Turkey sees Gulf détente boosting defence industry

Turkish government officials and industry sources say a possible thaw in hostile relations with Gulf countries could provide a boost to the country’s defence industry, which saw exports drop last year, researcher and journalist Burak Bekdil said in Defense News on Monday.

The outlook for Turkey’s relations with nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has improved since the two countries ended a rift with Qatar, Turkey’s closest ally in the region.

Turkish exports of weapons shrunk in 2020 despite large investments in the development of military hardware and the high-profile use of Turkish drones in a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Exports of Turkish defence and aerospace products fell by about 17 percent to $2.28 billion in 2020, Bekdil said. The United States, to which Turkey has supplied parts for the F-35 stealth fighter jet, was the top destination with purchases of $748 million.

“The potential détente has not yet reached any official level … it has no governmental support yet,” a Turkish diplomat said. “However, that does not mean there won’t be governmental support. We favour good relations within the Islamic world.”

Eleven Turkish arms companies are expected to market their products at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 21-25, according to Bekdil. Ten of the companies are small firms. Businesses with close ties to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are notable by their absence.

“With normalisation, those ‘government-friendly’ Turkish manufacturers too may come into the business cycle. And they are big ones,” one industry source told Bekdil.

“Any potential normalisation (between Turkey and its Gulf rivals) is not yet mature enough to justify a high-profile Turkish presence at IDEX,” said a Turkish presidential aide who works on a defence industry portfolio, Bekdil reported. “We must be patient to see more.”

With normalised relations, Turkey would see a “big boost” in its exports to those countries, the aide said.

“They are big markets, And Turkish manufacturers have combat-proven solutions to meet their requirements,” he said.

The Turkish diplomat said it was premature to say that there was a new understanding between Turkey and the states of the Gulf, which was being negotiated through both official and unofficial channels. The process could accelerate in the coming months, he said.

“We need to see more [confidence-building steps] from our counterparts,” the diplomat said.

Added export volume could total nearly $1 billion to a few Gulf and Arab countries if Turkey improves political relations, according to the presidential aide. Potential equipment sales could include corvettes, frigates, helicopters, armoured vehicles and drones, he said.