Turkey’s Erdoğan poised for Pakistan visit during tough week

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrives in Pakistan on Thursday for a two-day visit that will include an address to the National Assembly on Friday. He is sure to be warmly welcomed by his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, but during a difficult spell for Turkey, Erdoğan may not find the support he would like.

That the Turkish leader will be setting a new record with his fourth speech to the country’s parliament conveys the importance the relationship holds for both countries. This was underlined again in late January when Pakistan’s Interior Ministry revealed a planned deal to make it easier for Turks and Pakistanis to gain dual citizenship.

Turkey and Pakistan have close defence links, with the countries participating in joint naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is embroiled in energy disputes, and Pakistan even touted as a potential source of knowledge if Turkey seeks its own nuclear arms programme.

Islamabad has also signed up to buy 30 Turkish ATAK helicopters by next year, the two countries are jointly building a 17,000-tonne fleet tanker in the southern port city of Karachi, and Turkey is supplying the Pakistani navy with four corvettes in a multi-billion dollar deal hailed as the biggest ever for the Turkish defence industry.

Khan has said that he aims to discuss how those ties can be deepened during Erdoğan’s visit, with a focus on economic relations.

But there may be an awkward undercurrent to the visit if Turkey brings its regional power struggle to the table in Pakistan.

Erdoğan will arrive during a difficult week for Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkish troops are now engaged in various fronts in two hot conflicts in Syria and Libya, and it has lost troops this week and last week facing up to the Syrian government, backed by Russia.

Meanwhile, its aggressive pursuit of a share of the eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon wealth has left it isolated and up against a bloc of its neighbours in the region.

The backdrop to those clashes is the Turkish president’s years-long drive to bolster his country’s regional standing. He has done so in part by backing Islamist movements in various struggles in the Middle East, including Syria and Libya, but also by positioning Turkey as a defender of various causes that are important to the Muslim world.

With Turkey consistently on side with political Islamists that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deem dangerous enemies and loudly speaking out on issues like Palestine, analysts frequently speak of Erdoğan as vying to be seen as a moral leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims.

Turkey was among the most vocal backers of Pakistan last year, when India passed an act to reconstitute the disputed Jammu and Kashmir territories under direct Indian administration. But while Khan lauded Erdoğan for his message of support, it was not enough to ensure the Pakistani president’s attendance at a meeting of leaders and senior representatives of 20 Muslim nations in Kuala Lumpur last year that the Turkish president viewed as important.

Khan reportedly bowed out at the last minute under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which Riyadh may view as an attempt to create an alternative to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Speaking at the Kuala Lumpur event, Erdoğan took the opportunity to lambast the OIC, whose chairmanship Turkey handed to Saudi Arabia last year, for its lack of action on Palestine. The organisation has been similarly criticised for a soft stance on Kashmir.

Given the risks that Erdoğan’s adventurous foreign policy manoeuvres are creating on Turkey’s doorstep in Syria, the Turkish president goes to Pakistan in need of allies.

He may be able to secure a meaningful show of support from Khan. But given the Pakistani president’s hesitance to step out of line with Saudi Arabia, that would be a big ask, even in spite of the close relations Turkey’s leader has taken pains to foster with Islamabad.


© Ahval English