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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Turkey and the Gulf states: A complicated relationship

July 16, 2023

The Turkish president is set to visit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The four nations have gone from unhappy antagonists to, more recently, allies. How did they get there?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) shake hands during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, in June 2022.
Up until about two years ago, Turkish President Erdogan (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were not so friendlyImage: Burhan Ozbilici/AP/picture alliance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing to spend three days touring the Arab Gulf states: Saudi Arabia on Monday, Qatar on Tuesday and the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday.

During his visit, the Turkish leader expects to firm up multibillion-dollar deals that could include everything from privatizing Turkish state assets to direct investments, defense industry deals and business acquisitions or contracts.

"During our visit, we will have the opportunity to personally follow up on the support these countries will provide to Turkey," Erdogan recently told the Turkish press. "They've already expressed that they were ready to make serious investments in Turkey during my previous contacts. I hope we will finalize these during this visit."

Senior Turkish officials told the Reuters news agency they hope to confirm direct investments of around $10 billion (€8.9 billion) from the Gulf states shortly after Erdogan's trip, and then between $25 billion and $30 billion in total over a longer period of time.

Erdogan faces polarized Turkey after election win

The financial aspects of the presidential visit are especially important to Turkey, whose economy is under severe strain thanks to years of what economists have described as Erdogan's unconventional policies.

Currently, inflation is running at record highs, the Turkish lira has devalued to record lows and the Turkish government's budget deficit is becoming unmanageable.

So now, after Erdogan's slim reelection in May, a better relationship with the wealthy Gulf states is seen as essential to shoring up the economy and cementing his leadership.

The oil-rich Gulf states have already helped resolve Turkey's ongoing foreign currency crisis, at least in the short term, with direct currency swap agreements — and by directly depositing money into Turkish state accounts. Qatar and the UAE have provided Turkey with around $20 billion in currency swap agreements. And in March, Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion into Turkey's central bank to help shore up the economy.

But it hasn't always been this way.

Just three years ago, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were busy boycotting each another's imports and blocking media outlets. Turkey has a long and complex relationship with its wealthy neighbors to the south and they've gone from rivalry to detente, to cutting all ties and now, more recently, back to more friendly footing again.

Qatar's 'marriage of convenience'

Of the three, Turkey has the best relationship with Qatar, which has been its ally for about a decade.

In 2014, Turkey took Qatar's side during the small Gulf country's first serious diplomatic crisis. Back then, Qatar was isolated by its larger neighbors Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of bitter differences in opinion over foreign policy approaches.

The diplomatic conflict worsened and saw Qatar blockaded by air, land and sea between 2017 and early 2021. Turkey sent food, water and medicine, and continued to align with Qatar, going so far as to station Turkish troops there. 

A soldier holds a Turkish flagabove his head in a moving tank
Turkey has the second-largest standing military force in NATO after the US — something Qatar sees as advantageousImage: Fatih Aktas/AA/picture alliance

Qatar repaid the Turks by supporting them on the international stage — for example, by siding with Ankara in the Arab League and by making large financial investments in the country. Qatari investment in Turkey rose by 500% between 2016 and 2019.

Ideological and political motivations are often ascribed to the Qatari-Turkish relationship but really, it's a "marriage of convenience," researchers at the Hague-based Clingendael Institute think tank wrote in a 2021 briefing.

Turkish military assertiveness "provides Qatar with the protection it needs to maintain an autonomous foreign policy that can withstand Saudi and Emirati pressure," they explained. While for Turkey, partnering with Qatar is a way for Ankara to promote "its soft power claim to leadership of the Sunni world."

United Arab Emirates' financial friendship

The UAE has taken a more middle-of-the-road approach. Diplomatic relations with Turkey were also badly strained when Turkey took Qatar's side in the Gulf states' standoff. But, since late 2021, as Qatar has been welcomed back into the Gulf states' diplomatic fold, Turkey has also been able to foster an increasingly positive rapport with former antagonists Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Three days after Erdogan's election victory in May, Turkey and the UAE signed a trade agreement potentially worth some $40 billion over the next five years.

A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drone donated to Ukraine is seen during a presentation in Lithuania.
Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones established a positive and lethal reputation in Ukraine — now the UAE wants 120 of themImage: Ints Kalnins/REUTERS

Defense cooperation and sales are also more likely. In late 2022, the UAE was said to be considering the purchase of up to 120 of Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 drones, which are estimated to cost about $5 million each. Twenty of the drones were delivered to the UAE last November.

Saudi Arabia's 'roller coaster' relationship

When it comes to Turkey's Gulf relations, Saudi Arabia is on the opposite end of the diplomatic spectrum from Qatar.

"Turkey and Saudi Arabia have historically been significant regional competitors, vying for influence and leadership," Sinem Cengiz, a researcher at Qatar University, wrote in a May analysis for the Gulf International Forum. Since the turn of this century, relations between the two can best be described as a "roller coaster," she explained.

After the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, which toppled a number of dictatorships in the Middle East but which also led to ongoing conflict and instability in some countries, Turkey — along with Qatar — appeared to side with the anti-government protesters in places like Syria. 

Other Gulf countries worried "that Turkey might have aggressive intentions and that it was seeking to interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries and expand its influence in the Arab world," Saban Kardas, a professor of international relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, explained in an analysis in late 2021. "They saw it as a kind of neo-imperialist approach and chose to designate Turkey as a destabilizing element."

A woman holds a poster at a demonstration calling for justice for Jamal Khashoggi.
The 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul considerably worsened relations between Turkey and Saudi ArabiaImage: imago/IP3press/A. Morissard

In 2018, the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul Consulate led to an almost-complete severance of diplomatic ties. By 2020, Saudi businesspeople were calling for a boycott of Turkish-made goods and both countries banned media outlets owned by the other that same year. The Saudis also started to take sides against Turkey in international disputes, for example, when it came to arguments between Turkey and Greece, or Egypt.

The fact that Turkey was also becoming more of an opinion leader within the Islamic world also irked the Saudis. That role is one traditionally occupied by Riyadh, which has been seen as a leader for the global Sunni Muslim community.

Despite the long-standing rivalry, the worst enmity has dissipated somewhat over the past year or so. Saudi Arabia, as the biggest single economy among the Gulf states and one of the world's richest nations, has a comparatively underdeveloped economic relationship with Turkey — and that represents significant opportunities for both countries.

Saudi trade with Turkey has grown the fastest of all the Gulf countries. In 2022, trade between the two states equaled $6.5 billion. And over the first six months of 2023, bilateral trade was already at $3.4 billion, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported on July 12.

In June, news agency Bloomberg noted that Saudi Arabia's state-controlled oil company, Saudi Aramco, had met with about 80 different Turkish contractors in Ankara, with a view to working on potential projects worth $50 billion over the next five years.

Analysts believe Turkey's developing defense sector could also be of interest to the Saudis. They have not yet purchased any of the country's Bayraktar drones, but may well be interested. It has also been suggested that the Turkish military, with their modern navy, could take up jobs like patrolling oil shipping routes.

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.