Relations between Ankara and Cairo have been strained due to Erdogan’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul has cooled ties with Saudi Arabia.
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.
Egypt, Turkey Restores Diplomatic Ties
Turkey’s foreign minister has said a new period was beginning with Egypt as Ankara pushes ahead with normalising relations with Cairo, local media reported.
Turkey and Egypt broke off relations after the 2013 overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, who was supported by Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
That year, Turkey and Egypt expelled each others’ ambassadors and froze their relations.
Turkish officials said last month Ankara had established the first diplomatic contacts with Cairo since 2013 as part of wider efforts to fix ties with other Middle Eastern rivals.
“A new era is beginning,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by NTV broadcaster.
Asked about possible ambassadorial appointments, Cavusoglu said: “We have not discussed [that] yet. There will be a meeting at the level of deputy ministers and diplomats. It will come onto the agenda there. A date is not clear yet.”
“After that, we will meet. The details of this will be discussed there,” he said, raising the prospect of mutual visits.
When asked, the minister also indicated there would be meetings between him and his Egyptian counterpart.
“Why not? There can be reciprocal visits and meetings, too,” Cavusoglu said.
Oil and Gas of Mediterranean Sea
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.
According to The Middle East based foreign policy analyst, 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.
Last month, members of Egypt’s Istanbul-based opposition media said Turkish officials had asked them to “tone down” criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The request appeared to be an attempt by Turkey to curry favour with Egypt in a bid to mend relations.
An Egyptian broadcaster, known for his outspoken criticism of Cairo on an Istanbul-based channel, said on Saturday he was going on “unlimited leave”. Moataz Matar, 46, made the announcement during his popular daily show “With Moataz”, which he has presented for several years on the liberal El-Sharq channel.
Matar said he was not forced by Turkey or the channel to leave but added he did not want to “embarrass” anyone. “I will come back when I am able to tell the truth on El-Sharq again as I always have,” he added.
After the Arab Spring, Istanbul became a hub of the Arab media critical of their governments back home, especially for Egyptian media linked to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey Reset Relationship With Saudi Arabia
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.
President Erdogan, his economic and political ambition in the region
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.
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