Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a 3-day-long Gulf trip to visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A wide range of agreements was signed in the three countries encompassing energy, food, tourism, real estate, construction, defense industry, artificial intelligence, advanced technologies, transportation, infrastructure, logistics, e-commerce, finance, health and agriculture. Not only the high-level governmental officials on investment, finance, economic development and defense industry but also local producers and small businesses were part of the large delegation accompanying President Erdoğan during his trip to the Gulf countries.
The focus of the business forums and the individual component of the trip reflects the priority of economic cooperation in relations with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Although the trip’s second leg was to Qatar, it was a short step in celebrating the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties between the parties.
In analyzing this first visit to the region after Erdogan’s election victory, the initial point is the emphasis on the soft power instruments in consolidating tensed yet deescalated relations. Erdoğan gifted Türkiye’s first domestically produced electric car, Togg, to each leader, which attracted serious attention over social media. Diplomatic moves such as photographing leaders driving together – can also soften relations. The narratives of both Mohammad Bin Zayed (MBZ) of the UAE and Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia were quite harsh on Türkiye’s regional policies, and President Erdoğan was also strict in his attitude towards these countries after 2013 when different camps of the Arab Spring became very visible. In this respect, toning this down with soft power instruments generates public sympathy and a ground for further consolidation after a rapid reconciliation. Similarly, MBZ awarded President Erdoğan Order of Zayed, which is considered the highest civilian honor granted by the Emirates.
The second angle of this milestone visit is the intense economic promises that were made. Türkiye signed five major agreements in Jeddah, which was the first stop of the visit. These agreements cover investment, energy and defense industry cooperation, including Türkiye’s biggest arms deal in its history under the umbrella of Baykar Teknoloji. Saudi Arabia invited Türkiye’s businesspeople to invest in line with the Saudi Vision 2030 to participate in this massive economic initiative worth 3.3 trillion USD. For the UAE, the outcome is a similar, if not a much more ambitious economic strategy. 13 major agreements were sealed between the parties on diverse files worth 50.7 billion USD in investments in Türkiye. Ankara has been going through challenging economic conditions under the high inflation rate and lack of foreign investment. But it also seems like a 5-years investment plan under Erdoğan’s cemented power is a rational business strategy for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A win-win economic strategy is the primary promising angle in the diplomatic capital in Türkiye-Gulf relations.
A Sustainable Cooperation?
The third approach in examining the impact of the visit is cooperation on more sensitive security products. Türkiye has been exporting military equipment to the GCC countries since the 1990s, yet in the last decade, cooperation in the defense industry has rapidly hiked. However, military trade was based on a limited share of Türkiye in the GCC’s enormous defense spending. Under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, Saudi Arabia’s national vision prioritizes local production and investment with rising logistics and production capabilities. The massive deal with Baykar is the largest defense agreement in Türkiye’s history, according to the company’s CEO, Haluk Bayraktar. It aims to produce military technology in or with Saudi Arabia. Joint military production is a milestone that could provide a serious base for balanced and solid relations with Türkiye rather than adjusting the official narrative according to short-term political escalations. Contributing to the ambitious roadmap of MBS through know-how and technology transfer in the defense industry raises Türkiye to the leadership of one of the critical projects. However, there is a significant problem with the transparency and sustainability of the deals and memoranda of understanding (MoU). This is the case not only with Saudi Arabia but also with the rest of the Gulf countries. Over diverse files and issues, several MoUs and deals have been inked in the last decade. Were they fully utilized with specific roadmaps and tangible outcomes? Or are there MoU and deals left on paper without realizing their potential in the bilateral ties? From the national news outlets, at least some of the recently signed agreements with the Gulf countries seem to be mere memoranda of understanding that only promise to cooperate rather than setting a tangible target. To utilize the diplomatic capital embedded in Türkiye’s relations with the Arab Gulf states, sustainable and well-followed-up agreements and memoranda of understanding could concretize the targets set by policymakers.
The fourth element in understanding the importance of the visit for the embedded diplomatic capital in the relations is trust-building for further political collaboration. Can these giant economic cooperation steps and defense agreements build trust among the parties to cooperate in regional politics? Or can these parties work together politically in global and regional affairs? Saudi Arabia and the UAE are hedging their bets in their foreign policy tools, turning to rising powers like China and Russia as a result of the vacuum taking place in the shifting global order. Qatar has been in a moderate position balancing its allies from the West to the East. The global power competition provides the regional powers with more room for maneuver. In this vein, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Türkiye are vying to increase their dominance in different zones like Syria and Libya. In this respect, defense cooperation is a good area to deepen their relationship in times of uncertainty in the global order. Yet, it needs a well-supported trust building for sustainable ties.
President Erdoğan will be at the helm of Türkiye until 2028, and all three of these leaders are younger than the previous generation of rulers, and their goals for their countries promise critical developments. The use of diplomatic capital between the Gulf countries and Türkiye, including those not part of this visit, thus, would be geopolitically strategic for the stability of regional politics and the region’s economic well-being.