Competitive Multipolarity in the Middle East and the Role of Turkey

Despite all the pragmatism and foresight of the diplomatic tactics of the Turkish leadership in terms of increasing Ankara’s role in the Middle East, Turkey still has a number of limitations that have prevented it from acting as a force that completely determines the regional order, Pavel Shlykov writes.

By the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, a situation had developed in the Middle East, characterised, firstly, by continuous turbulence, and, secondly, by the intersection of interests of a significant number of global and regional players who maintain this turbulence in a constantly renewed state. However, at the same time, none of these players alone is able to ensure the formation of a regional order, which would be favourable to itself, and the nature of coalitions and agreements between them remains, at best, a situational or temporary phenomenon.

By historical standards, a fundamental change in the balance of power and influence of global players in the region has occurred fairly quickly – in less than two decades. Against the backdrop of the growth of political and economic activity of Russia and China that emerged in the 2010s, the ability of the United States to determine the parameters of the Middle East regional subsystem of international relations has decreased.

The paradox of the decline in US influence was that in the 2010s it happened against the background of a permanent increase of the American military presence in the region, the preservation of allied relations and economic involvement. At the same time, as American dominance in the Middle East deteriorated, other players were in no hurry to fully fill the resulting military-political vacuum. The EU and China were focused almost exclusively on the implementation of their economic projects, and Russia was focused on the Syrian issue. This situation contributed to the escalation of the competitive confrontation between the largest regional powers for expanding their military, political and economic influence.

Four such powers – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which possess comparable military-strategic potential, financial and economic resources and cultural/ideological authority, saw in the emerging situation in the Middle East opportunities to satisfy their leadership ambitions. Their actions to strengthen their positions, which are predominantly unilateral in nature and do little to accommodate each other’s interests, have largely shaped the framework of regional competitive multipolarity. Moreover, the arena of their confrontation has often turned out to be countries which were internally weakened by the Arab Spring and rapidly approaching the category of “failed states.”

The peculiarity of Turkey among other Middle Eastern “superpowers” is that from a country closely involved in transatlantic relations and subordinate to their logic, in the 2000-2020s it very quickly transformed into a player defending its own strategic autonomy and using for this purpose a fairly wide range of foreign policy, economic and military strategy instruments. At the initial stage, Ankara’s increased role in regional affairs was favourably received by other regional participants. However, by the end of the 2010s, there were also obvious contradictions produced by the growth of its regional ambitions.

The Return of Diplomacy?
Turkey and The New Regional Security
Taha Özhan
Turkey finds itself in a geographically challenging region, affected not only by global geopolitical tensions but also by heightened levels of regional instability. The ongoing civil war in Syria and its spill-over of instability exemplify these challenges. Iran, subjected to Western sanctions, continues to invest indirectly in regional instability.

Ankara’s move to go on the offensive in its diplomacy and build up the tools of “hard power” in order to ensure strategic autonomy (its development of the national military-industrial complex, diversification of the nomenclature and geography of military-technical cooperation, and finally, the use of the army outside Turkey) was completely justified in the mind of Turkish President Recep Erdogan in the context of increased geopolitical risks and correlated with the task of ensuring national security as a basic imperative of foreign policy.

The development of the defence industry naturally pushed Turkey to project its military potential not only along the perimeter of its own borders, but further, which became an additional tool for Turkey to increase its regional and even macro-regional influence. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the opening of military bases in Qatar (2015), Syria (2016) and Somalia (2017), cross-border special military operations in Syria (2016, 2019, 2022) and Libya (2019), ensuring a long-term military presence in Iraq and Northern Cyprus, as well as active military-technical assistance to Azerbaijan during the Karabakh war of 2020.

Issues of Islamic identity turned out to be no less important for ensuring strategic autonomy. In Erdogan’s system of foreign policy coordinates, Turkey is the leader of the Islamic world, protecting the interests of Muslims in the region and in the world has been its historical mission. For this reason, the new round of deterioration in the situation in Gaza in the fall of 2023 became an important stress test for the Turkish idea of strategic autonomy and the way to build it up through power vacuums opened by regional conflicts.

The Gaza conflict has given Erdogan an opportunity to increase criticism of Israel and the US in the Global South and to increase pressure on Arab leaders to take a tougher stance on Israel. Thus, at least discursively, Turkey declared its claim to the role of a significant actor in the newest phase of the Middle East conflict, in which its voice was not so obvious before. Moreover, Erdogan has managed to convince a large segment of the Turkish political establishment and society that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Turkey’s global position and its regional ambitions. In late October 2023, Turkey supported a UN vote calling for an immediate humanitarian truce in the Gaza Strip.

At the November 2023 meetings of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey emerged as a leading force in mobilising international condemnation of Israel, seeking to consolidate a united anti-Israel front, and lobbied for the adoption of a strongly-worded final communiqué. With all these efforts, Erdogan has made a bid to play a significant role in the post-conflict settlement in the Gaza Strip, and also made it clear that none of the regional players, be it Egypt or Qatar, have the peacekeeping and humanitarian potential that Turkey has accumulated thanks to its peacekeeping role in other hotspots – Somalia, Afghanistan and the Balkans, as well as initiatives in international organizations (UN, OIC, etc.), through which Ankara has sought to establish itself as a key platform for resolving regional problems.

Despite all the pragmatism and foresight of the diplomatic tactics of the Turkish leadership in terms of increasing Ankara’s role in the Middle East, Turkey still has a number of limitations that have prevented it from acting as a force that completely determines the regional order. The nature of the limited potential for influence on regional processes lies in the fact that Turkey has not been able to isolate itself from growing instability along the perimeter of its Middle Eastern borders. The example of Syria, where Ankara’s policy was characterised by inconsistency caused by a rapidly changing environment, is very indicative. Here, a negative pattern clearly emerged: excessive activity created additional risks to national security, but did not lead to the strengthening of Turkey as a key player in the region or the resolution of the Syrian problem.

Another limiting factor is the difficult internal political situation, characterised by growing competition for power between Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition, which has strengthened in recent years; Ankara also faces a severe financial and economic crisis, which has persisted since the late 2010s despite unsuccessful attempts to overcome it. After all, Turkey’s impressive economic growth during the 2000s were what underpinned Ankara’s increased foreign policy activity at the regional level. The successes of Turkish business, combined with the large-scale internationalisation of Turkish capital, were the main drivers of Turkey’s expansion into the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In turn, the imperative to diversify economic partners in the early 2020s determined a meaningful transformation of Turkey’s Middle East policy, as expressed in the search for ways to normalise relations with a number of key regional powers – the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

An agreement on multibillion-dollar investments in Turkey was concluded with the UAE, whose leadership Erdogan had once called the sponsors of the 2016 coup. In late 2021, a multi-billion agreement was signed together with a dozen and a half agreements on cooperation in the field of defence, trade and scientific and technical cooperation.

A similar deal was made with Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince Erdogan had publicly accused of organising the murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the territory of the Istanbul consulate in 2018; an unspoken embargo on imports from Turkey entailing trade and economic restrictions was lifted. Riyadh then placed $5 billion in the Central Bank of Turkey.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Victim of Realism
Youssef Cherif
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is one of the most mediatized cases in modern history. Rarely did a man’s fate provoke such an international uproar, taking up the attention of the US president for weeks and pushing western capitals to treat Saudi Arabia almost like a rogue state. The reaction surprised the Saudi leadership and tarnished its image abroad but it is unlikely to alter the policies of its de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).


Ankara’s limited capabilities were evident even within the framework of the struggle for a diplomatic settlement of the situation in Gaza. From the very beginning of the escalation of the conflict, Turkey has tried to some extent to support and complement the roles of key Arab states such as Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and not to overshadow them or compete with them, hoping not to derail what began in the 2020s – the process of normalising relations with the Gulf countries. Otherwise, Erdogan would have been more publicly critical of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s relatively restrained diplomacy regarding the war in Gaza, as well as the UAE’s apparent desire to maintain relations with Israel. The new round of aggravation of the situation in the region and the war in Gaza has not undermined, but even strengthened the trend towards Ankara’s search for opportunities for cooperation with regional players. President Erdogan’s participation in the 44th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in December 2023 and his rhetoric well illustrated the vector of transformation of Turkey’s regional policy, aimed at fundamental changes in relations with the Gulf countries, given that just a few years ago, Ankara was involved in a bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the same vein, one can consider the idea of ​​creating a multilateral system of guarantor countries as a way to resolve the conflict in Gaza – with Turkey, some Arab states and interested international players acting as guarantors for the Palestinian side. Ankara also hopes for the greater involvement of non-Western powers such as China and Russia, and for international institutions (the International Criminal Court, etc.) to investigate war crimes in the Gaza Strip, all of which will counterbalance the West’s categorical support for Israel.

Thus, Turkey’s growing ambitions to strengthen its role in the region, on the one hand, and limited resources and capabilities coupled with vulnerability to growing regional instability, on the other, have formed a bizarre picture of Ankara’s foreign policy. Turkey is becoming yet another player that amplifies, rather than softens, the competitive nature of multipolarity in the Middle East, while making the most of the ad hoc regional coalitions that replace each other with amazing speed.

Gaza. Yemen. Epicentres of Pain. Feelings, Myths, and Memories in the Middle East
Vitaly Naumkin, Vasily Kuznetsov
Many developments that significantly impacted the destinies of the regional players, non-regional actors, and many people around the world have unfolded during the year that followed the publication of our paper titled “The Middle East and the Future of a Polycentric World” (February 2023).
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.