Skip to main content

Turkey's diplomacy drive: Is this 'zero problems' 2.0?

Facing a tough campaign for re-election in June, Erdogan is seeking reconciliation with his neighbours out of desperation and using diplomacy to bolster his chances
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends an AKP group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on 23 November 2022 (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends an AKP group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on 23 November 2022 (AFP)

Turkey is undergoing a quiet diplomatic revolution. For much of the last decade, Ankara has weighed in firmly on one side of the various conflicts and disputes in its Middle Eastern neighbourhood.

It supported rebels in Syria, the embattled government in Libya, the overthrown Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, and the blockaded regime in Qatar.

As the region became more and more contested, these positions contributed to a sharp decline in Turkey’s relations with other major players, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

There are echoes of Ankara’s former policy of 'zero problems with neighbours' in the recent regional activity

Yet, the past year has seen a change of course. Last February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed a detente with the UAE during a visit to Abu Dhabi, while in May, he visited Jeddah to reconcile with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In August, Turkey agreed to restore ties with Israel, four years after severing them over the killing of 60 Palestinians in Jerusalem protests.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Just before the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar, Erdogan shook hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and later said that Ankara could reset relations with Egypt following Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

In December, Turkey also ended its 11-year ostracism of the Syrian regime, when defence ministers met in Moscow, raising the possibility of a permanent thaw in ties.

'Zero problems'

There are echoes of Ankara’s former policy of "zero problems with neighbours" in the recent regional activity. That policy, devised in the 2000s by Erdogan’s then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, aimed at improving Turkey’s historically fraught relations with its neighbours to improve Ankara’s regional influence and clout.

It proved highly successful, with Turkey enjoying strong diplomatic, trade and cultural ties by 2010, before Erdogan abandoned neutrality to back certain factions during the upheavals of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Turkey-Gulf rapprochement: Why opposition parties are vexed
Read More »

Might the recent reconciliations hint at a revival of this past approach, a "Zero Problems 2.0"?

Turkey is in a very different position today than it was in the 2000s, making it hard to revive Davutoglu’s approach. Back then, Turkey’s economy was booming, and much of its "zero problems" policy was aimed at finding new markets for the flourishing manufacturing and construction sector.

Improved ties with Syria, for example, allowed the flow of Turkish goods overland to entice Gulf markets, while closer ties with northern Iraq saw Turkish companies benefit from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s oil-driven prosperity.

Turkey’s politics similarly had many admirers. Erdogan was held up as a model to emulate, being a democratically elected, moderate Islamist who enjoyed strong ties with the US and EU - whose membership he courted - as well as with the Middle East.

In contrast, Turkey is in a weaker position today. Its economy is struggling after years of poor fiscal decisions by Erdogan and his government, with inflation hitting 85 percent last October.

Erdogan’s democratic credentials have been damaged after cracking down heavily on dissent, opposition groups and freedom of speech in the last decade.

His dreams of joining the EU have long since been abandoned by both Brussels and Ankara, while his ties with the US have similarly frayed, including being ejected from the F35 programme after buying Russian weaponry. In short, Turkey is in a far weaker regional position than in the 2000s.

Few concessions

This weakness is reflected in how few concessions have been granted by Ankara’s regional rivals prior to reconciliation. 

Israel, the Gulf and Turkey: Why is everyone making up in the Middle East?
Selçuk Aydın
Read More »

Turkey first fell out with the UAE over its support for the Egyptian coup that toppled Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in 2013. But Ankara did not demand any kind of shift in the UAE’s Egypt policy or an apology before re-opening ties.

Indeed, Turkey seemed more concerned to secure a much-needed $10bn Emirati investment in its beleaguered economy than righting past wrongs.

Similarly, tensions with Mohammad Bin Salman had heightened over the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil, but Erdogan proved unable or unwilling to seek concessions on this from the crown prince as a condition for re-engaging.

The same is true with Israel. Tensions with Israel date back to the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in international waters when Israel attacked a Gaza flotilla, and Erdogan has frequently championed the Palestinian cause. However, no improvement in their treatment was obtained as a condition for restoring ties – if anything, Palestinian rights are worse now than in 2010.

While it remains unclear whether relations with Syria will be normalised, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not expected to grant political concessions or apologise for the repression that prompted Ankara to sever relations in 2011. Most analysts believe Erdogan’s primary goal is to repatriate Turkey's four million Syrian refugees, not squeeze Assad on human rights.

It would be short-sighted to think Erdogan's reconciliations mark a new era of Turkish neutrality

In marked contrast to the 2000s, Erdogan is today seeking reconciliation with his neighbours out of desperation. He is facing a tough campaign for re-election in June and is using diplomacy as a means to bolster his chances.

This might mean securing much-needed investment from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, or mending fences with Syria in the hope they’ll take back unpopular refugees. It seems less of a long-term regional strategy like "zero problems", and more like a short-term roll of the dice in the hunt for votes. 

An Erdogan victory will not likely prompt a return to regional antagonism, but it would be short-sighted to think his recent reconciliations mark the dawn of a new era of Turkish regional neutrality.

Multiple concerns have driven Ankara’s latest detente diplomacy, but it is no "zero problems 2.0".  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Decet jumentum populus roto secundum sino sit utrum. Loquor pneum tation. Amet appellatio defui lucidus sino vel. Abbas at brevitas huic interdico iriure nunc os. Abbas decet mauris. Accumsan ad bene in lenis tego tincidunt. Amet cogo euismod eum secundum sed vindico. Dolor jus luptatum. Neo paulatim populus. At iusto luptatum macto nisl nobis valde. Defui enim importunus luctus roto tum ullamcorper. Commoveo dignissim duis iriure lobortis natu neo refero secundum. Abigo antehabeo luptatum nobis refoveo. Diam genitus jus minim molior nibh nimis obruo suscipit tum. Abdo brevitas hendrerit hos importunus modo quia refoveo suscipit ulciscor. Jus neque pagus pala similis te tum. Autem minim probo. Abico comis mauris quis. Caecus suscipit vereor. Abdo distineo dolore fere macto persto sagaciter ullamcorper valde vero. Abluo dignissim eros exputo nobis paulatim tego virtus. Appellatio blandit distineo praesent rusticus tego utinam zelus. Fere gravis ideo proprius refero sagaciter vicis ymo. Caecus cogo decet enim mauris saepius tation. Camur causa duis illum minim si similis torqueo validus. Adipiscing esse imputo interdico magna pagus quadrum sagaciter. Paratus quae validus. Abbas capto eligo iaceo melior meus. Bene haero sagaciter. Acsi aliquip conventio elit gilvus luptatum melior quae ullamcorper. Damnum duis iustum jugis veniam. Antehabeo at dolor eu haero nobis nostrud pecus premo quis. Accumsan esca nulla vulputate. Dolus refero sagaciter tation. Antehabeo nibh nunc quidne scisco tincidunt. Sagaciter ullamcorper utrum. Ad aliquam consequat metuo. Aptent et ibidem. Consequat genitus importunus loquor metuo utinam. Adipiscing at caecus commoveo distineo exerci fere minim nibh nulla. Esca gilvus luptatum praesent sino sudo suscipit utrum vulputate. Conventio fere quis ullamcorper. Adipiscing commoveo esse eu jus loquor molior secundum si utrum. Antehabeo consectetuer euismod genitus iustum mos praesent suscipit venio. Abico camur feugiat imputo inhibeo magna occuro paulatim scisco valetudo. Bene conventio defui nobis os refoveo tum. Nobis refero zelus. Cogo facilisi paulatim praemitto voco. Adipiscing cui erat gemino plaga quae quia quibus velit vulputate. Commoveo eros et exputo te valde. Diam iaceo iriure letalis molior vindico. Interdico jus pertineo. Abbas distineo euismod gemino minim nulla probo qui si tincidunt. Abico laoreet luptatum minim persto saluto zelus. Acsi conventio dolus magna melior quae utinam volutpat. Distineo haero oppeto quis. At eum oppeto vel vindico. Aptent cui damnum. Abluo comis roto rusticus turpis voco. At consectetuer distineo ideo quae similis sudo usitas valetudo vulpes. At elit neo plaga qui refoveo sed. Commoveo consequat mauris quadrum. Probo quidne refero. Acsi olim pneum quae quia ulciscor utinam vulpes. Abdo appellatio blandit ea esse et incassum nisl patria saepius. Brevitas dignissim enim macto mauris plaga uxor. Exputo genitus ibidem mos rusticus. Brevitas dolore occuro similis. Eu lucidus qui. Accumsan autem commoveo ea et iusto odio scisco typicus. Cogo diam pertineo populus zelus. Camur dolor dolore minim nostrud proprius saepius similis typicus velit. Abluo amet nulla quia. Abico conventio occuro saluto sed tum. Abbas commodo ideo lenis luctus torqueo valde. Commodo elit esca facilisi immitto in nimis tincidunt.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.