Aaron Stein is an Istanbul-based PhD Candidate at King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1.
The Arab uprisings have complicated Turkey’s approach to the Middle East. Both long before and after the dynamic events of the last 18 months began, many in the Middle East and outside the Arab world regarded Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP as a model for emerging democracies. Buoyed by strong support in the polls, a growing economy, and a record of democratic reform, there was a consensus that Erdogan himself would be the face of a new democratic Middle East. For now, the prime minister seems to enjoy playing the role of regional demagogue, making strong promises and standing up to Israel. But can it last? Or will fundamental antagonisms lead to tension between Turkey and the region in the future?
For all its efforts to establish itself as a power from within the region, many still view Ankara as an outside force pursuing self-interested policies. This disconnect could, and already has, led to tensions between Turkey and its neighbors. Turkey’s problems with Iraq and Iran are well-documented, but many of the AKP’s previous foreign policy efforts were also a source of regional consternation. For example, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was never thrilled with Turkish efforts to mediate between Gaza and the West Bank, believing that Ankara was naïve in its dealings with Hamas and that it was encroaching on Egypt’s political turf. This dynamic is unlikely to change. Eager to maintain political relations with the United States and intent on keeping a cold peace with Israel, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is likely to hold on to the Palestinian card as tightly as he can. For now, it is one of Egypt’s few remaining foreign policy levers that it can use for influence with the United States. Morsy has already shown his independence when he declined to take a Turkish white paper on building democracy shortly after he was elected.
Moreover, true to form, an armada of Turkish construction companies and businessmen has followed Ankara’s diplomatic efforts in the Arab world. On one level, this is a positive development. The Arab world needs investment, but the Turks are at risk of overplaying their hand. There remains underlying hostility throughout the region to Turkey’s Ottoman colonial legacy and there is a sense among some that Ankara sees the Arab world merely as a market to be exploited. The negative association with so-called neo-Ottomanism, combined with Turkey’s relentless support for Sunni backed political parties, has led to a widespread belief that Ankara is not an honest broker. The AKP appears unwilling to accept this narrative, but has failed to deepen ties with non-conservative Sunni political parties. Relations with Egypt’s SCAF remain icy and the region’s minorities are growing increasingly wary of what they perceive as a sectarian based foreign policy.
If one digs deeper, however, even the current alliances of convenience between Turkey and Sunni Arab states appear to be tenuous and have the potential to compound tensions in the future. The political circumstances in Syria and Bahrain have thrust the foreign policies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar into alignment. All four have found themselves supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the fighters under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, and have turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s military put down of the revolt in Bahrain. However, if Assad is toppled and a power struggle ensues, the current coalition could break apart. Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to be far more comfortable with the Salafi opposition groups, while Turkey seems to have thrown its weight behind the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, Ankara has felt uneasy with the Salafi movement, choosing instead to endorse a more moderate approach to political Islam. In contrast, the Saudis traditionally have been uncomfortable with the Brothers. If you add the Syrian Kurdish issue to all of this, given its relation to Turkey’s handling of the Syrian uprising, the foundation for the current political/security relationship appears to be a bit wobbly. Thus, Ankara could be faced with the prospect of supporting different factions and political outcomes than the Saudis and Qataris in a post-Assad Syria and beyond.
Even ethnic divisions aside, the Arab revolts have also exposed the fundamental discord between the Gulf monarchies, the new revolutionary Arab States, and the principles underpinning the Turkish model. The uprisings have been a source of great political concern for the Gulf states. To help prevent protests and demands for democratic reform, the GCC states have been pouring money into social welfare programs. In tandem, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have launched their own political efforts to cement their status as regional leaders. These efforts are aimed at shoring up political interests abroad, in order to ensure that the new crop of Arab leaders don’t get too aggressive in encouraging the export of their democratically inspired revolutions. These steps are indicative of a larger discomfort with the fundamental ideas behind Turkish soft power. They also indicate that the GCC is uncomfortable with Ankara’s continuing attempts to solidify its status as the democratic leader of the new Middle East.
As a result, any Turkish attempt to further encroach on Arab issues is likely to breed tensions. This is likely to grow more acute as new, popularly elected Arab leaders in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt rise to prominence, which will concomitantly diminish Erdogan’s appeal. For Turkey, this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. In Central Asia, Turkish businesses have thrived, even though the once touted Central Asian Turkish model has failed. Turkey was able to accomplish most of its political goals only after it dropped the rhetoric and began pursuing a quieter foreign policy aimed at strengthening trade relationships and growing business opportunities. In the Middle East, Turkish businesses are likely to continue to have distinct comparative advantages in the medium to long term. However, gaining access to these historically difficult markets will require a close relationship between governments. Moving forward, Turkey should consider taking a step back from its self-imposed leadership role, treading more carefully, and identifying areas and avenues to maximize its own political and economic influence. It should pair these efforts with a more sober analysis of its current capabilities, and a more inclusive foreign policy that focuses on long term regional dynamics.