Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish and Egyptian officials will gather around a table on Tuesday amid a thaw in relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbours after nearly a decade of mutual distrust and often outright hostility.
The Ankara meeting at the deputy foreign minister level is the second round of Turkey-Egypt talks following May’s Cairo summit, which had been the first direct high-level discussions between the countries since 2013.
The contact is the latest between Turkey and the Arab states it fell out with in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw anti-government movements across the Middle East and North Africa unseat a number of longtime rulers and threaten others.
Turkey, which backed groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood, saw its chance to seize a leading role in the region and pressed Arab regimes to reform in the face of popular protest.
Instead, many of those it supported suffered setbacks and Ankara found itself isolated.
In Egypt, a wedge was driven between the two countries in 2013 when military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Turkish ally.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also emerged as strong rivals to Turkey as both saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their ruling dynasties.
Differences with the Saudis were highlighted following the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointed the finger of blame at de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (also known as MBS) inner circle.
Turkey also became embroiled in Libya’s civil war in 2019, backing the UN-recognised administration in Tripoli while Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the other side.
An Egyptian, Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini blockade against Turkey’s ally Qatar from 2017 also added to tensions with Ankara. The resolution of the Gulf crisis earlier this year removed a major impediment to reconciling divisions.
Last week, Erdogan spoke by phone to UAE leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, two weeks after hosting the UAE’s national security adviser.
Although Erdogan and the Saudi crown prince are yet to talk directly, the Turkish president discussed improving relations with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in May.
‘Aggressive’ post-Arab Spring approach
Analysts said a change in the region’s dynamics had created an atmosphere of rapprochement between Ankara and its former adversaries.
“After the Arab Spring uprisings, the mood was completely different,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre for Turkish Studies. “The Arab regimes’ threat perception had peaked, popular uprisings were bringing down autocratic regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood was on the rise.”
That led to the adoption of “an aggressive, security-orientated approach” that viewed Turkey as a major threat, she added.
Signs of a US retreat from the region, highlighted by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, also shattered faith in Washington’s regional role.
Combined with the realisation that the aggressive post-Arab Spring foreign policy ventures were not working, this led the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians to adopt a more diplomatic approach.
“Now they think, ‘OK, we live in a region where the US is not going to be present and the security-orientated approach didn’t produce the results we wanted,’” Tol said.
The Arab trio is also less concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood than it was in the early 2010s, Tol continued, adding that “the whole mentality in the region has changed.”
Eyup Ersoy, an international relations faculty member at Ahi Evran University, said Turkey had “relinquished its unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood and has become less vocal about the issue”.
The removal of a “quite challenging” rival coalition would allow Turkey greater leeway in the region and provide recognition of its “regional clout,” Ersoy added, as well as remove the prospect of “interminable proxy conflicts”.
Better relations with Cairo and Abu Dhabi would also further isolate Greece, Turkey’s traditional rival in the eastern Mediterranean, he said.
Economic factors also weighed heavily on the region’s coronavirus-hit economies and better ties are expected to lead to improved trade and higher levels of investment, experts said.
“Increased investments, especially from the Gulf, will be highly significant for Turkey considering the stagnating domestic economy and the chronic current account deficit,” Ersoy said.
While there is likely to be a rise in regional cooperation between the four, a degree of competition and mistrust will remain.
In particular, the personal animosities that have built up during the years would make a return to normalcy difficult and may be restricted to de-escalating their rivalry, said Galip Dalay, a fellow at the German Institute for Security and Policy Affairs.
“This is most apparent in Libya, where none of them have really changed their positions but they’re not actively escalating, he said.
Referring to Erdogan’s demonisation of el-Sisi following the latter’s overthrow of Morsi, Dalay added, “Shaking hands with Sisi or even having a photograph with Sisi would be very difficult psychologically and politically for Erdogan.”
Meanwhile, Tol emphasised the antagonism between Erdogan and the Saudi prince.
“MBS isn’t going to forget what Turkey did with Khashoggi,” she said. “The era that started with the Arab uprisings was so traumatic and challenging for these regimes and the way Turkey behaved during that time left a mark that’s not going to go easily.”