By Abdullah Bozkurt
May 23, 2014
Just like many of its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were taken aback by the Chavez-style harsh discourse of Turkey's top political Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan targeting Gulf monarchies and relentless bashing on Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. Yet Emiratis have avoided responding in kind, choosing instead to be meticulous about their relations with Turkey, a regional power with huge potential to counter Iranian clandestine activities in a large geographical area, from Afghanistan to Yemen and from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia.
By downplaying Erdoğan's vulgar abuse of Turkey's friends, allies and partners, the Abu Dhabi government is playing smart politics to avoid creating a vicious cycle and to stop feeding conspiracy-theory-frenzied government media outlets in Turkey. Perhaps the prime minister has been trying to provoke a foreign response so he can play it back to his core constituency, as Chavez did with the Americans. Emiratis realize that there are a lot of common and overlapping interests encouraging the two countries to cooperate on many issues. They do not want to risk that precious asset just because Erdoğan, embattled amid a corruption scandal that incriminated himself and his family members, strives to exploit foreign policy in order to distract Turks from domestic woes.
That was the message I gathered during a two-day workshop on Turkey organized by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Policy Center (EPC), a leading independent think tank focused on bridging the gap between intellectual exercises and policy decision-making processes, according to EPC Chair Dr. Ebtisam Al Ketbi. The Gulf recognizes that predominantly Sunni-populated Turkey is not “the other” -- the category of Israel or Iran -- because of so many overlapping interests between Turkey and the Gulf powers. Although the GCC does not have any uniform policy towards Turkey at the moment, there is by and large a strong desire to further cement ties on common positions set to benefit both sides of the aisle.
It is also comforting to see that Erdoğan's targeted attacks on Gulf partners have thus far not dealt any huge blows to bilateral relations with the Gulf in general and with the UAE specifically. Abu Dhabi sees Turkey as a strategic partner, one with which it can interact in many ways to raise its profile within the region and beyond. The close cooperation between Ankara and Abu Dhabi on Tunisia, Libya and Syria during their early stages of conflict was a testament to the fact that there is a lot of room to make common deals. Unfortunately, a problem emerged when Erdoğan openly pushed for the dominance of Muslim Brotherhood ideology in these countries, which was something of a red line for the Abu Dhabi government.
Erdoğan's clear inclination towards Iran, evidenced by his calling Tehran a “second home” during his last visit there in February, also irked Gulf allies. They took notice of Erdoğan's harsh remarks bashing a list of countries including the United States, the European Union, Gulf nations and others, but which surprisingly did not include Iran, a neighbor that has been conducting all kinds of clandestine activities to ethnically, religiously and politically destabilize Turkey. Given that Tehran has been trying to hurt Turkish interests in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, one would expect Erdoğan to express his frustration to Iran before anybody else. Yet his criticism of Iran has been markedly muted and limited, only in terms of a general desire to see Iran moving in a certain direction. That pitiful record has also weakened an argument raised by Turkish diplomats in closed-door sessions with allies, that Ankara in fact takes a strong stance with Iran in private discussions.
On top of that, the corruption scandals have revealed how Erdoğan and a few of his ministers closely interacted with Iran in helping the regime circumvent sanctions, exposing personal financial interests in dealing with Iran as well. This is evident in Erdoğan's vouching for Reza Zarrab, an Iranian national and key suspect in the Dec. 17 corruption investigation, who moved Iranian government funds held in Turkish and Chinese banks using gold and fabricated trade transactions. Erdoğan was happy when Zarrab was released from jail pending trial and said justice had been served -- quite an unusual move for a politician with his back pushed against the wall. Perhaps Erdoğan's personal sympathy towards Iran has fed into the Gulf's growing suspicions regarding the current government's real intentions with Tehran.
This murky picture has obviously confused many Arabs in the Gulf who follow Turkey closely. For them, it simply does not add up for Turkish interests to closely align with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran at the same time, a move that will alienate Turkey from Western allies as well as Arab and Muslim partners. This can best be explained by the deepening rift between what Erdoğan personally wants for Turkey and what Turkey's national security and foreign economic relations require. This is the point that many foreign analyst miss when it comes to judging Turkey. The fact that Erdoğan's pattern of behavior does not fit into any reasonable and sound policy choices complicates the debate on Turkey further.
Here is what Erdoğan has been trying to accomplish in Turkey. Since there is no support for political Islam in Turkey -- only 2 percent currently with a maximum potential of 5 percent, according to polling data -- he needs external anchors and symbolism to imbue this ideology into the minds of Turks. He wants to create a Turkey in his image by exploiting sensitive issues such as Palestine, Israel, Syria and Myanmar as well as by abusing issues facing Muslim minority communities in Europe. He does not need to pursue a smart policy with allies and partners in order to improve the lives of Muslims struggling under difficult conditions. In fact, firing back to Erdoğan's harsh discourse further flares tensions and strengthens Turkey's Islamists, who will play back foreign reactions to his own Islamist constituency.
This also confounds the connection between the Turkish economy and its foreign policy in terms of whether there is, in fact, a link between the two under Erdoğan's government. Turkey, an emerging market economy and G-20 member state, runs a big current account deficit (CAD), which is seen as the weakest point in its economy. Last year, the CAD ballooned to $65 billion; the government hopes it will decrease to under $56 billion by the end of 2014. Not only does Turkey require foreign investment to fuel its growing economy, but it needs to protect and expand its foreign market share, all the more reason to not alienate and antagonize trading partners. Yet Erdoğan behaves in a completely contradictory manner, driving a wedge between his personal ambition to survive the political turmoil at home and the country's urgent macroeconomic needs.
If this dilemma were to be unequivocally resolved, it would be easier to respond to the question of what Turkey actually wants, an intriguing inquiry asked by many interlocutors in Abu Dhabi. With Turkey's population of 77 million mostly young and well-trained people, its geography and well-diversified economy, its strong connections with the Western alliance and growing links with non-traditional markets in Latin America, South Asia, the Gulf and Africa, the country is a major regional power and a likely candidate for a global player. If Turkey can unleash its potential with the participation of all the stakeholders in its society -- including Kurds and Alevis -- it will surely consolidate further power in the neighborhood. The only power that will challenge Turkey, I believe, is Iran -- a power that has not stopped backstabbing the Turkish state for centuries. Turks have no outstanding problems with other regional heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as they share many common positions and see eye-to-eye on many issues despite some competition and rivalry.
Perhaps this is not how Erdoğan wants Turkey to be projected abroad, at least not since 2011, when he received a comfortable majority in the national elections and started to inoculate Turks with political Islamist discourse. Erdoğan's dramatic shift from his earlier record does not reflect values subscribed to by the majority of Turks. He has already lost 7 percentage points in the March local elections, and will likely continue to suffer politically. His continuing popularity stems from successfully delivering services such as health and social assistance programs as well as the fact that the opposition parties are in disarray and do not offer viable alternatives. Political Islamist rhetoric does not get votes on its own but is a mobilizing factor for core supporters and is an effective tactical move that shifts domestic woes to outsiders.
Turks are patient but they will not tolerate an authoritarian government for much longer. Nosy and meddlesome military generals have learned their lesson and now stay away from politics. Perhaps Turks will entertain an increasingly repressive government dominated by few Islamists for a while before doing away with it. The pendulum will swing back to the middle, where most Turks cluster, perhaps after the colossal failure of Islamists who will surely inflict damage to the perception of Turkey in the meantime.