Abstract: With the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2008, Turkey became the first non-Gulf country to engage with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through a strategic dialogue mechanism. Turkey’s ties with the region have been influenced by the larger regional dynamics influenced by the Iraq war, the Arab uprisings, the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, and the 2017 Qatar crisis with the Gulf states. Amidst all these crises, Turkey’s military access to the region has been rising and its national strategy for improving military trade with the region has been successful. This analysis paper will focus on Turkey’s controversial military presence in the Gulf through its military base in Qatar and military cooperation with Kuwait.

Introduction

Turkey’s political, military and economic relations with the Gulf states were institutionalized in Jeddah with the 2008 Strategic Partnership Agreement which positioned Turkey as the first non-Gulf country to engage with the region through a strategic dialogue mechanism. It was a milestone not only for Turkey’s interests in developing further economic and political cooperation with the Gulf states, but also for the latter’s interest in enhancing their power through regional cooperation with an alternative external force to the US, with the aim of mitigating Iran’s rising regional influence in the post-Iraq invasion period.[i] This special status paved the way for Turkey’s cooperation with the Gulf states to ultimately expand to the military domain.

The hosting of the Turkish military base in Qatar in 2016, the first in the Gulf, demonstrated the regional security divergencies among the Gulf states. The base in Qatar created diplomatic and political tension among the Gulf states, as was made clear by the inclusion of the base’s termination in the list of the 13 demands by the Arab Quartet, which included Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, in the 2017 Qatar crisis. In 2019, Turkey’s military engagement also expanded to Kuwait through the Joint Defense Plan. Considering these two military initiatives with Qatar and Kuwait, the nature of Turkey’s engagement in the Gulf has been transformed to a combination of military, political and economic relations at the bilateral level. While the establishment of bilateral military cooperation with an external actor has led to a perceived decline in GCC unity and raised the levels of distrust among the six members, it also opened the way for Turkish foreign policy makers to expand their perceptions of regional security to the Gulf.

Factors Underlying Turkey’s Military Access in the GCC

Rather than comparing the cases of Qatar and Kuwait, this analysis focuses on the logic behind Turkey’s broadening strategic and bilateral cooperation with Gulf states and underlines the ambiguous and nontransparent nature of Turkish military involvement in the Gulf. The reason behind the selection of these two countries is their current rising military trade and political cooperation with Turkey outside of the GCC framework. In this initial analysis, we make three main arguments while assessing Turkey’s regional interest in the Gulf. First, Turkey’s regional role in the Gulf is evaluated not only on the basis of its military capability or economic and political interests, but also on the basis of its strategic bilateral relations with specific Gulf states based on mutual pragmatism. However, even if positive outcomes are achieved as a result of these strategic relations, these relations also exacerbated intra-GCC tensions and influenced other GCC actors’ perceptions of Turkey as a regional threat. Secondly, Turkey is a rising military exporter in the region and its involvement in Gulf affairs encourages Turkish decision-makers to increase their economic and military role not only in Gulf states’ development, but also their institutional crises and bilateral problems. Thirdly, Turkey’s military initiatives in Qatar and Kuwait increased the level of distrust among the GCC members, while also raising domestic critiques towards Turkish foreign policy particularly towards the construction of close strategic relations with Qatar.