High Expectations, Low Results in Turkey’s Diplomatic Overture

June 25, 2022
by Enes Esen, published on 25 June 2022
High Expectations, Low Results in Turkey’s Diplomatic Overture

It was a busy week in Ankara in terms of high-level diplomatic visits. President Erdoğan received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Turkey on Wednesday. This was for the first time in years when a high-level Saudi leader paid a visit to Turkey. US Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo also arrived on Wednesday in Ankara to meet Turkish officials in order to warn them about the dire consequences of helping Russia to get around the Western sanctions. On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid, who is about to become Israel's Prime Minister in the upcoming days with the collapse of the Israeli government. While the visits of Saudi and Israeli leaders are a result of Turkey’s new approach, it can safely be argued that after years of a feud with its neighbors, Turkey’s recent diplomatic overtures will not translate into economic benefits as soon as Ankara estimates. 

Turkey was the final step of a multinational tour of the Crown Prince Mohammed that also included Egypt and Jordan, aiming to emphasize the status of Saudi Arabia as the power-breaker in the region. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia signed almost $8 billion in deals with Egypt, which has been going through a difficult financial period since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia has also deposited billions of dollars in the Egyptian central bank and orchestrated an investment plan with the Gulf countries in order to bolster Egypt’s economic recovery in the last couple of months. 

Turkish officials also had high expectations from the visit of the Crown Prince. To this end, the Turkish government attributed high importance to the visit, and Erdoğan gave a grandiose welcome to Crown Prince Mohammed. “During the meetings, various aspects of bilateral relations between the Republic of Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were reportedly discussed, and a strong emphasis was placed on the joint commitment to begin a new period of cooperation in bilateral relations, including political, economic, military, security, and cultural relations.” indicated the joint statement by Turkey and Saudi Arabia which was issued after the talks. Nonetheless, apart from the appearance of friendly relations following years of a feud, reaffirmation of goodwill between the two countries, and expression of a desire to further bilateral relations, there were no concrete economic plans to boost Turkey’s growth or announcements to secure a currency swap line to shore-up Turkey’s depleted foreign exchange reserves, as was the case in Cairo. The Saudis reportedly lifted the restrictions on trade and flights, but that was pretty much all Erdoğan had. It seems that Saudi Arabia is not still eager to flush Turkey with money to support Erdoğan as it does for Sisi in Egypt. Thus, when we compare what was achieved during Crown Prince Mohammed's visit to Ankara with Cairo, it is hard not to notice that the damage to Turkish-Saudi relations is far from being repaired, at least for some years. 

On the other hand, US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo traveled from the United Arab Emirates to Turkey on Wednesday as well. Purportedly, Turkey and the UAE are the two significant countries that Russians exploit to circumvent Western sanctions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, downgraded Turkey last year and the UAE this year to its gray list, given their strategic deficiencies in countering money laundering. In this vein, one of the official purposes of Adeyemo’s visit to the UAE was to discuss the “implementation of the unprecedented multilateral sanctions on Russia for its war against Ukraine.” Similarly, Adeyemo arrived in Ankara to remind his Turkish counterparts that Ankara will be held accountable if it continues to help Russians in evading sanctions. It is noteworthy that Adeyemo’s visit to Turkey to warn about the consequences of a sanctions-busting scheme against Russia is ominously reminiscent of David Cohen’s visits to Turkey. Cohen, a former US Treasury's Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, visited his Turkish counterparts three times in 2011, 2012 and 2013 to warn about the legal outcomes of the involvement of Turkey in busting US sanctions against Iran. His warnings nonetheless fell on deaf ears. And the fate of the Halkbank case, which is charged with money-laundering and helping Iran evade US sanctions, still lingers on relations between Turkey and the USA. 

Lastly, despite the announcement of the collapse of the Israeli government on Tuesday and the imminent dissolution of the Knesset, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid preferred not to reschedule his visit to Turkey. Besides, Lapid is the most likely candidate to become the next prime minister of Israel as of next week before the snap elections. On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with his Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu and reportedly with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. They focused on security cooperation and discussed the Iranian assassination plots against the Israeli citizens visiting Istanbul. Prior to Lapid’s visit to Ankara, Turkish media had reported that Turkish security forces arrested Iranian nationals who were in preparation to assassinate Israelis in Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu stressed that “We will not allow terror in our land. I believe we sent the message to the terrorists.” In return, Lapid noted that “in recent weeks, the lives of Israeli citizens have been saved thanks to the security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Turkey. We are full of appreciation for the Turkish government for this professional and coordinated activity.” 

Notwithstanding these diplomatic niceties, the Israeli government made a strategic decision in June that would definitely tilt the balance of Israeli gas exports in favor of Egypt instead of Turkey. One of the expectations of the Erdoğan administration in restoring relations with Israel was to export Israeli gas to Europe via Turkey. During the feud between Turkey and Israel, alternative plans were commissioned by the East Mediterranean countries that excluded Turkish continental waters. With the restoration of relations, Erdoğan hoped that Turkey would gain the Israeli favor in this enterprise. Nonetheless, Israel, Egypt and the European Union signed a natural gas agreement a few weeks ago in Cairo. This new agreement will enable Israel to export its natural gas via already existing pipelines to Egypt, where the Israeli gas will be liquefied and transported to Europe. This trilateral agreement is a clear indication that Israelis do not consider Turkey as a viable and trustworthy option for energy cooperation. 

To conclude, Turkey’s new policy toward Saudi Arabia and Israel successfully establishes diplomatic channels and reduces tensions. Nevertheless, the old wounds are not healed, and Turkey’s old partners still harbor mistrust against Erdoğan. Therefore, the visits did not secure financial support from Saudi Arabia, and energy projects between Turkey and Israel are not in sight in the near future. Besides, the US warnings about Turkey’s handling of Western sanctions are ominous signs of a crisis that reminds what occurred during sanctions on Iran. Taking into consideration all these developments, it is obvious that Turkey needs to do more to gain the trust of its neighbors in order to have a full normalization and a restoration of the relations.

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