Turkish foreign policy’s erstwhile ‘golden rule’ offers bitter lesson in Arab row
In the old days, one of the golden rules taught to those who entered the Turkish foreign service was that Turkey should never get involved in fights among Arabs.
The rule, which reflected the wisdom of the Turkish-Ottoman experience, was closely observed during the interwar period as the country was building a nation state and developing its national identity from the ashes of a multi-ethnic empire.
Turkey stayed out of World War Two, while the lands of the Arabs became battle zones. The end of colonial empires after the war brought independence to some Arab lands and a decline of the influence of the colonial powers in other nominally independent states.
This is a time when the world was beginning to split into two camps. To ensure its security, Turkey succeeded in joining the western camp, while some Arab countries, in the hope of reducing the influence of the former colonial powers that had prevailed over their politics through a variety of mechanisms, chose to cooperate with the Socialist Bloc.
This affinity for the anti-Western camp was triggered with the change of regimes, when pro-Western traditional elites were replaced by nationalist military rulers.
Until the oil crisis of 1973, the Arab regimes at the forefront were primarily Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Each of these had an Arab nationalist government, presumably dedicated to achieving Arab unity, but in practice in competition with one another. Their interactions were characterized more often by rivalry than cooperation.
The countries of north Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were usually considered more marginal. In 1961, Iraq had tried to conquer Kuwait, arguing that it was a part of Iraq, right after it received its independence from the British, but was defeated by Britain, which rushed to defend its former protectorate.
Gamel Abdal Nasser’s Egypt, on the other hand, had ventured into an inconclusive war in Yemen, in which the other side was Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances, the wisdom of Turkey’s keeping its distance from intra-Arab conflicts was all too evident.
The oil crisis dramatically bolstered the income of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and also enhanced their political power. The contracts associated with infrastructure investments gave them clout over bidders and their countries. Their growing demand for services generated employment opportunities for the population of the rest of the region, rendering those countries that provided labor reliant on workers’ remittances to balance their current accounts. The growth of imports meant that many countries found new markets in which they wanted to expand further.
The newly acquired wealth allowed Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to be a major source of economic assistance and investment funds. Turkey, particularly after the decision to integrate its economy into the global system in the 1980s, became more and more attracted to this expanding economic potential. Turkish construction companies became particularly prominent, bringing with it some Turkish labor into the region. Turkish products began to permeate markets, while some Gulf-origin investments came to Turkey.
The newly acquired wealth and their growing power brought with it two kinds of security concerns. First, would the socio-economic change that these countries were experiencing undermine their traditional rule by medieval, absolutist leaders? Second, would it generate regional rivalries that would challenge the prevailing peace and even territorial integrity?
In order to ensure their security, the Gulf governments became promoters of conservative, religious political ideologies in the region. These concerns fanned further splits and rivalries among the Arab states, but Turkey, though more active in regional politics than the past, initially stayed away. Until the Arab Spring, Turkey was generally equidistant to all countries in the region. Only then, reflecting its own ideological proclivities, did the Turkish government depart from its tradition of non-intervention in intra-Arab affairs and side with the Muslim Brotherhood, which neither the international community nor most of the regimes in the region supported.
The outcome of this policy choice is having no friends, save Qatar, among the Arabs. Clearly, the economic and political costs of such a preference will mount, while its benefits will remain limited. Change of policy, on the other hand, will create a credibility question that will be difficult to overcome. Developments have confirmed the wisdom of Turkey’s earlier traditional policy. It may be too late, however, to benefit from that wisdom.