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Gulf support for Turkey’s Erdogan is about more than economics

James M. Dorsey




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When jailed Turkish politician Selahattin Demirtas apologized for his pro-Kurdish party’s poor performance in recent Turkish elections, he did more than take responsibility.

Turkish politician Selahattin Demirtas. Photo: STR


Mr. Demirtas implicitly questioned the notion that Turks vote primarily along ideological and identity lines rather than based on assessing which party will best further their economic and social interests. However, the reality is that all the above shape how Turks vote.


Mr. Demirtas’ Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), running under another party banner due to a potential ban over alleged militant ties, won 8.79 percent in last month’s parliamentary election compared to 11.7 per cent in 2018. Even so, it remains the third-largest party in parliament.


At first glance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s economic performance suggested that Turks would choose change. Inflation hovers around 44 per cent; the Turkish lira has lost 90 per cent of its value over the last decade and hit a new low a day after Mr. Erdogan’s electoral victory.


In addition, many blame corruption and a failure to enforce building standards for the degree of devastation caused by earthquakes in February in eastern Turkey, parts of which are predominantly Kurdish.


A 5.2-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey, the same region that was devastated several weeks earlier, killing at least one person and collapsing buildings. Photo: Demiroren News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Stunning as those statistics and allegations may be, they tell only part of the story.


Counterintuitively, Mr. Erdogan likely benefitted not only from skills that best come to the fore when he is in a political fight but also from his religiosity, religious lacing of politics, and promotion of greater freedom for public expressions of piety in a country that long sought to restrict them to the private sphere.


Conservative religious women were one major constituency that benefitted economically and socially from Mr. Erdogan’s rollback of Kemalist restrictions that barred women from wearing headscarves in government offices and universities.


"Erdogan is loved that much because he changed people's lives," said Ozlem Zengin, a female member of parliament for the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Similarly, religion may have been one reason voters in earthquake-hit areas favoured the AKP above Mr. Demirtas’ HDP.


Economist Jeanet Sinding Bentzen notes that “individuals become more religious if an earthquake recently hit close by. Even though the effect decreases after a while, data on children of immigrants reveal a persistent effect across generations.”


Economics in mind, some voters questioned whether opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu with his vow to reintegrate Turkey into the Western fold, would have been able to secure badly needed support from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


After years of strained relations, Saudi and Emirati support for Mr. Erdogan was displayed within days of the Turkish leader's electoral success.


The UAE ratified a five-year, US$40 billion trade deal with Turkey three days after the vote. ‘This deal marks a new era of cooperation in our long-standing friendship,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani al-Zeyoudi.


Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the United Arab Emirates' minister of state for foreign trade. Photo: Maksim Bogodvid / Sputnik via AP


Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s national oil company, met in Ankara with some 80 Turkish contractors this week to discuss US$50 billion worth of potential projects.


“Aramco wants to see as many Turkish contractors as possible in its projects. They are planning refinery, pipeline, management buildings, and other infrastructure construction that will be worth $50 billion in investment,” said Erdal Eren, head of the Turkish Contractors Association.


In a bow to foreign investors, including Gulf states that increasingly tie aid to recipients’ economic reform policies, Mr. Erdogan on Saturday named Mehmet Simsek, a widely respected former banker and deputy prime minister and finance minister, as his new treasury and finance minister.


Foreign investors and analysts saw the appointment of Mr. Simsek, an advocate of conventional economic policies, as a sign that Mr. Erdogan may shift away from his unorthodox refusal to raise interest rates that fueled inflation and an exodus of foreign money.


In addition to stabilizing the economy, Mr. Erdogan faces challenges funding reconstruction in earthquake-hit areas as well as northern Syria as part of an effort to facilitate the return of refugees.


With 3.7 million registered refugees, Turkey is home to the largest Syrian exile community. Anti-migrant sentiment and pledges to return refugees were important in last month's election campaigns. Refugee return is also part of the Gulf states’ renewed engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


In a twist of irony, Gulf support for Mr. Erdogan, despite his Islamist leanings, may be driven as much by economics as geopolitics.


At a time when the UAE and Saudi Arabia adopt positions at odds with the policies of the United States, the region's security guarantor, they may see Mr. Erdogan as an increasingly important partner irrespective of whether the Gulf states’ moves constitute a genuine policy shift or merely a pressure tactic to persuade the US to be more attentive to their concerns.


Like the two Gulf states, Mr. Erdogan, despite Turkey's NATO membership, has pursued an independent foreign policy involving close ties to Russia and a military intervention in Syria that impacts Gulf efforts to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.


Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference during the NATO summit at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 14, 2021. Photo: Yves Herman | Reuters


In its latest charting of an independent course, the UAE said it was pulling out of a US-led maritime security force, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).


Led by a US admiral, the CMF groups 38 countries, including Saudi Arabia, in a bid to halt Iranian attacks on commercial ships, weapons smuggling, and piracy.


The UAE said its withdrawal was part of an assessment of “effective security cooperation” in the Middle East.


However, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Emirati counterpart, Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, did not mention a UAE withdrawal in a joint statement on Friday after talks in Washington.


"Sheikh Tahnoon praised the United States' strong security and defense partnership with the UAE. Mr. Sullivan confirmed the US commitment to deterring threats against the UAE and other US partners while also working diplomatically to de-escalate conflicts and reduce tensions in the region," the statement said.


Moreover, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will meet in Saudi Arabia this week with his Gulf Cooperation Council counterparts, including the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.


At the same time, various Iranian and other media quoted a Qatari news website, Al Jadid, saying that China was facilitating talks between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran to create a joint naval force to enhance maritime security in the Gulf.


The report did not clarify whether China would play an active role in the force or whether participation would be limited to Middle Eastern states.


Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Shahram Irani discussed plans for a joint maritime force on local television but did not mention Chinese involvement.


In a first response, CMS and US Fifth Fleet spokesman Commander Tim Hawkins dismissed the notion of maritime forces that includes Iran. ““It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens,” Mr. Hawkins said.


US Navy 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr Tim Hawkins at 5th Fleet headquarters in the Bahraini capital Manama. Photo: AFP


Nevertheless, the force, if created, could cast a different light on Emirati and Saudi efforts to boost Mr. Erdogan.


Taken together, the UAE’s alleged withdrawal from the US-led CMF, the creation of a China-associated alternative force, and support for Mr. Erdogan would signal a Gulf willingness to take greater responsibility for the region’s security.


It would also indicate a qualitative change in Chinese engagement in the Middle East following the China-mediated agreement in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran that restored diplomatic relations.


Turkey has been conspicuously absent in discussions about Gulf security even though it is a regional powerhouse with a battle-hardened military, an expanding homegrown defence industry, and regional ambitions. The UAE and Saudi Arabia account for 40 per cent of Turkish arms exports.


Turkey first proposed establishing a military base in Saudi Arabia in 2015, two years before the kingdom and the UAE initiated a 3.5-year-long diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar that was lifted in 2021. The Gulf states demanded, among others, that Qatar halt military cooperation with Turkey and shut down a Turkish military base populated by Turkish forces at the beginning of the boycott.


“If the current trend of US detachment from the region continues, and Turkey’s rising regional posture keeps moving in a forward direction, Ankara may have an opportunity to fortify its position in the Gulf,” said Middle East scholar Ali Bakir.



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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