Arabization of Turkish foreign policy

Turkey announced a joint pact with Saudi Arabia that aims at a new strategy on Syria.

Accordingly, both countries are ready to support the group opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To a large extent, the term “opposition group” here means Jabha el Nusra, i.e., the Nusra Front. The Turco-Saudi pact is the most recent outcome of the Arabization of Turkish foreign policy.

So, what are the main reasons for Turkish foreign policy becoming more Arab-oriented? There are two sets of answers. First, Turkey cannot find other partners to support its foreign policy goals in various areas, including Syria. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only choices for Turkey. The rift between Turkey and the West is unprecedentedly big today. Therefore, Turkey does not have many options for creating foreign alliances.

Secondly, the Arabization of Turkish foreign policy is linked to complex financial issues. The Turkish economy is in serious decline. The unemployment rate is officially higher than 10 percent. The rate of youth unemployment is approaching 20 percent. Worse, Turkey is now an authoritarian state. All such dynamics put the Turkish economy into a very difficult situation. Foreign investment in Turkey has almost stopped due to the collapse of the judicial system here. Given these facts, Turkey has only several Arab states to energize its economy. In short, Arab states like Qatar give money to Turkey. As expected, today’s Arab money has the capacity to influence Turkish foreign policy.

In a historically quite unconventional case, Arab states now have leverage in Turkish foreign policy, thanks to the money they invest in Turkey. Therefore, the Arabization of Turkish foreign policy is both a choice and a necessity. Arab states that partially finance the Turkish economy today, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, want Ankara to follow in their footsteps in foreign policy. As long as Turkey has no alternative sources of foreign capital, Ankara will remain in a position of alliance with various Arab states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

One may even claim that the term “Arabization” is to a large extent “Qatarization.” The government has given names such as “Qatar Street” to major streets in Istanbul. Ironically, Turkey, once the regional leader, has become an instrument of Qatari capital. Losing its Western contacts, Ankara is more dependent on Arab capital. But this simultaneously diminishes the autonomy of Turkish foreign policy.

What is the promise of the Arabization of Turkish foreign policy? One may argue that it may help Turkey in Syria against the Assad regime. This is true. But it may also evoke a dangerous outcome. The pact between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is becoming a kind of sectarian one. Today, certain crises, such as those in Yemen and Syria, are at least partially sectarian crises. Therefore, Turkish foreign policy is gaining a sharp Sunni color. No matter what the Turkish intention is, Ankara’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria (and maybe in Yemen) is likely to have a sectarian appearance in third countries like Iran.

The more important dynamic is the Saudi one. The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is dominated by Shia Muslims. Thus, Shia activism in the Gulf is the first threat to Saudi stability. In fact, it is Saudi Arabia that plays the lead role in the new regional configuration. Saudi Arabia is acting very strategically to form a regional bloc according to its national needs. In other words, the whole business of the recent activism between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar should be seen first as a Saudi-centered configuration. This is critical to Ankara. In the long term, Turkey is likely to see that Saudi preferences are different and not completely compatible with Turkish interests. Thus, Ankara should not generate big expectations about all that is currently unfolding in the region.