It is tempting to see President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent diplomatic maneuverings as a throwback to the Zero Problems foreign policy doctrine touted by Turkey in the late 2000s, when Ankara yearned for friendship with the wider Middle East. After spending most of the last decade burning bridges in the region, Erdogan now seems eager to undo the damage.
But one problem remains: Erdogan himself. The president’s predilection for flame-throwing remains intact, and in the face of political difficulties at home, he tends to exert his incendiary rhetoric on friends of the turkeys, near and far. For example, he compared Israel to Nazi Germany (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may have taken notes), accused the United Arab Emirates of destabilizing the Middle East and said he would not speak never to the Egyptian leader, General Abdel-Fattah El Sisi.
If Erdogan is conciliatory now, it is not because he has seen the error of his ways, but because the country’s economic problems, for which many are responsible, force him to seek help wherever he can get it. It also means he can easily perform another U-turn when it becomes politically expedient. Even with outside help, Turkey’s economic fortunes are unlikely to improve dramatically before the presidential election early next summer, and Erdogan may need smoke and fire to distract an electorate unhappy.
Erdogan’s visit to Saudi Arabia late last month sparked a flurry of conciliatory gestures that included a trip to the United Arab Emirates and outreach in Egypt, Israel and Armenia. (This propitiation program isn’t limited to the region either: the Turkish leader has even gotten nice to Emmanuel Macron, after recently questioning the sanity of French presidents.)
Some of these gestures have been accompanied by Turkish concessions on contentious issues. Ankara reportedly assured Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that it would reduce its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group seen as a threat by the ruling elite in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Muslim Brotherhood TV stations in Turkey were told last year to silence their criticism of the Egyptian government, and since Erdogan’s visit to Abu Dhabi, speculation has grown that he will encourage the Islamists to reduce their operations in his country.
Erdogan had an additional offer for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman: On the eve of his visit to Riyadh, Turkey ended his trial for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and transferred the case to Saudi Arabia. The murder took place in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, and the Turkish president has helped stoke international opprobrium against Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler while using the opportunity to increase his own stature in the Middle East. East. (A later US intelligence assessment concluded that the prince ordered the operation, which he denies.)
The Turkish president has no such gift for Israel, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s government will nevertheless be grateful to Erdogan for showing relative caution during the recent clashes between police and Palestinians in the Al Mosque. Aqsa of Jerusalem. Compared to his thunderous denunciations of Israel’s actions in previous years, his criticisms last month were tame. Erdogan told Israeli President Isaac Herzog that he was very upset when Palestinians were killed or injured.
Herzog has built a remarkable relationship with the Turkish leader and paid a historic visit to Ankara in March in which Erdogan declared a turning point in relations between the two countries. Earlier this week, Erdogan wrote to his counterpart on Israel’s Independence Day, and Herzog returned the favor over the phone with Eid greetings.
More importantly, improved relations have already produced an economic dividend: Turkish exports to Israel are on the rise and Israeli tourists want to make the most of the thaw. This would be good news for the Turkish economy, as would the promised Emirati and Saudi investments following Erdogan’s visits. The imminent appointment of a Turkish ambassador to Cairo, after a nine-year hiatus, would also be good for trade with the most populous Arab nation.
But can Turkey maintain these improved relations? The architect of the former Zero Problems policy, then foreign minister (and later prime minister) Ahmet Davutoglu, has long since broken with Erdogan and is now in opposition. The current foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has neither his predecessor’s international stature nor his strength within Ankara’s ruling elite. He will cross his fingers so that his boss does not bring out the flamethrower again.
More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
To save democracy and defeat Putin, abandon the West: Andreas Kluth
India’s heatwaves are testing the limits of human survival: Pollard & Fickling
Israel’s support for the Ukrainian Alliance is risky but inevitable (Zev Chafets)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion
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