Turkey and the Arab World: Ankara’s Changing Relations and Evolving Foreign Policy

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Speakers

Hurcan Asli Aksoy

Deputy Director of the Center for Applied Studies on Turkey (CATS)

German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Meliha Altunışık

Professor at the Department of International Relations

middle east technical university

Nicholas Danforth

Non-Resident Senior Fellow

Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)

Gönul Tol

Founding Director of the Turkey Program and Principal Investigator for the Frontier Europe Initiative

Middle East Institute

Moderator

Mustafa Gurbuz

Senior Professor of the Department of Critical Race, Gender and Culture

American University

About the webinar

On September 29, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled “Turkey and the Arab World: Ankara’s Changing Relations and Changing Foreign Policy.” The panelists were Hurcan Asli Aksoydeputy director of the Center for Applied Studies on Turkey at the German Institute for International and Security Studies; Meliha Altunışıkprofessor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara; Nicholas Danforth, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy; and Gönul TolFounding Director of the Turkey Program and Principal Investigator for the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute. Mustafa GurbuzACW Non-Resident Fellow and Senior Faculty of American University’s Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture moderated the event.

Gönul Tol focused on domestic issues influencing Turkey’s foreign policy, saying she also did not overlook the importance of other factors. She added that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used ideology as an important tool to stay in power, but after 2015 he allied himself with Turkish nationalists to strengthen his domestic strategy.

  • On the importance of ideology in Erdogan’s understanding of foreign policy, Tol said, “Erdoğan has been in power for more than a decade now and he has used ideology to build his national image, his identity national policy. So, in a way, ideology has become a tool for Erdoğan to tell his constituents, his national constituency, who he is and what he stands for.
  • Regarding Erdoğan’s alliance with Turkish nationalists, Tol said: “From 2015, [Erdoğan] allied with the nationalists and once again used foreign policy to polish that nationalist image.

Meliha Altunışık discussed Turkey’s regional moves and renewed relations with other states, defining Turkish normalization with Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others as less of a sea change in Turkey’s foreign policy and more an “adjustment”. Altunışık said the adjustment was necessitated by Turkey’s domestic economic difficulties, which new relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia could help resolve. She also raised the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey as a serious concern for Erdoğan and his opponents.

  • Regarding the economy, Altunışık said: “The economic problems in Turkey are one of the main drivers of this normalization, because we see the emphasis on economic relations with Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates; and energy is an important element here because Turkey is an energy-dependent country and wants to diversify its energy resources.
  • On Syrian refugees, she said that when it comes to normalizing with regional actors, “all studies show that the number of Syrian refugees is becoming more and more problematic for the [Turkish] government, especially now that there is an economic crisis, now that the pie has become smaller and smaller.

Hurcan Asli Aksoy spoke about Turkey’s foreign policy changes as part of a broader regional trend, and highlighted the effect of both Russia’s war on Ukraine and the current stalemate in Libya and Syria on Turkey’s calculation. Aksoy also highlighted Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Tunisia and its position vis-à-vis Cyprus and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as its hopes for EU membership.

  • Regarding Turkey’s reckoning in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aksoy said, “Turkey has been trying to realign with its Arab neighbors while increasing escalation with Greece and Cypress…As we see more convergence of interests or more alignment with Arab actors, we are likely to see more tension. with Greece and Cyprus.
  • Regarding Turkey’s concern about its regional position and its relations with the EU, Aksoy said: “Ankara had to normalize its relations; but at the same time, it seeks to return to its soft power strategies by presenting itself as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia and as an important power in the Black Sea. But Ankara also expects European states to wake up to Turkey’s security concerns.

Nicholas Danforth discussed the structural factors limiting Turkey’s rapprochement with the Arab world, and also touched on the different positions held by President Erdoğan and members of the opposition. In addition, Danforth covered a wide range of Turkey’s international relations, including with Syria and the Assad regime, with Egypt, with Israel and the United States, and with Greece.

  • On the role that Turkey’s interactions with Greece and Cyprus play in its relations with the Arab world, Danforth said: “Erdoğan’s rapprochement with the Arab states goes hand in hand with the intensification of hostilities with Greece. Ankara was clearly alarmed by the growing ties between Greece and Cyprus and their Middle Eastern neighbors. She saw the rapprochement as a way to try to undermine the development of these relations.
  • On the limits of Turkey’s rapprochement with the Arab world, Danforth said: “Erdoğan is nothing if not a pragmatic political actor. And yet, there remain very real structural factors that will limit Turkey’s ability to pursue this rapprochement.
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