Trump and son-in-law open door to Erdoğan and his son-in-law

Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak had his photo taken with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Monday. The image helped Albayrak, who is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s second most powerful government official, subtly send the message that he is the heir apparent to power in Turkey.

For decades, Middle Eastern dictators have come to Washington, in the hope of having their photos taken with important public officials. They are often accompanied by their anointed successor - a son, a grandchild, a son-in-law, or other trusted crony.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the United States in 2009, he imagined he had founded a dynasty and took his son Gamal with him all over town. Mubarak even attempted to sneak Gamal into meetings with President Barack Obama, but was unable to get a photo of the two of them together. Mubarak was deposed in 2011 by mass protests, partly inspired by the fear that Gamal would succeed his ailing father and there would be no end to the family’s authoritarian rule.

Before he was named crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman came to Washington in 2017 as Saudi Arabia’s defence minister in place of his elderly father, King Salman, and enjoyed one of Trump’s first Oval Office meetings. A short time later, Mohammad bin Salman was officially named crown prince and next in line to the throne and quickly set about arresting rivals and seizing tens of billions of dollars of their assets.

This week it was Albayrak’s turn in the Oval Office. Also in the photo with him and Trump was U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in charge of the department expected to issue billions of dollars in fines to Turkey’s largest state-owned bank, which was implicated last year in scheme to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was also there. Seated between Mnuchin and Kushner, Albayrak said he conveyed his father-in-law’s messages to Trump.

The first thing that comes to mind looking at the photograph is how much of a morale boost it might have been for Albayrak, coming at the end of a trip in which he faced heavy criticism from powerful financial circles, including the World Bank, the IMF, and JP Morgan, following a weak performance at a meeting with potential investors. One attendee called it “a shit show”.

The lira fell nearly 1.5 percent following Albayrak’s presentation on Friday. Turkey is in the middle of a recession and faces stubbornly high inflation, now at just under 20 percent.

The lira seems to slide every time Albayrak opens his mouth, be it in Washington or some other capital. There are whispers in Ankara that he may be shifted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If true, it would mean that in the event that Turkey’s economy continues to decline, Albayrak would not be the one going cap in hand to the IMF. Instead, some unlucky technocrat would have to persuade the Turkish public to take the IMF medicine.

“The institutional strength of the security alliance between our countries, within the framework of NATO, continues to be the lynchpin of bilateral relations,” Albayrak said in a speech to American and Turkish business leaders on Monday, perhaps practicing his diplomatic rhetoric for a future post. “With the decision not to hold elections over the next four-and-a-half years, along with a strong government commitment to our plan for economic transformation, Turkey can offer every kind of wonderful opportunity to investors.”

Turkey’s economy might benefit from having Albayrak’s hands off the controls, while his work in energy and finance, along with a stint as foreign minister, would make his CV more befitting a future president. It is too soon to tell if such a shift is in the cards.

Amid all of this, the relationship between Erdoğan’s government and the United States has soured since the 2013 Gezi protests, yet the main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has not visited Washington in nearly six years. Opposition Good Party leader Meral Akşener even boasts that she does not have a passport.

Turkey witnessed a peak in nationalism and anti-Western sentiment in the first decade of the millennium, yet Erdoğan and his team did not miss an opportunity to relay strong messages of friendship to the United States and its allies. In 2002, even before he became prime minister, Erdoğan went to the White House and met President George W. Bush, reportedly offering his support for the looming invasion of Iraq. In those years, Erdoğan was even getting along with the American Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby. He and his team offered a positive vision of Muslim democracy and never shied away from making their case in Western capitals, laying out a powerful image of the so-called Turkish model: pro-Western and pro-market, yet still Islamic.

As Erdoğan and his team have tacked to the right in recent years, and tussled with U.S. officials, Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) has also become more nationalist and conservative, missing an opportunity to fill the vacuum and offer a truly moderate Turkish alternative to the West. After every election defeat, Kılıçdaroğlu has been too busy eliminating challengers to his party leadership to visit Washington.

If Erdoğan indeed decides to turn to Washington once again after the elections, and decides to deploy the Russian S-400 in Azerbaijan or Qatar, as suggested this week in pro-government Sabah newspaper - we may see another big shift in AKP foreign policy. After the S-400 deal, the second biggest thorn in U.S.–Turkey relations is the northeast Syria safe-zone; the formula apparently now under discussion would place Turkish soldiers in Arab-majority areas, but not in mainly Kurdish areas.

Time will tell whether this scenario plays out, and how Erdoğan’s government will reshape foreign policy in the post-election period. But we know for certain that Turkey’s opposition will again be watching from the sidelines.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.