by taking advantage of the situation in the country. Through rapprochement with Egypt he hopes to exploit gas reserves in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, strong ties with Saudi Arabia will help him gain relevance in the Gulf, where he already has good relations with Qatar.