ISTANBUL - Turkish exporters say they have become a casualty of what analysts describe as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy. Turkey’s relations with its Saudi partners suffer as a result of Ankara’s push to exert its influence in the Mediterranean and in Africa. Exporters say they are being shut out of Middle Eastern markets — prompting Turkey to start changing its approach.
Turkish companies like industrial boilermaker Erensan are paying a heavy price for Turkey's strained relations across the Middle East and North Africa, says Erensan’s CEO Ali Eren.
"We shifted, so to speak, from the Middle East," said Eren. "With Saudi Arabia also not good relations, Egypt not good relations, so we shifted a little bit to the East to Indonesia for example and to Bangladesh which turned out to be good markets for us as well. But it's not automatically done because we have to work first to get into the market."
Reports of a Saudi trade boycott has hit Turkey's massive textile industry, which supplies many of the big international brands. Egypt has sided with Saudi Arabia in a growing, bitter rivalry.
International relations expert Emre Caliskan at the University of Oxford says Turkey sees Riyadh as thwarting its efforts to penetrate North African markets.
"Turkey wants to be an economic player in the region. Turkey has an export orientated economy," said Caliskan. "So whenever Turkey started have a better relationship with some countries this could be Morocco and Algeria. They always found a country trying to position itself towards Saudi Arabia.
Turkey under Erdogan has opened several new embassies across Africa with the hope of tapping into the continent’s markets.
Ankara suffered a major setback in those efforts with last year's overthrow of Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir, a close ally of the Turkish President Erdogan. The new Khartoum government has since pivoted away from Ankara and towards Riyadh.
But with the Turkish economy reeling from the COVID 19 pandemic, Caliskan says Turkey is now looking to Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences.
"Turkey had been suffering by the negative effect of COVID-19 outbreak, so Turkish economy has had difficult days," said Caliskan. "So Turkey hopes by approaching Saudi Arabia, it would help the economy to boost again; as you might remember, for almost a year, Saudi Arabia were boycotting Turkish goods and products.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have in the past enjoyed close ties, with Riyadh investing significantly in Turkey.
A reset in Turkish Saudi relations could also be a catalyst to a broader regional diplomatic reset for Turkey, says retired Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende.
"The Turkish leadership and the Saudis felt the need to reassess the situation and to be able to start a dialogue in their interest as you said, maybe it could be the start of a normalization of relations with Cairo, why not?," he said.
With Ali Eren's boiler business is still counting the cost of Turkey's regional isolation, Eren welcomes talk of a rapprochement.
"Egypt has been a loss for us, but we are not worried it's going to come back on us again because politics change," said Eren.
For exporters like Eren who are also reeling from the pandemic, repairing ties with the Saudis cannot come soon enough.