Turkish Foreign Policy and the Middle Eastern Order
Normalization and reset define the contemporary politics of the Middle East and Türkiye’s policy towards the region. The China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal,1 the resolution of the intra-Gulf crisis, and the thaw in Türkiye’s relations with the Arab Gulf states reflect this trend. This new period is driven by the unpredictability and unreliability of the United States (U.S.), the idea that the region has entered a post-Arab Spring phase, and by the economic needs of the region’s states, including Türkiye. Even though the contest over a new regional order, as was the case during the Arab Spring, is losing steam, the need for a functional and legitimate regional order is as acute as ever.
TÜRKIYE AND THE QUESTION OF REGIONAL ORDER
The authoritarian status quo that defined Middle Eastern politics for decades was first broken by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2005 and then destroyed by the Arab Spring. On both cases, Ankara was attentive to the feelings and aspirations of the people in the region and in favor of the construction of a legitimate regional order, not least during the Arab Spring. To be precise, in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2005, despite immense U.S. pressure to align with its position, the new government of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) resisted this pressure and rejected the U.S. demand to use Turkish soil to attack Iraq.2 This stance signaled the direction Ankara intended to take in its Middle Eastern affairs.
Türkiye’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq marked a departure from its decades-long so-called “traditional foreign policy” as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, seeing the region through Western/U.S. perspectives. It is worth noting that during the 1990 Gulf War, Ankara was a member of the U.S.-led military coalition, offering its bases to NATO for operations against Saddam Hussein. In contrast, during the 2005 Iraq invasion, Ankara not only voiced its opposition but also spearheaded a regional effort to prevent the crisis. Türkiye initiated “Iraq’s Neighboring Countries” meetings, aiming to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis and preventing the invasion, and then, in the aftermath of the invasion, to prevent a civil war between different ethno-sectarian groups and proxy wars between regional rivals in Iraq.3
Türkiye’s diplomatic activism demonstrated it was no longer a passive bystander to the regional affairs in the Middle East. Building on this pro-active approach, Türkiye hosted the political leadership of Hamas in 2006 following their victory in the Palestinian election,4 defying the Western policy of isolating the group. Again, to the chagrin of the U.S., while serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2010, Türkiye, in partnership with Brazil, managed to broker an agreement with Iran on its contentious nuclear program.5 The West bluntly and shortsightedly rebuffed this effort.
SOURCES OF TENSION
From the Justice and Development (AK) Party coming to power in 2002 until the onset of the Arab Uprisings, Türkiye enjoyed close and cordial relations with almost all regional powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, until the Arab Spring started driving them apart. Ankara championed the Arab Spring and its transformation of domestic and regional political orders in the Middle East. It supported the Islamists, who emerged as the leading actors during this process and came to power in several states, such as Egypt (until 2015) and Tunisia.6 In contrast, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo (after 2015) fiercely opposed this process, including democratic political transitions and a new regional order.7 Likewise, the Syrian conflict drove wedges between Türkiye and Iran—while Ankara supported the Syrian opposition, Tehran threw its weight behind the regime.
Therefore, the Arab Spring ushered in an era of acrimony and competition between Türkiye and these regional states. This rivalry later acquired a geopolitical form as well. For instance, Libya became a context in which Türkiye, the UAE, and Egypt engaged in a fierce rivalry—Ankara supports the UN-recognized government in Tripoli whereas the other countries have supported Khalifa Haftar’s forces and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).8 This antagonism influenced the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, with Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Riyadh. and Tel Aviv siding with Greece and Cyprus. Therefore, the feud between Türkiye and its erstwhile regional rivals paved the ground for the emergence of a realignment between Athens and these actors in the Eastern Mediterranean.9
DRIVERS OF REGIONAL RESET
As the Arab Spring was the main source of contention between Türkiye and its former regional antagonists, the idea that the region has entered a post-Arab Spring phase lays the foundation for the thaw and normalization in their relations. On top of this, as mentioned above, the U.S.’ unpredictability and unreliability, coupled with the reduction of its regional security commitments and the regional countries’ growing economic needs have facilitated this process of normalization. In Türkiye’s case, there is an added geopolitical rationale, which is to break the emerging realignments between Greece/Cyprus, the Arab Gulf states, and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, in the case of Iran, all signs point to more tension, as Ankara and Tehran have opposing policies in Iraq, Syria, and the South Caucasus. Despite Türkiye’s declared position to being open to normalize ties with the Assad regime,10 the gap between both sides is too wide to be bridged, making it unlikely for such a normalization to occur anytime soon. Predictably, Ankara rejected the Syrian regime’s call for the withdrawal of Turkish military forces from Syria.11 As long as Türkiye continues to face security risks from Syria—be it from the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People Defense Units (YPG), or extremist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qaida—and as long as the Syrian regime fails to confront these security threats, Ankara will continue to deal with these threats independently, and maintain its military presence in Syria.
Moreover, the persisting instability in Syria and the regime’s uncooperative stance hinder the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. Similarly, the regime’s belief that it has won the conflict has led to its dismissive approach towards the demands of the Syrian opposition. However, this perspective is short-sighted and flawed. A significant part of the country is controlled by the PYD, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,12 and despite enormous support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the regime is still incapable of running the whole country. As a result of all these factors, the prospect for normalization between Ankara and Damascus is very slim at this stage.
TURKISH FOREIGN POLICY POST-ELECTION
After his electoral triumph in the presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2025, President Erdogan unveiled his new cabinet, which was well-received internationally and domestically. The influential former head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, was appointed as Foreign Minister. Fidan has enjoyed a successful career at the helm of different branches of Turkish bureaucracy, particularly as head of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and MIT. During his leadership, both institutions have gained global prominence, and Fidan’s tenure has elevated MIT to a central role in Türkiye’s foreign and security policies and intelligence complex. With over a decade of experience shaping Türkiye’s foreign and security strategies—spanning periods of confrontation with regional adversaries and phases of reconciliation—his appointment signifies Türkiye’s continued pursuit of autonomous foreign and security policies on the global stage. This commitment entails maintaining an ambitious foreign policy agenda while simultaneously repairing relations with former rivals, such as the Arab Gulf states.13 Similarly, the appointment of İbrahim Kalın as the new MIT head, a respected figure with extensive experience as Erdogan’s chief foreign policy and national security advisor, reinforces this positive trajectory.
In a parallel move, Erdogan appointed another well-respected figure, Mehmet Simsek, as finance minister. This signals a greater alignment between Türkiye’s foreign and economic policies in the new era.14 Erdogan’s recent visit to the Gulf in July clearly illustrates this desired harmony between Ankara’s foreign and economic policies. During this visit, Türkiye and the UAE inked business deals estimated to be worth z50.7 billion.15 Likewise, Ankara secured deals worth tens of billions of dollars with Qatar, a close ally, as well as Saudi Arabia.xvi The economy will undoubtedly occupy a central position in Türkiye’s relations with its former Gulf antagonists in the new era.
Finally, this process of normalization has already translated into a de-escalation in the regional conflicts, particularly in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Türkiye, the UAE, and Egypt have not changed their Libya policy in any fundamental way. However, they have refrained from any form of escalation and established channels of communication on the subject. As a result, there has been a relative lull in Libya’s infamous proxy wars. In this new phase, it is reasonable to expect more dialogue and coordination between Türkiye and its former regional rivals in addressing regional conflicts and crises, spanning from Libya to Iraq and Sudan. This shift marks a pivotal departure from the confrontational stances of the recent past.
1. Aaron David Miller, “4 Key Takeaways From the China-Brokered Saudi-Iran Deal,” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2025, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/14/china-brokered-saudi-iran-deal-explained-diplomacy-biden/.
2. “Turkey rejects U.S. troop proposal,” CNN, March 2, 2005, https://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/05/01/sprj.irq.main.
3. Taha Ozhan, The Transformation of Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Middle East (Keele: Keele Univesity, 2016), 47, 115, https://eprints.keele.ac.uk/id/eprint/2548/1/OzhanPhD2016.pdf.
4. AFP, “Hamas leader in surprise Turkey visit,” Al Jazeera, February 16, 2006, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2006/2/16/hamas-leader-in-surprise-turkey-visit.
5. Taha Ozhan, “Multilateralism in foreign policy and nuclear swap deal,” Foreign Policy, June 5, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/05/multilateralism-in-foreign-policy-and-nuclear-swap-deal/.
6. “Turkey acts as mentor for emerging Islamists in Middle Eastern region,” Reuters, December 8, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUS210161479920111208.
7. Enrico Trotta, “Between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE: Tunisia’s Quest for Neutrality,” Geopolitical Monitor, August 15, 2018, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor. com/between-qatar-saudi-arabia-and-the-uae-tuni-sias-quest-for-neutrality/.
8. Ufuk Necat Tasci, “What to expect in Libya after Turkey and Egypt’s diplomatic thaw,” The New Arab, July 10, 2025, https://www.newarab.com/analysis/what-turkey-and-egypts-diplomatic-thaw-could-mean-libya.
9. Eva J. Koulouriotis, “Greece’s new role in a changing Middle East,” The New Arab, November 8, 2021, https://www.newarab.com/analysis/greeces-new-role-changing-middle-east; Mohammed Abu Zaid, “Egypt, Cyprus and Greece demand respect for maritime sovereignty,” Arab News, February 14, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1808751/middle-east.
10. Güney Yildiz, “In The Shadow Of Mistrust: Turkey-Syria Normalization,” Forbes, April 27, 2025, https://www.forbes.com/sites/guneyyildiz/2025/04/27/ in-the-shadow-of-mistrust-turkey-syria-normalization/?sh=620da72670d6.
11. “Erdogan open to meeting al-Assad but not to withdrawal from Syria,” Al Jazeera, July 17, 2025, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2025/7/17/erdogan-open-to-meeting-al-assad-but-not-to-withdrawal-from-syria.
12. “Syria: NES Needs Assessment Report 2025,” Relief Web, June 25, 2025, https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syria-nes-needs-assessment-report-2023.
15. Galip Dalay, “How will geopolitics shape Turkey’s international future?,” Chatham House, June 5, 2025, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2025/06/how-will-geopolitics-shape-turkeys-international-future.
15. Rachna Uppal and Yousef Saba, “Turkey’s Erdogan signs z50 billion in deals during UAE visit,” Reuters, July 19, 2025, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkeys-erdogan-ends-gulf-tour-with-abu-dhabi-visit-2025-07-19/.
16. Jonathan Spicer and Ros Russell, “Turkey expects z10 billion in Gulf investments after upcoming Erdogan visit, sources say,” Reuters, July 7, 2025, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-sees-10-bln-gulf-investments-after-upcoming-erdogan-visit-sources-2023-07-07/.