Erdogan Mild After a Series of Diplomatic Successes in East Mediterranean

  • President Erdogan pivots attention on regional energy supplies back to Turkey.
  • Erdogan leads historic diplomatic efforts between Turkey and several countries in the eastern mediterranean region.
  • Major changes in the president’s foreign policy strategy could bring Turkey back onto the world stage.
Hilmi Hacaloğlu (VOA) Wikimedia public domain

Why is Erdogan’s heat level mild?

Answer: As a result of intense diplomatic efforts, Erdogan begins to bring  more investments and energy to Turkey.

After announcing that the US pulled support for the EastMed pipeline, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric has focused on the necessity of Turkey’s inclusion in Mediterranean energy transportation. The pipeline, which would direct Israeli natural gas through Cyprus to Greece and Italy, excluded Turkey from the equation. However, the project’s derailment opens opportunities for including Turkey in future pipeline plans. While US withdrawal was mainly a symbolic act, Erdogan spun the narrative to mark this as a point of no return for the EastMed pipeline and a provocation for pursuing other opportunities for transporting energy into Europe. 

Similarly, in September 2020, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority turned the East Mediterranean Gas Forum into a regional intergovernmental organization, leaving Turkey out. Missing this process for normalizing relations and standardizing energy procedures was a major loss for Erdogan, as he believes Turkey should be central to regional gas transportation. 

President Erdogan’s new foreign policy strategy, however, could facilitate a turning point for Turkey’s regional role. The Turkish president has recently strengthened ties with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Azerbaijan. Consistent diplomatic efforts have yielded progress for him. After years of tense relations over a variety of disagreements, he is working with UAE officials on investment initiatives in Turkey. In a deal signed by President Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed in November, the UAE invested $10 billion in Turkey, which included power generation infrastructure. Ties between the two countries have further strengthened since then, with the announcement in late January of a currency swap that will aid the Turkish economy. 

Since congratulating Israel’s President Herzog on his inauguration last July, Erdogan has kept in close contact in an attempt to revive Turkish-Israeli relations. Initially, The Turkish president’s reconciliatory attempts were met with an icy response, for which Israeli officials cited a lack of trust in Erdogan. Yet, he now appears optimistic about the possibility of Israeli President Isaac Herzog visiting Turkey in February. Erdogan’s focus on Israel has brought Israeli gas through Turkey, so continued progress could bring Turkey in on regional energy cooperation.

President Erdogan has made significant progress with Azerbaijan, as well. Early in February, both parliaments ratified the Shusha Declaration, solidifying an alliance between the two countries in many areas, including energy and economic investments. This comes a week after Azerbaijan agreed to increase gas exports to Turkey to meet growing demand from the Turkish population while Iran temporarily decreased supply due to technical malfunctions. Additionally, Erdogan promised that he will visit Saudi Arabia in February to mend ties after years of cold treatment.

Who is changing Erdogan’s temperature? 

Answer: Erdogan and his counterparts have found mutual benefits to cooperation, ranging from religious unity to oil prices.

Israeli President Herzog’s cooperation with President Erdogan has been uncharacteristic, considering Turkey’s historical relationship with Israel. Since entering office last June, Herzog has taken seriously the major goals of his position, which entails promoting ethnic and religious unity, as well as improving Israel’s international standing. While Erdogan sees Israeli gas as a direct connection to reassert his regional dominance over east Mediterranean energy, Herzog likely sees this relationship as a chance to project an image of support from Turkey, whose leaders have traditionally supported Palestinian efforts.  However, these aspirations may prove too ambitious, especially as neither party has demonstrated a willingness to compromise on the status of Palestine.

Moreover, the Shusha Declaration between Turkey and Azerbaijan marks the beginning of a historic alliance between the two countries. Erdogan sees many benefits from the terms included in the agreement, especially with investments in the economy and stronger ties to energy cooperation. However, a significant part of the deal includes joint military operations and a pledge of unity between the two countries if faced with an external threat. The military agreement largely formalizes the Turkish president’s support of Azerbaijan in their conflicts with Armenia. 

As far as Turkey’s budding relationship with the UAE, Erdogan sees their willingness to invest in Turkey as a significant tool for lifting the Turkish economy from its crisis and gaining additional foreign support for the country’s energy infrastructure. UAE officials say they are seeking to deepen economic ties with Ankara. These efforts from the UAE are likely related to their recent efforts to stabilize their revenue sources, which have been hit hard throughout the pandemic, especially in the crude oil sector. The UAE, therefore, likely sees increasing ties to Turkey’s economy as an opportunity to diversify its revenue sources and solidify energy security.

What is driving Erdogan?

Answer: Erdogan wants to revive his image by renewing his relevance abroad and raising his approval ratings at home.

The President’s diplomatic efforts have been investments in Turkey’s future – and his own. By presenting himself as a leader abroad, Erdogan could save himself from defeat in the next Turkish presidential election. Currently, his domestic approval ratings are struggling under the weight of an economic crisis. The economic pressures have resulted in a poor quality of life for the Turkish population. 

Because of this crisis, President Erdogan’s opposition is advocating for an early election in which to oust him and the AKP. But, by following his current trajectory of bolstering Turkey’s role in energy security for the region and bringing more investment into the Turkish economy, he wants to revive his presidency by projecting an image of international success.

The Turkish president’s work to re-establish diplomatic ties with his neighbors is likely part of his strategy to fortify his regional presence. After recognizing his declining influence with the formation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), President Erdogan appears to be redefining his role in the region on his own terms. By not joining the EMGF, he does not have to adapt to their rules, but by prioritizing energy and the economy in his foreign policy, he is bringing Turkey back to relevance in regional energy security. By breaking out of his diplomatic isolation and solidifying relationships with his counterparts, Erdogan could redeem his image in the eyes of other leaders, as well as his domestic audience. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: As Erdogan continues to bolster his efforts in diplomacy, Turkey will be a growing power to watch in the region.

President Erdogan’s efforts that have brought Turkey out of isolation could have many implications for his role in the region moving forward. If Erdogan and Herzog make real progress, Turkey would be solidified as a regional energy hub and Israel could improve its international standing. 

Erdogan’s success with Azerbaijan could bring stability to the region, as well. Through the Shusha Declaration, Turkey has secured Azerbaijani investment and gas security, while Azerbaijan has codified its military security. The military alliance is especially important, as an expansion of this alliance could create a bloc in the eastern Mediterranean region to counter potential threats from Russia or Iran.

Finally, President Erdogan’s work with the UAE and Saudi Arabia has secured investments for Turkey and strengthened market security for all three countries. This could lead to more security for others that are dependent on these countries for energy, especially in the crude oil sector. 

After his period of isolation, cooperation to this extent is a major shift for Turkey, but proving himself to be a more reliable ally than he has been in the past may benefit Erdogan in the long run.