Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan’s visit to three Gulf nations, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in mid-July 2023 represented a significant shift in Turkey’s network of international alliances. The trip inaugurated a new era of regional cooperation seeking to build new alliances in the Middle East, and may even serve as the nucleus of a new regional order going forward. Although it may be premature to consider the trip the start of a new era, the outcome of the trip and the nature of the agreements that were signed and involved important strategic sectors indicate that there will be long-term cooperation in energy, defence, investment and infrastructure. These are all strategic sectors that can serve as a basis for redrawing the map of alliances in the Middle East.
This paper presents an analysis of Erdogan's trip to the Gulf and explores the various forms of cooperation across many sectors that it entailed. Furthermore, it examines the impact of the trip on the nature of the region’s alliances, which have undergone significant changes over the past decade. It also portends the possibility of forming the nucleus of a new regional system, especially in light of the Arab system’s failure since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the later events of the Arab Spring.
The nature of regional alliances over the past decade
One of the most notable aspects of the past decade has been the rapid change of regional alliances and axes. In this context, we witnessed the rise of nations like Qatar and the UAE, playing influential regional roles and competing with traditional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. Both nations have succeeded in acquiring non-traditional geopolitical capabilities, and benefiting from the changing meaning of power, as the traditional benchmarks of power such as population, geographic expanse and the size of armies are no longer sufficient for attaining regional influence and dominance. Tools such as financial leverage, media influence, technological advancements in the military domain, control over armed groups, and private security companies have the greatest influence in shaping the geopolitical landscape, particularly in the post-conventional warfare era.
These states have worked to fill the vacuum created by the decline of traditional powers in strength and role due to their economic crises, underdevelopment in the field of technological modernisation, preoccupation with internal conflicts (as in the case of Egypt), external conflicts (as in the case of Saudi Arabia), and so on.
The recent Saudi-Iranian agreement could potentially mark the beginning of an era of reduced tensions in the region and lead to an understanding regarding Iran’s regional influence, especially considering the decline of US involvement in the issues of the Middle East and Washington’s increasing focus on the South China Sea region. (1)
Despite the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati consensus on stabilising the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been several differences in perspectives among these nations, especially regarding leadership and how to handle issues such as Libya, Syria and the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and dealing with the Horn of Africa. These differences have led to a reassessment of existing alliances, with Turkey emerging as an alternative and a potential cornerstone for a new balance of power.
Accordingly, many of the region’s nations have sought to reset their relationship with Ankara, especially in light of Turkey’s pivot to political realism and its prioritisation of interests over ideological considerations that previously fuelled competition with states in the region. This has led to a convergence of perspectives and readjustment of ambitions in accordance to what is feasible. These reassessments have created room for cooperation in place of conflicts that have failed to produce a regional hegemon over the past decade. (2)
Turkey has proven itself to be a vital player in regional affairs, especially after it utilised its strong military force in certain conflicts following the obsolescence of its conflict-avoidant strategy. It then managed to increase its influence through soft power, the appeal of its political and ideological model and the efficacy of its military industrial production, which has tipped the scales in several conflicts across numerous regions, from Azerbaijan and Ukraine to Libya and Somalia. Because of this, the political realism of regional powers drove them to reorient their strategies towards cooperation rather than conflict, building on commonalities and avoiding zero-sum conflicts that yield nothing but mutual losses.
Erdogan’s Gulf visit: Analysing the outcomes
Recent wars have proven the importance of non-traditional weapons, particularly drones and guided missiles, in resolving conflicts around the world. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have made it a top priority to acquire drones and the technologies needed to operate and develop them. Hence, they turned to Turkey, which is one of the fastest growing nations in terms of military armament, and the most advanced nation when it comes to drones. It has even succeeded in developing cruise missiles that can be carried by drones. Furthermore, it has made great progress in developing unmanned traditional fighter jets, such as the Kızılelma model.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also realised the importance of accelerating artificial intelligence technologies and their role in the defence industries, a domain in which Turkey has made great strides. The partnership between the two sides is mutually beneficial on various levels, especially with Ankara standing ready to transfer technology, localise this industry in Gulf states, and collaborate on its development.
In this context, the Gulf’s demand for these technologies was met by Turkey’s desire to increase its exports and need for financial flows. Erdogan's latest visit produced the largest arms deal in the history of Turkey’s military industry, according to Haluk Bayraktar, CEO of Baykar. Bayraktar revealed that Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to enhance the performance of the medium-range and long-endurance Akinci 2 drones, alongside several other military cooperation agreements. He also mentioned that these agreements involve technology transfer and joint production to advance high-tech industries and strengthen manufacturing capabilities in both states. Bayraktar further confirmed that “Saudi Arabia was interested in establishing a drone production line in Jeddah to produce a large amount of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” and purchasing large quantities of smart ammunition and military vehicles to be produced locally in the future. (3)
The technology transfer will lead to a significant advancement in Saudi Arabia’s defence industry, while also increasing the revenues of the Turkish defence industry. Baykar has obtained 75% of its profits from exporting since its establishment in 2003. In 2022, it managed to export products worth 1.18 billion dollars, generating profits of up to 1.4 billion dollars. In recent years, Turkey has signed agreements with 30 nations to export its combat drones, Bayraktar TB2, and with six other nations for the export of the Bayraktar Akıncı fighter drone. (4) The Akıncı is a versatile drone capable of carrying different payloads, and is equipped with dual AI avionics. It has the ability to perform operations similar to those of fighter aircrafts, and is distinguished by dual electronic support systems, satellite communication systems, and air-to-air and anti-collision radars. It can also be deployed for air-to-ground and air-to-air assault missions, allowing tactical dynamism as support aircraft for conventional fighters or to carry out individual missions. (5) Both agreements include localising the production of drones and their component parts within the kingdom with the participation of specialised national companies, and entail the provision of training and support services, the transfer of technology and expertise, and training Saudi cadres. This is expected to contribute to strengthening local capabilities and create many opportunities for employment in the kingdom. The two deals also reinforce Saudi Arabia’s localisation approach to the military industry and contribute to the kingdom’s aim to localise more than 50 percent of military spending by 2030. (6)
In addition, Turkey and Saudi Arabia signed three memoranda of cooperation in the sectors of energy, direct investment and media cooperation. They also agreed on an executive plan for collaboration on capabilities, defence industries, and research and development. Furthermore, two contracts were signed with Baykar Technologies for defence and aerospace industries, especially drones. (7) The military partnership with Turkey will help Saudi Arabia circumvent restrictions on its arms purchases. In addition to technology localisation and cooperation in equipment and ammunition production, Turkey will not stipulate the resale or joint manufacturing of its equipment with a third party, as is the case with foreign companies. (8)
Besides signifying a long-term partnership in the realms of military and defence, the Turkish-Saudi agreements also constitute a suitable platform for bringing together different perspectives on regional issues. The media cooperation agreement can be understood in this context to signal an intention to coordinate efforts concerning soft power and avoid raising contentious issues that had previously created distance between the two nations. Investments in the energy sector have the potential to bring both nations' policies closer together in this critical area, particularly with the connection of production operations to manufacturing and exports to Europe. In this domain, both countries will work towards stabilising energy markets and achieving economic growth. They will also collaborate on interconnecting electric grids, innovation, the development of clean energy, the reduction of carbon emissions, and the expansion of reliance on hydrogen and nuclear energy. In addition to military, energy and media, they have agreed to cooperate, with the involvement and encouragement of the private sector, in areas such as direct investment, infrastructure, reconstruction, digital technologies and peacebuilding efforts in the region and globally. (9)
In this new climate, it is expected that Turkish construction companies will contribute to the extensive construction projects taking place in the Saudi city of Neom as part of Vision 2030, with a budget of up to 500 billion dollars. Over the past 20 years, the volume of projects executed by Turkey in Saudi Arabia has reached 25 billion dollars. In the wider Gulf region, alongside Turkish-Saudi and Turkish-Qatari agreements, the UAE is also focusing on developing its cooperation and partnership with Turkey. Erdogan's recent visit was aimed at bolstering these relations and moving towards a strategic partnership, and resulted in the signing of memoranda of understanding and agreements valued at 50.7 billion dollars. (10) Previous Emirati-Turkish cooperation agreements covered various sectors. Emirati investments in Turkey include banking, port operations and tourism, with the total value of Emirati investments in these sectors reaching around 18.4 billion dirhams by the end of 2020. On the other hand, Turkish investments in the UAE amounted to over 1.3 billion dirhams by the beginning of 2020. Turkish investments focus on sectors such as construction, real estate, finance, insurance, industry and information technology. (11) In June 2023, Kuwait also strengthened its military defences by acquiring Bayraktar TB2 drones in a deal valued at 367 million dollars. (12)
Important implications and prospects of Turkish-Gulf agreements
Based on the outcomes, we can say that the Turkish president’s Gulf trip has started a new chapter in Turkish-Gulf relations. After years of disputes, tensions and competition bordering on conflict in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan, relations shifted to normalisation and then strategic partnership. All parties have come to realise the importance of cooperation and the necessity of moving on from the past towards a new phase of partnership and integration. At the economic level, given the scale of the most recent agreements, we are witnessing a long-term strategic partnership across various vital sectors linking energy, reconstruction and investment with the security of both sides.
The conditions for integration appear to be fulfilled, with Turkey possessing military technologies, a large army and a strategic location that bridges Europe and Asia, and the Gulf nations’ financial and investment capabilities and medium- and long-term development ambitions. Strengthening these relations also allows Gulf nations to reduce their dependence on the West, especially in security matters. Both sides have experienced instances in which the West abandoned them in critical junctures. The Gulf nations feel that the West abandoned them during escalating tensions with Iran, while Turkey views the US withholding of F-35 fighter jets and the general Western hesitation during the 2016 coup attempt as betrayal.
Both sides can cooperate in energy to ensure supply to Europe in place of Russian energy. On top of that, they can cooperate to develop clean energy infrastructure, in preparation for a post-oil era for the Gulf, and to comply with international environmental standards in line with the Paris Agreement, which requires the reduction of carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. Thus, exporting clean energy and investing in solar energy for export to Europe through Turkey becomes a long-term strategic project and an alternative to Russian energy for Turkey in the short and medium term. Turkey is working to diversify its energy sources, which is one of the main things missing from its economic structure and trade balance. In pursuit of this, Turkey seeks to open markets for its new electric car brand, Togg, develop a series of other models, and advance in the production of electric vehicles, which are the vehicles of the future. The Gulf is one of the key import markets for this industry. Furthermore, Turkey – with its location, nature and infrastructure – is an ideal destination for Gulf investments in trade, industry, tourism and logistical services. It has the potential to attract Gulf capital that had previously gone to conventional areas in Europe, Asia and Africa.
At the security and military level, both the Gulf and Turkey can restore the regional system and work together to control the intensity of conflicts, increase military cooperation, and ensure regional stability. With declining US interest in the region, Turkey’s military capabilities may be able to fill any voids, especially with its military base in Qatar. The Gulf-Turkish partnership can become an essential pillar of the regional security equation to manage conflicts in the Middle East.
Despite attempts to normalise relations between Riyadh and Iran, the intensity of the conflict requires a new equation of deterrence that prevents either side from falling to the temptation of power, with particular consideration for Iran's significant progress in military industries and ambitions for expanding its regional influence. Moreover, cooperation in the development of defence industries will give the nations of the region the opportunity to break free of the Western and Eastern monopoly over arms production.
With the transformation of warfare from conventional, total and direct warfare to proxy wars involving militias and private security firms, the development of drone technologies that suit the region's needs can significantly bolster Gulf security at a lower financial and human cost.
The Turkish-Gulf partnership represents a factor attracting other states to join the regional alliance, especially after the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Egypt. If the partnership evolves into a broader regional alliance, it can improve cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean region on issues of energy and navigation. In the Horn of Africa, Turkey's substantial investments in Ethiopia enable it to exert pressure on Addis Ababa to reach mutually satisfactory agreements between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Turkish-Gulf partnership represents a starting point for a shared regional system and improving cooperation in economy, investment, energy and defence industries. It may form the nucleus of a wider regional partnership by including other states and powers in the region, such as Egypt and Iran, which can contribute to bridging perspectives, reducing the intensity of conflicts and creating opportunities for regional cooperation. With the momentous rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara, this emerging equation can restrain some Arab states’ haste towards Israel, which has presented itself as a focal point for regional alliances in the post-Arab Spring era.
If energy interconnection projects between the Gulf and Europe via Turkey come to fruition, it would be possible to integrate states like Iraq and Iran in the framework of collective cooperation systems for energy transportation, especially with the existence of infrastructure equipped for storing and transporting gas and oil through pipelines within and around Turkey and a regional and transcontinental pipeline system where Gulf countries can pump their energy outputs. Cooperation in chemical manufacturing can develop the petrochemical industry and boost joint export and investment opportunities in these strategic industries. Cooperation in military manufacturing will allow for the localisation of certain technologies and self-sufficiency for the states of the region in terms of light arms and drones, as well as the munitions required for their use. This kind of cooperation will add a strategic dimension to the relations between the states of the Islamic world and can potentially become the nucleus of a new regional system extending from Pakistan through the Gulf to Turkey.
Translated by Rached El-Moctar
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