What does the breakthrough in the GCC crisis mean for Turkey?

At the 41st GCC Summit on January 5, the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar- and non-GCC member state Egypt released the al-Ula Statement that calls for the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Qatar and an end to the region-wide crisis.  The stability and solidarity agreement calls for unity and strengthening relations between the GCC countries as stipulated by the GCC Charter. The declaration affirms that the GCC countries can afford to reach “a union of states, to achieve security, peace, stability, and prosperity in the region by working as a single, unified economic and political group.” In this regard, the Saudi leadership with the words of Mohamad bin Salman (MBS) emphasized the completion of economic integration including full economic citizenship, which includes the granting of freedom to work, move and relocate, and invest in the borders of cooperation to all GCC citizens. In addition, economic goals, the implementation of joint defense and security systems and a unified foreign policy for the GCC states were issues on the table. The Al-Ula declaration thus underlines the critical issues that member states were negotiating over for the last two decades, such as a customs union and common market, cooperative security, etc. However, it gives extra credit to the Saudi leadership by focusing on the Kingdom-led projects (such as the Riyadh Initiative, the Kingdom Vision 2030) and the Kingdom’s policies supported by its the presidential term at the G20. In addition to underlining Saudi leadership in the GCC, the al-Ula declaration ensures that the bonds of brotherhood among the member states will be strengthened and restored, which is a natural outcome of the breakthrough of the GCC crisis.

Turkey’s military and political backing of Qatar since 2011 has exacerbated its strain with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia due to their contradicting stances on the regional issues that started with the Arab uprisings. Qatar’s normalization with the Quartet states is the beginning of a process that could reach a complete resolution in the GCC. Political strains that contaminated the intra-GCC relations and Turkey’s ties with anti-Qatar bloc remain valid today, extending Turkey’s recalibration with the embargo states over time.

Turkey’s Stance on the GCC Crisis

Turkey’s active turn to the Gulf dates back to the 80s under Turgut Özal and Kenan Evren. Following its re-orientation to the Middle East over the last two decades, Turkey consolidated these relationships during the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) era through signing partnership agreements and became the first non-Gulf country to sign the strategic partnership agreement with the GCC in 2008. Prior to that, Turkey supported the GCC’s security interests during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and conducted solid economic ties with the member states.

Qatar and Turkey’s proximity reached its peak after the Arab uprisings. Turkey established its first overseas military base in Qatar in 2015, causing diplomatic and political tensions in the GCC. Turkey also propped Qatar up against the Saudi-Emirati led blockade campaign since the eruption of the crisis in June 2017, and immediately sent cargo planes of supplies to Qatar in the early days of blockade. The Turkish military presence in Qatar supported the oil monarchy when a Saudi military operation was a potential after the siege in 2017. Not surprisingly, closing the Turkish base was on the list of 13 demands by the Quartet states. Turkey’s military and political support to Qatar has not only complicated the intra-GCC relations but encouraged Kuwait to consolidate its military relations by signing a detailed Defense Plan in 2019.  Turkey’s access to the GCC has transformed into a combination of military and political ties from the early years’ economic-oriented relations, including its ongoing military ties with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman. However, Turkey’s standing alliances with Qatar have raised its disagreements with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, particularly over the issues such as the Turkish military base in Qatar and Turkey’s strain with the UAE over Egypt, Libya and Israel.

The tension between the UAE and Turkey is one of the determinants of Turkey’s potential recalibration with the Gulf. Turkey’s relations with the Emirates had been at a reasonable level in diplomatic and economic relations until the current strain in the post-Arab uprisings era. Turkey’s total trade volume with the UAE between 2015 and 2018 was around 38 billion US$, whereas Qatar’s total trade volume was only 4 Billion US$. Turkey and the UAE, along with the other GCC countries, had been exchanging high-level diplomatic visits before the current tension. The military ties with the UAE were another critical element of the cooperation before the current tension.  For the years of 2008-2017, Turkey’s total military exports to the UAE was almost 80 million US$ and Qatar 9 million US$. In the current situation, the political narratives of the leaders indicate the tangled state of relations. As Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu interpreted previously, the UAE’s policies toward the Turkish nation “are absolutely not friendly”. 

Challenges to the improvement of Turkish-Gulf relations

Despite these numbers and the consolidated relations, Turkey, along with Qatar, were far  from converging with the UAE on political and geopolitical issues. This was an expected outcome of the years of constructing independent policy-making of the Emirati and the Qatari policymakers. Both of the small states have benefited from the space for maneuvering that emerged in the region following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. The small states have positioned their foreign policy-making towards the regional changes between unavoidable bandwagoning to Saudi Arabia and counter-balancing whenever possible. The war of positions between the UAE and Turkish-Qatar bloc has been intensified by transforming the Arab uprisings into a clash of narratives beyond the region including proxy wars and disagreements ranging from Syria and Libya to the Eastern Mediterranean. Bilateral ties have especially ruptured after Turkey’s accusation towards the UAE of funding the attempted coup in 2016.

After the current steps in the GCC crisis, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, stated that “the United Arab Emirates has no reason to be in conflict with Turkey and wants Ankara to stop being the primary backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Iran remains one of the central discussions in the GCC crisis, and the oil monarchies’ position towards Iran may affect the Turkish calibration in the Gulf. The shared concern of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in response to Turkey’s influence in Arab countries is applicable  for Iran with different angles. In the Al-Ula declaration, MBS called for a unified GCC voice to “…confront the challenges that surround… particularly the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program… as well as its terrorist and sectarian activities…”

To some extent, Turkey and Iran are in the same basket when defining ‘the common other’ of the region. They are both non-Arab and perceived as intervening in Arab affairs by some of the Arab leaders. Gargash interpreted  Turkish and Iranian involvement in the regional affairs as sectarian and partisan approaches that were not acceptable to lead the Arab world. Considering Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed’s latest urging of the Gulf countries to re-establish dialogue with Iran, any future improvement in Turkish-Gulf relations will require Iran’s inclusion.

Turkey’s Reaction to the Breakthrough

Right after the Saudi policymakers’ declaration of the lift of Qatar blockade, Turkey responded positively to the breakthrough with a press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. The statements emphasize Turkey’s continued support to the Gulf region’s security and stability and “a comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict will be reached on the basis of mutual respect to the sovereignty of all countries”.

Despite the disagreements over the GCC crisis, the experts agree that the current breakthrough in the Gulf crisis is not an end to the contaminated relations among the monarchies. Rather, it is an anticipation of Joe Biden’s presidency. As opposed to Donald Trump’s anti-Qatar and anti-Iran narrative segregating the GCC countries over decades’ long controversies, the expectation for the Biden era is a mitigation of the regional tension by bringing back the parties together. Although unresolved issues between the GCC countries remain, the Al-Ula declaration is a win for all. Despite overstated comments on Turkey’s gain out of the breakthrough, the mitigation of intra-GCC problems can bring further positive steps in the regional diplomacy towards Turkey and Iran. Even so, recalibration of Turkey’s access to the GCC requires critical steps with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.