The complex relationship between Turkey and the Arab World is impacted by the legacy of Ottoman rule, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision for a secular Turkey and its relations with Arab countries, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20 years rule. All these factors and the results of the upcoming Turkish election will determine the future of the complex relationship between Turkey and the Arab world. After the First World War, the Middle East was placed under British and French rule as a mandate, following centuries of being part of the Ottoman Empire. This mandate continued until the last emirates in the Gulf gained independence, leading to the foundation of Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE in 1971.
Secular Turkey and Its Arab Neighbors
The establishment of modern Turkey, founded on the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, created a physical and cultural divide from Arab countries. The country’s founding father, Ataturk, initiated a top-down revolution to sever the new nation’s ties with its neighbors, past, and previous political system. Ataturk envisioned a secular Turkey that was divorced from Arab culture and Islam. As noted by Turkish sociologist Serif Mardin, “The new regime targeted the values of the ancient Ottoman regime.” Consequently, the new republic introduced various reforms to modernize and westernize the country.
In addition to embracing the West, Turkey’s ruling elites also developed a disdain for the Arab world, which viewed them as obscurantist, inferior, and traitorous for having betrayed Turkey during World War I. Likewise, the Arab population had held negative feelings toward Turkey for its separation from the Ottoman Empire. The oppressive tactics of the Young Turks toward Arab language and culture in the early 1900s alienated them from the Turkish rulers.
When they were seeking independence from the Ottoman empire, Arab tribes allied with foreign powers against the Ottomans. This resulted in both sides developing stereotypes about each other, which served as an obstacle to developing relations between Arab countries and secularist Turks. The mutual animosity resulted in a separation despite being neighbors. Consequently, Turkey and the Arab world, including the Gulf, are geographically close but have a tense relationship.
Relations Under Erdogan
Despite efforts made by Islamic-leaning politicians and parties, Turkish foreign policy toward the Arab world has not fundamentally changed since the founding of Turkey. Turgut Özal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both Islamic-leaning political leaders, attempted to change Turkish foreign policy toward its Arab neighbors while simultaneously sending arms and soldiers to regional conflict zones.
When the Erdogan-led AK Party came to power in 2002, relations with Arab countries were restored and peaked before the Arab Spring. When the uprisings began in 2011, many GCC states disapproved of Turkey’s involvement in the Arab revolutions. Consequently, relations deteriorated sharply. Ankara found itself jostling with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for influence in countries hit by Arab Spring uprisings. While Gulf states sided with autocratic and military rulers, Turkey supported revolutionary movements including Islamic parties.
The strife peaked during the Gulf crisis and blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain between 2017 and 2021. However, the Al-Ula agreement of 2021 that ended the blockade on Doha has repaired Turkey’s ties with the four blockading states. Nonetheless, the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election in Turkey scheduled on May 14 could significantly change GCC-Turkish relations.
Erdogan vs. Kilicdaroglu Relations with the GCC
Although President Erdogan went through turbulent years with many Arab countries—primarily Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—he looks at the Arab world as sharing similar Islamic culture, history, and interests, and therefore his only contention with other Middle Eastern countries is in the political realm. Since things did not go as he desired during the Arab Spring, it is no longer likely that he will continue with his previous policies of countering the authoritarian regimes of the Gulf and other Arab countries.
If Erdogan wins the election, Turkish-Gulf relations may experience a significant boost. While Qatar already has excellent relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may further strengthen their political and economic ties with Ankara. These Gulf countries are currently pursuing an independent foreign policy, breaking free from America’s influence and navigating new partnerships with other international and regional powers. However, this could come with a hefty cost, as Washington is unlikely to let them go easily. Turkey, which also tries to operate independently, could make for a valuable ally. Erdogan is likely to welcome these countries with open arms and restore relationships to pre-Arab Spring levels. In the case of the GCC, Ankara had an easier path to rapprochement with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh since neither state was affected by the Arab Spring. They only clashed with Turkish foreign policy over the futures and political processes of other Arab countries.
In the event that the Turkish opposition wins the election, anti-Arab sentiments may resurface. In reality, these sentiments never fully disappeared but were somewhat concealed during the AK Party governments. As mentioned earlier, some Turkish secularists have a tendency to admire Western culture and view people from the Middle East as being inferior. If the opposition comes to power, these unfounded views may become more prominent in public discourse, despite not representing the opinions of the majority of Turkish society.
Moreover, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Erdogan’s main rival, promises to establish the Organization of Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East. The proposed organization will include only four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This could be perceived by many Arab countries as another regional bloc dominated by Iran and its allies in the region—Syria and Iraq—putting Turkey on Iran’s side in the regional competition between Iran and its Arab neighbors.
If the opposition wins the election, it will likely damage Turkish-Qatari relations, as some members of the opposition are uncomfortable with the strong Qatari-Turkish relations under Erdogan’s 20 years rule. It is unclear how Kilicdaroglu’s foreign policy agenda will affect relations with other Gulf states, but the opposition’s secularism and anti-Arab stance may have an impact on inter-state relations. Overall, a Turkey led by Erdogan would be more favorable to the Gulf region and the Middle East than an opposition-led Turkey.