The foreign ministers of Qatar, Russia, and Turkey in Doha, 11 March
Judging by media reactions in the Gulf, the hype about restoring warm relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries is winding down. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his “regret” that Saudi transport aircrafts and six F-15 fighter jets were sent to Crete to take part in joint exercises with the Greek Air Force. Erdogan said, “I regret that Saudi Arabia is conducting joint military exercises with Greece… We think this should not have happened.”
That was few days after Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told Bloomberg news agency: “A new chapter can be opened, a new page can be turned in our relationship with Egypt as well as the Gulf countries to help regional peace and stability.”
Regarding Erdogan’s statement, one Dubai-based Saudi analyst commented, “the Turkish president’s well-known arrogance is back, trying to tell a big country what it should or should not do.” He added that recent reconciliatory messages are just an attempt by Erdogan to break the isolation in which his country has ended up because of his aggressive policies in the region. Referring to the old railway line (called Route of Hejaz) which linked Istanbul to Mecca during the Ottoman occupation of large swathes of the Arab world, he said, “no Hejaz route for now. It is a long way to go.”
Since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia in early January ended the boycott of Qatar by its neighbours, Turkish, Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood media has been propagating the notion of improved Turkish-Arab relations. Some suggested that Qatar and others would play the role of a go-between to bring Turkish-Saudi relations at least back on track.
But a Saudi source told Al-Ahram Weekly that there is no Qatari mediation with Turkey, and relations are direct between Ankara and Riyadh. “It is not full-fledged diplomatic contact as their media claim, it is on an intelligence level only,” the source said. He noted that there was no action on the part of the Saudi authorities to stop the popular boycott of Turkish goods that led to Turkish exports to the kingdom dropping by more than 90 per cent.
According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, Saudi imports from Turkey have slowed to a trickle. Imports from Turkey totalled 50.6 million Saudi Riyals ($13.5 million) in December, down 95 per cent from SR1.02 billion a year earlier. Meanwhile trade between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is on the upswing, rising from SR688 million in January 2020 to almost SR1.2 trillion in December.
Saudi and Gulf commentators see Turkey’s desperate manoeuvres towards the Gulf as an attempt to make up for its cold relations with the new Joe Biden administration in Washington. Erdogan is also trying to distance himself from Iran to appease Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Some even see him softening towards Egypt as a way of placating the Gulf.
Emirati academic Abdulkhalek Abdullah recently tweeted that Erdogan needs to fulfill certain commitments before he can reconcile with the Gulf. Among these are an end to the occupation of Syria and Iraq, the withdrawal of his mercenaries from Libya, no longer embracing the Muslim Brotherhood or inciting against the stability of Egypt, an apology for targeting the Saudi leadership, the immediate withdraw of his forces from the Gulf and reconsidering his Ottoman expansion plans. By “his forces in the Gulf” Abdullah means the Turkish military base in Qatar, established during the Qatar crisis.
There is scepticism in many Gulf circles that Erdogan just wants Gulf and Arab acceptance of his occupation in Syria, military incursions in Iraq and terrorist infiltration of Libya. That is why recent statements from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh about the possible restoration of Syria’s position into the Arab fold was seen by Turkey as an unwelcome answer to Erdogan’s meddling in Syria. As for Libya, the Saudi and Emirati position is pushing for international efforts to kick out terrorist mercenaries brought in by Erdogan. Gulf countries are fully in line with the Egyptian position concerning arrangements in the eastern Mediterranean.
These are essential prerequisites to starting full diplomatic talks with Turkey to re-establish normal relations. As one Gulf commentator said: “As long as Erdogan’s Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, there can not be normal relations with it. This is a basic principle that cannot be overruled”. Media reports about Turkey’s reconciliation with the Gulf continue to pour in, propagated by Muslim Brotherhood affiliated outlets in the region. But Gulf media has hardly supported the notion and a possible rapprochement in the immediate future is still a far cry from what Gulf officials have been talking about.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: No Hejaz route yet