ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey is reversing policy with its Gulf rivals in the hope that local defense firms can return to lucrative Saudi and Emirati markets.
Deep political differences have plagued Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent years, including divisive policies regarding the civil wars in Syria and Libya; the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; support for the Hamas military group in Gaza; the blockade of Qatar; and the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some of its neighbors through the Abraham Accords.
More directly, an official Saudi boycott of Turkish products caused trade volume with Turkey to drop to $189 million last year from $3.2 billion in 2019. This boycott ended in January 2022.
Analysts agree that, faced with declining approval rateTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must attract foreign investment and strengthen mutual business partnerships to improve the economy ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023.
Turkey has changed course several times in its foreign policy:
- On Syria, the Turkish government is leaning more towards its Gulf neighbors in their anti-Iranian approach. Tehran’s support for the Damascus regime in the civil war motivates Ankara’s decision.
- In Libya, several foreign parties involved in the civil war have withdrawn. Geopolitically speaking, it was Turkey against the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
- The Egyptian government continues to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has received support in Turkey. But Erdoğan backtracked and began to curb the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood on Turkish soil.
- Turkey has also become less vocal in its ideological support for Hamas. Additionally, there are reports that Ankara has banned Hamas-controlled activities in Turkey that would harm Israel.
- The blockade of Qatar – a move that saw Turkish politics clash with those of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – ended in 2021.
- Along with Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with the Gulf states and Egypt, Erdoğan launched a charm offensive to improve relations with Israel. He invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Turkey – a de facto end to Turkey’s protest against the Abraham Accords.
In a reconciliation effort, Erdoğan hosted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in November. In February, Erdoğan visited Abu Dhabi where Turkish and Emirati delegations signed 13 cooperation agreements, including for their defense industries. The president is now preparing for a reparations visit to Saudi Arabia during which he hopes to sign deals that would attract Gulf investment to cash-strapped Turkey.
“Every country with friendly ties to Turkey is a natural market for Turkish weapon systems,” a Turkish presidential aide said. “Reconciliation with countries [with which] we had a difficult relationship will mean [a] win-win [for] business, especially in the defense industry.
During Erdoğan’s visit to Abu Dhabi, Emirati officials pledged to invest $10 billion in Turkey’s industries of defence, agriculture, information technology, construction, energy, food, real estate and health over the next few years.
“The first of the UAE’s planned investments will come in Turkey’s defense industry,” said Nail Olpak, chairman of Turkey’s Council for Foreign Economic Relations. “We see a particularly strong appetite to invest in the Turkish defense industry.”
Bilateral trade between Turkey and the UAE was worth $8 billion in 2021. Olpak estimates that annual trade will increase by 40% in the coming years.
“There is great potential [in defense industry]said Anil Şahin, a Turkish defense analyst. “Of course, a prerequisite for happier days is a lasting normalization of political relations.”
An official in charge of a defense export portfolio told Defense News that cooperation between Turkey and Gulf customers could include armed and unarmed drones based in the air, at sea and on the ground; missile systems; naval platforms; helicopters; remote control weapon stations; air defense systems; and armored vehicles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as the individual was not authorized to speak to the media.
Last year, Al Jasoor – a joint venture between Emirati defense conglomerate Edge Group and Turkish company Otokar – launched its six-wheel-drive amphibious armored vehicle Rabdan, a variant of the eight-wheel-drive infantry fighting vehicle of the same name which entered service with Emirati Forces in April 2021.
But the Gulf states won’t want to rush, an Arab diplomat in Ankara told Defense News.
“The Gulf States have reasons not to [make] haste, to make irreversible decisions to invest in Turkey,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the individual was not authorized to speak to the media. “They will want to make sure Erdoğan doesn’t change course again.”
Burak Ege Bekdil is Turkey correspondent for Defense News. He has written for Hurriyet Daily News and worked as Ankara bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He is also a member of the Middle East Forum and writes regularly for the Middle East Quarterly and the Gatestone Institute.