Abu Dhabi // Ties between the GCC and Turkey are set to improve as their interests align on a number of key regional issues, and despite Ankara’s support for Islamist political parties that has strained ties for the past five years.
The reset in relations was marked by a flurry of diplomatic activity over the past month.
On April 14, the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers signed an agreement at a ceremony in Istanbul attended by King Salman and president Recep Tayyip Ergogan to create a bilateral strategic cooperation council. On April 26, foreign minister Mevlet Cavusoglu became the first senior Turkish official to visit the UAE in nearly three years when he arrived in the capital for talks with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. A day later, the UAE said it was sending an ambassador back to Ankara after a three-year absence.
On April 28, Ahmet Davutoglu, then Turkey’s prime minister, announced on a visit to Doha that Turkish soldiers had been deployed to a new military installation in Qatar – Ankara’s first military base in the region since the Ottoman era. “We want a stable and secure Gulf. Turkey and Qatar, we have the same destiny,” Mr Davutoglu said. “We face the same threats.”
Turkey and Qatar, its closest Gulf partner, had signed the base agreement in 2014, when relations between the two countries on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other, were at a historic low point. However, the recent moves to strengthen ties reflect a closer alignment between Ankara and Riyadh in particular on regional conflicts, countering Iranian influence as well as complementary economic interests, analysts and diplomats say.
Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE became increasingly difficult since the Arab Spring uprisings, but the tension spilled into the open after the Egyptian military’s removal from office of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, after mass protests against his rule.
Morsi was supported by Turkey as part of its attempt to project power in the region through Islamist political groups.
The backlash against those groups eroded Turkey’s influence. At the same time, the effects of the war in Syria made Ankara feel surrounded by adversaries.
"Its famous policy of 'zero problems with the neighbours' has progressively turned into a 'zero neighbour without problem'," Jana Jabbour, a professor at Sciences Po Paris who studies Turkey's regional foreign policy, told The National.
“In such a context, Turkey’s ‘rapprochement’ with the GCC is first and foremost a symbolic move aimed at showing that Ankara is still an important regional player with great prestige”, as well as “a means to compensate for Ankara’s loss of influence in the Levant region”, she said.
A key factor in this return, the observers say, was the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January last year.
The change in Saudi leadership changed the ranking of threat perceptions and allowed for the process of normalising ties with both Turkey and Qatar, according to a Gulf-based diplomat familiar with discussions between Riyadh and Ankara.
Across regional conflicts, from Libya to Syria, Iraq and even Yemen, Turkey and Riyadh are more on the same page when it comes to what kinds of political forces, including Islamists, can fill the power vacuums but still be considered legitimate by Sunni populations and serve as bulwarks against extremists.
King Salman’s tenure has also seen a policy of pushing back against Iran’s use of allied militias and proxy forces in Arab countries. While Turkey has important economic ties with Iran, it views increasing Iranian influence as a strategic threat.
“Turkey considers Iran to be its peer competitor: while the two countries are economically interdependent, they are both vying for regional influence in the Middle East,” Ms Jabbour said. “The establishment of the military base in Qatar is an implicit message sent to Tehran that Ankara is developing a new sphere of influence in the Gulf, in Tehran’s backyard.”
The enhanced defence relationships also hold important benefits for Riyadh and Doha, both of which are working to diversify their strategic partnerships beyond a reliance on the US.
While the US maintains a large presence of ground, air and naval capabilities in the Gulf, including a large base in Qatar, they see few signs that Washington is as committed to helping guard against what GCC governments describe as Iranian meddling in Arab countries’ affairs.
“Turkey, on the other hand, is more proactive and has shown more commitment to regional security in Syria or Iraq,” said Andreas Krieg, a Doha-based defence studies professor at King’s College London. “Here, from a Qatari point of view, Turkey is strategically a more reliable partner than the US.”
A key objective for Qatar, which is a part of the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, is to reform and enhance its military capabilities, including the ability to deploy outside of its borders, in the same way that the UAE, with the most capable Gulf military, has proven itself able to do. “Turkey can provide crucial capabilities, training and education,” Mr Krieg said. “Again, Turkey willingly supplies these military services without any strings attached.”
The development of Saudi Arabia’s defence industries is a crucial aspect of Riyadh’s economic reform plans, and an agreement with Turkey signed last year will increase cooperation between Turkish defence firm Aselsan and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and Taqnia Defence and Securities Technologies.
For the Turkish defence sector, the Gulf market is increasingly important. In 2012, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE made up a quarter of Turkish defence exports.
Turkey is a net energy importer with most of its oil coming from Iran, so Ankara will also seek to increase its energy ties with the Gulf. GCC governments and firms also have significant investments in food-security related agribusiness, construction and real estate in Turkey.
While Saudi Arabia has brought together dozens of Sunni-majority countries including Turkey together in an alliance to combat extremism and as a show of force and unity to Iran, the political differences with Ankara that this has papered over remain, particularly with the UAE.
Economic imperatives in the Gulf and in Turkey mean that “Turkey cannot ignore the UAE”, said Mr Krieg. “Despite persisting political disparities, both countries cannot afford doing without each other’s economic strength.”
Mr Causoglu’s visit to Abu Dhabi was “cordial”, the Gulf-based diplomat said, but it was apparent that differences over Islamist groups remained an impediment.