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Turkey and Kuwait: Strengthening ties in a fragile region

Relations between Turkey and Kuwait have a strong historical record dating back to the 1960s. Among Turkey’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Kuwait has a special place. In the 1990 Gulf War, Ankara stood by the side of the Gulf country despite the political and economic costs in the post-war era. Since then, relations between the two countries have developed steadily.

Turkey has been strengthening its relations with the Gulf countries in the past few years. Within this context, Turkish-Kuwaiti relations have gained an important momentum and this relationship deserves a deep examination. 

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah is scheduled to pay a three-day official visit to Turkey from March 20-22, upon the invitation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the visit of the emir, who will be accompanied by three ministers and a large delegation, several agreements in crucial areas — such as defense, tourism and the economy — are expected to be signed.

Sheikh Sabah’s last state visit to Ankara was in May 2013. He previously served as Kuwait’s foreign minister, and therefore has played a significant role in enhancing Turkish-Kuwaiti ties. 

The recent exchange of visits from both sides is a significant indicator of the improving ties between the two states.

Erdogan also paid a recent four-day visit to Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, in order to reinforce Turkey’s political ties in the region and step up economic cooperation with the GCC. 

Economy

Kuwait has been an important Gulf partner to Turkey, particularly in the fields of economy and tourism. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of Kuwaitis purchasing real estate in Turkey, along with an increase in the number of tourists from the Gulf country. Just last year, 180,000 Kuwaitis visited Turkey.

The total trade volume between Turkey and Kuwait stood at $165 million in 2002; it has since shot up to $700 million. 

The Turkish private sector has been involved in the construction, transportation and advanced-technology sectors in Kuwait. Turkey’s Limak Co. in 2015 won a tender to build the new terminal at Kuwait International Airport for $4.34 billion. The airport, which will be able to handle more than 25 million passengers a year, will be world’s first airport to boast a LEED Gold sustainability certificate.

Politics 

The advancement of Turkish-Gulf economic relations has had positive repercussions in the political relationship between Ankara and Kuwait.

Both Turkey and Kuwait are increasingly aware of the importance of each other and are determined to strengthen their relations in the face of the disquieting risks faced by regional countries. The problematic issues in the Middle East — such as the Palestinian issue, Syrian conflict, Iranian nuclear threat, instability in Iraq and common security concerns — push the two countries toward further cooperation, aiming to secure regional stability and security.

Ankara and the Gulf state are determined to strengthen relations in the face of disquieting risks faced by Middle Eastern countries.

Sinem Cengiz

Due to the shared common concerns regarding geopolitical developments in the Middle East, both countries support each other in the international arena and are on the same page regarding the Syrian war and fight against Daesh.

Turkey hosts millions of Syrians and carries out successful humanitarian assistance in its refugee camps; Kuwait is among the largest donors to Syrians, and has carried out several aid campaigns at Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria, where there is a great number of refugees.

Also, for both countries, the rising Iranian influence in the region is considered problematic. Kuwait considers Turkey to be a strong balancing power in the region against the policies of threatening actors.

Nonetheless, as both countries are becoming increasingly important to one another due to similar interests, the maintenance of stable relations and cooperation on regional issues gains significance. 

Regional issues

Kuwait, which aspires to take on a larger diplomatic role in the Middle East, has in recent years played a significant role as a mediator in regional disputes, maintaining dialogue with all the relevant players. 

In January, NATO opened a center in Kuwait, its first regional center in the Gulf region. For Gulf countries, including Kuwait, the issue of military capability is crucial. In an era of several emerging threats in the region, Kuwait’s role in NATO — in which Turkey is a significant member state — is of great importance. Thus, the opening of the regional center is a crucial step for further institutionalization of political relations between Turkey and Kuwait.

The Western world and Russia — which also currently enjoys good relations with Turkey — have also sought to boost ties with Kuwait. The Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak recently disclosed that his country and Kuwait had been discussing the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant and cooperating in the fields of natural gas and petroleum services. This is also another area that chalks up points in Turkish-Kuwaiti relations.

It is significant for Turkey to have reliable partners in the fragile Middle East. Turkey’s relations with Kuwait — which enjoys balanced ties with regional and global actors — gain another meaning at a time when the Gulf is entering a new era, with all eyes fixed on the region.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz