August 2, 2023

IntelBrief: Erdogan Makes Major Inroads in the Gulf

Saudi Press Agency via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A thaw in relations between Türkiye and key Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), accelerated with the successful July visit to the Gulf by Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Agreements signed during the trip, particularly on defense cooperation, signaled that all six Gulf monarchies now see Ankara as a strategic partner rather than a potential threat.
  • The United States’ strategic refocus toward China, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, set the environment for Erdogan’s broad welcome in the Gulf.
  • A key motivator for the newly re-elected Erdogan to improve relations with the Gulf is to access some of the ample Gulf state financial reserve funds to stabilize Türkiye’s economy.

In mid-July, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited three key Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar – following his May re-election. Erdogan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been tense since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party generally cheered the revolutions, while both de-facto Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and UAE President Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan viewed them and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist movements that benefitted from them as threats to established Arab leaders and to regional stability. Türkiye’s ties with Saudi Arabia had also been particularly strained by MBS’ role in the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence concluded that MBS approved the assassination.

Qatar has long been aligned with Türkiye and, like Ankara, supports incorporating Islamist movements into the legitimate political process and sees them as fostering, rather than undermining, long-term regional stability. Qatar’s alignment with Erdogan’s Türkiye was one factor behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s decision to isolate Qatar in 2017. As a condition for ending the boycott, the two states demanded that Qatar expel the approximately 5,000 Turkish forces hosted on the Tariq bin Ziyad military base outside Doha – a demand repeatedly refused by Qatar’s Amir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. In early 2021, with the effects of the Arab Spring largely faded, the intra-Gulf rift was formally settled. In April 2022, Türkiye moved the court case over the Khashoggi killing to Saudi authorities, paving the way for MBS to visit Türkiye two months later. The visit coincided with Saudi Arabia halting all mutual boycotts and restrictive measures targeting Türkiye and normalizing bilateral ties. The UAE followed suit by expanding its engagement with Erdogan.

Changed geopolitical and regional circumstances added momentum for Türkiye’s return to the Gulf fold. Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine shifted the U.S. global focus back towards Europe and its commitments to NATO, of which Türkiye is a member, and away from the Middle East to some degree. The centrality of the Ukraine war to U.S. foreign policy reinforced significant Saudi and UAE concerns over the U.S. commitment to Gulf security and the deterrence of Iran, fueled by relatively muted U.S. responses to aggressive Iran-backed actions against both Gulf states. As a result, virtually all Gulf rulers have explored new security partnerships with one another as well as with China, Türkiye, and other states active in the region.

Türkiye’s potential as a defense partner for the Gulf states was elevated by the standout performance of the Bayraktar (TB-2) armed drone, which has been used to great effect against Russian armor by Ukraine. Additionally, Erdogan’s diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin kept Ukraine’s grain exports flowing to global markets for much of the war’s duration before Russia withdrew from the agreement last month. The grain deal was praised by Gulf rulers, whose regional strategies have consistently sought to secure food supply routes. Türkiye and the Gulf states also aligned on other regional issues. While Türkiye and the UAE have supported opposite sides of the Libyan civil war, both countries are seeking to end their involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, Türkiye has moved to restore relations with the Assad regime of Syria, which the Arab League formally welcomed back into the Arab fold in May.

Balancing rapprochement with the Kingdom and the Emirates alongside maintaining close ties to Qatar has been imperative for Erdogan. In the months prior to Türkiye’s presidential election in May, opinion polls indicated Erdogan might lose to a unified opposition buoyed by poor domestic economic conditions. Turkish inflation was highly elevated – approximately 40% on an annualized basis at the time of the election – due in part to Erdogan’s pressuring the country’s central bank to lower rather than raise interest rates, while the value of Türkiye’s currency repeatedly hit new lows. For Erdogan, unlocking donations from the ample financial reserve funds of the Gulf states may have been key not only to securing his re-election, but also to stabilizing the Turkish economy.

Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion into the Turkish central bank in March to help Türkiye cope with the effects of the major February earthquake, stabilize the value of the lira, and signal improving relations. Capitalizing on last month’s visit to the UAE, Erdogan reportedly received commitments of $11.5 billion in financial assistance to help shore up Türkiye’s depleted foreign exchange reserves, the value of the lira, and a yawning budgetary deficit. As part of the package, an Emirati sovereign wealth fund pledged to buy $8.5 billion worth of Turkish bonds to finance the construction of homes in areas of Türkiye devastated by the February earthquake. It also committed $3 billion in credit to Turkish firms seeking to export goods and services to the UAE and other overseas markets. Türkiye and the UAE also signed agreements that would, if fully implemented, exponentially increase Emirati direct investment in Türkiye.

Several other strategic and defense cooperation agreements reached during the trip seemed to shift Türkiye to a potentially pivotal strategic partner a decade after Saudi Arabia and the UAE considered the country as a destabilizing influence. Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase the advanced Akinci drone in a deal likely to be worth over $1 billion. Baykar Technology’s CEO Haluk Bayraktar called it the "largest defense and aviation export contract in the history of Republic of Türkiye." As Saudi Arabia and Türkiye “expressed their determination” to enhance bilateral defense cooperation, Türkiye and the UAE agreed to establish a “strategic council” to strengthen their defense relations and to develop joint defense production programs. During Erdogan’s stop in Qatar, the two countries reaffirmed their already extensive partnership, including by signing a declaration emphasizing that “both countries share a similar approach on various regional and international issues.” A further expansion of security relations between Türkiye and all the Gulf states, collectively, could eventually produce a role for the relatively well-equipped Turkish navy to help the U.S.-led Gulf security coalitions patrol oil shipping routes and deter Iran’s naval threat to commercial shipping in the Gulf.