Expanded economic and security relationships with Arab states have emerged as crucial complements to Turkey’s diplomatic efforts to engage the Arab Middle East since the 2002 rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power. These efforts point to a Turkey that is increasingly committed to and confident about its growing role in the region, but Ankara’s approach towards Arab countries faces regional obstacles and is constrained by pre-existing foreign policy prerogatives. 

Economic and Trade Ties

Turkey has pushed to reach free trade agreements across the Arab world, signing agreements with Syria, Morocco, and the Palestinian Authority in 2004, Tunisia and Egypt in 2005, Jordan in 2009, and Lebanon in November 2010. The deal with Lebanon, which has yet to be ratified by the country’s parliament, would gradually liberalize trade between the two countries while protecting Lebanon’s vulnerable agricultural sector. Lebanon imported some $698 million worth of goods from Turkey (mainly oil products and raw metals) and exported some $206 million (mainly scrap metal and raw goods) in 2008, according to Lebanon’s Ministry of Economy and Trade. 

Syria has benefited particularly from stronger ties to Turkey since the 2004 agreement. Despite years of hostility and continued disputes over scarce water resources, improved relations with Ankara have helped Damascus develop a more comfortable regional role. These ties have helped counter the political isolation imposed on Syria by the U.S. 2004 Syria Accountability Act and balance Syria’s alliance with Iran, an inclination Turkey encourages as a means of checking Iran’s influence in the Levant. 

At the same time, Lebanon and Syria retain some reservations about improving ties with the powerful Turkish economy. Unlike the Gulf States, Lebanon and Syria are not rentier states and need to be concerned about their lack of any real competitive advantage. While the true value of Turkey’s relationship with Syria lies in breaking its international isolation, Lebanon has no such imperative and must evaluate the relationship more on its economic merits.  It has been more successful in increasing exports of services than of goods over the last decade, and the future impact of lifting trade tariffs on Lebanese producers remains unclear. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, has supported a more assertive economic and security role for Turkey in order to counterbalance Iranian influence in the Levant and the Gulf region. At the economic level, investors from the GCC have made billions investing in Turkey’s real estate, banking, health care, education, and communication sectors. Gulf investments in Turkey grew from negligible levels in 2003 to nearly $2 billion by 2008, and trade between Turkey and the GCC grew from under $2 billion in 1998 to over $8 billion in 2009. 

Turkish-GCC trade and investment remain limited, however, when compared to more established patterns. In 2009, EU’s trade with the Turkey was 14 times that of the GCC, totaling over 40 percent of Turkey’s trade for the year. The GCC states for their part continue to have the United States as a leading trade partner. U.S. exports to the GCC in 2009 were worth over $29 billion (three times what they were in 2003) and GCC exports to the United States also totaled over $29 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

Moreover, despite years of talks Turkey and the GCC have failed to reach a trade agreement.  Following the 2009 real estate crisis in the Gulf, the GCC countries currently lean towards regional economic protectionism, in this case guarding against cheap Turkish raw materials (particularly iron and steel) and other goods.

Military Ties

Military cooperation between Turkey and the Arab world has also increased, but this has happened recently enough that there are limited tangible results so far. Turkey and Kuwait signed a military cooperation agreement in mid-2009 to establish a legal framework for the expansion of military-to-military cooperation. Saudi Arabia and Turkey signed a military cooperation agreement in May 2010 that covers training, scientific research, and technological development. Another area for Saudi-Turkish cooperation is the modernization of hundreds of American-made M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) by the Turkish company FNSS.

In the Levant, Syria has also benefited from increased military cooperation with Turkey, conducting a second joint military exercise with its northern neighbor in late 2010, a show of cooperation that Syria flaunted as a means of signaling its strengthened regional position and strategic depth.  For its part, Jordan contracted with the Turkish firm TAI to upgrade 17 American-made F-16/AM/BM multirole fighter aircraft.

There are still significant limits on Turkey’s security role in the region, however, particularly given the prevalence of U.S. security agreements.  Restrictions on how countries can use and modernize systems provided by the United States mean that Turkish efforts to modernize Jordanian and Saudi military hardware would have been impossible without the formal approval and tacit support of Washington. Ankara’s joint military activities with Arab states have also remained sufficiently low-profile that they do not irritate the United States too much; combined operations with Syria, for example, have been limited in scope and did not include the mobilization of meaningful military assets or elite units. 

Pre-existing Turkish commitment and prerogatives are also at odds with an effort to bolster its security role in the Arab world. Ankara cannot ignore ongoing and future multi-billion dollar military sales deals with Israel and has already signaled its intention to ease strained relations with Tel Aviv.  Ankara’s warm ties with Tehran also go against the dominant view in the Gulf that Iran’s nuclear program and hegemonic aspirations present a clear and present danger to the region’s Arab states. 

In short, Turkey has become the most recent and perhaps one of the most important additions to the Middle East balance, but it has yet to secure a definitive position in the region and its true power remains untested. For now Arab states are using economic and military relations with Turkey to counterbalance Iran, Israel, and the United States, but they continue to harbor concerns about Turkish “neo-Ottoman” tendencies.

Aram Nerguizian is a Resident Scholar with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).