Closer ties between Turkey and Gulf countries
Dubai - Turkey-Gulf Arab relations are again warming as the Syrian civil war provides impetus for both sides to re-explore possibilities for a strategic partnership.
Turkish regional influence had been on the rise until the “Arab spring” strained Turkey-Arab relations when Ankara sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Now Turkey and the Gulf Arabs are attempting to put recent chasms behind them. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that “Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — this trio — are the most important countries of the region”, adding they “have duties to carry on for the peace, calm and welfare of the region”.
The Russian entry into the Syrian civil war transformed the prospects of survival for the Assad regime and unexpectedly heightened tensions with Moscow for Ankara, which is a major energy source for a growing Turkish economy. Having invested so heavily in a post-Assad Syria, many of Turkey’s regional goals depend on the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
Turkey has for years tried to position itself as transit hub for energy supplies from Russia and the Middle East into Europe but Syria has become the single most important obstacle to that vision.
First, the Syrian factor escalated Turkish-Russian tensions to unprecedented levels from which normalisation will take years and acts as an impediment to deeper ties with a resurgent and oil-rich Iran.
Second, the Syrian civil war adds an unwelcome dimension to Kurdish separatism that can threaten Ankara’s broader regional influence, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan, and create problems by threatening internal security and European perceptions of how reliably Turkey really could act as an energy bridge.
Turkey needs to reopen doors it has closed on itself and the Arab Gulf is the place to begin. Turkey and the Arab Gulf are majority Sunni adherents of Islam, have pro-Western outlooks and closely aligned interests in Syria, where the future of the region is being decided.
Turkey can rebalance its energy dependence on Russia via the Gulf and reorient towards prioritising energy supplies primarily from the Middle East rather than Russia to be transited to energy-hungry Europe. Turkey can also collaborate with the Gulf to counter Iranian influence in countries such as Iraq, especially its oil-rich Kurdistan region, to consolidate its regional role and influence.
More widely, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries represent rapidly growing markets with huge potential for trade and investment between them that both sides are keen to exploit.
The Turkey-Gulf Arab partnership can also be buttressed at the security level. Turkey’s capable defence industry can play a bigger role in Gulf Arab defence and with both sides reliant on Western-manufactured defence equipment, deeper military-to-military ties and joint operations are technically feasible.
Turkey is working to develop deeper ties with the Arab Gulf. In late 2015, during Erdogan’s third visit of the year to Riyadh a “strategic cooperation council” to strengthen bilateral military and economic cooperation was set up. Since then, Turkey has supported Saudi efforts at unifying the moderate Syrian opposition and confirmed participation in the 34-country counterterrorism coalition announced by Riyadh.
Turkey is also establishing a military base in Qatar, which will see Turkish military personnel deploy into the Gulf for the first time since the fall of the Ottoman empire. The base is designed to confront “common enemies”, according to the Turkish ambassador to Qatar, and will station 3,000 personnel in air, naval and special operations units.
Qatar already hosts the largest US air base in the region and the Turkish announcement comes at a time of perceived US disengagement from the Middle East and improving relations with Iran.
Although Turkey is in no position to assume the security guarantor role traditionally performed by the United States, recent developments in Turkey-Gulf Arab relations are significant. Turkey is, however, reluctant to spearhead the regional Sunni counterweight to Iran. Erdogan has been cautious about suggesting that he harbours Sunni sympathies against Shias and generally prefers to appeal to the wider Islamic audience.
Beyond the Syrian civil war, Turkey is unlikely to have an interest in playing the sectarian card and will take a balanced approach with Iran given wider strategic interests in trade and energy.
Erdogan was seen to side with Saudi Arabia when he called the recent execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr “an internal legal matter” and condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran but Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus later spoke of Turkey’s opposition to “politically motivated” executions.
Turkish-Iranian relations are more likely to be framed by competitive rivalry and engagement than confrontation but this can change if Turkey feels it has more benefits to accrue otherwise. What exactly these benefits are is where the question lies.