Turkey and the Gulf: Toward even closer defense cooperation?
Turkey has been bolstering its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries over the past decade in various fields, including politics, trade and energy. Above all, Ankara has moved to diversify its regional military relations with those countries through defense deals signed with each GCC state.
Recently, Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik stated that Turkey hoped to ink a major defense export deal with Saudi Arabia soon, but did not give further details. He also said that the possible deal would be the “largest export agreement of the Turkish defense industry.”
Last year, Turkey’s largest defense company, Aselsan, and Saudi Arabia’s technology development and investment company, Taqnia, formed joint defense company SADEC. Saudi Arabia has the third highest defense budget after the US and China, which is a significant indicator of its needs.
Also, executive vice president of HAVELSAN, a Turkish air defense and software company, Lutfu Ozcakir recently confirmed that the company will soon open its first Middle Eastern office in Qatar. The office in Qatar, where 15 to 20 engineers and technicians will be stationed, is set to conduct business development and provide project management services in Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and the UAE. It will be not the first time that HAVELSAN has cooperated with Gulf partners as it previously inked deals with companies based in Saudi Arabia.
Qatar is one of Turkey’s strategic partners in the Gulf, with several agreements having been signed between the two countries, not to mention the close relationship between the leaders of both nations. More importantly, Turkey is set to establish its first foreign military base in the Middle East in Qatar.
Last year, Turkey’s largest defense company, Aselsan, and Saudi Arabia’s technology development and investment company, Taqnia, formed joint defense company SADEC.
Since October 2015, about 150 Turkish army, navy and Special Forces personnel have been based temporarily at a Qatari military base. Once the construction of the base is completed, it is expected to house more than 3,000 personnel. The base is to be used to counter “common threats,” according to statements by Turkish and Qatari officials.
Needless to say, among the GCC countries, Qatar enjoys a special relationship with Turkey. However, Turkey has also engaged in defense cooperation with the other Gulf countries.
For instance, Turkish company Otokar won a deal worth $661 million to establish a joint venture with UAE company Tawazun Holding to build Arma 8x8 amphibious armored infantry vehicles for the UAE land forces.
Also, Turkey sold 80 armored personnel carriers and 12 anti-riot water cannon vehicles — or TOMAs — to Kuwait recently and has signed several deals in the military field. The Gulf country is also interested in cooperating with Turkey on pilot training. Bahrain, for its part, has signed several deals with Turkey in a bid to deepen cooperation in the arms industry.
Importance of state visits
In international relations, reciprocal visits between state leaders play a crucial role that improves political relations and leads to various deals being signed.
It seems that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in February paved the way for further cooperation in the area of defense.
The nature of defense cooperation is that countries orient their military relations on the basis of their respective national interests and regional strategies to maintain their position. Gulf countries’ defense cooperation with Turkey is based on this understanding. Although GCC countries are determined to maintain their strategic alliance with the US, despite the uncertainty of policies emanating from Donald Trump’s administration, they are also seeking to pursue their own defense strategies to guarantee their security in the future.
Here Turkey, a NATO member that has years-long experience in military training, appears as a potential partner. Moreover, Turkey and the Gulf do have similar security dilemmas that push the two sides closer together. With every passing day, new threats are emerging from the region. One of their common perceived threats is Daesh.
The elimination of this terrorist organization, which carried out a series of attacks not only in Turkey but also in some Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is the priority. So, the fight against terror, which is the most significant source of the region’s instability, is one of the main reasons behind this defense cooperation. Also, the growing influence of Iran in the region, through its proxies and armed militias, is another common concern. Although Turkey and the Gulf countries do not view Iran in a similar fashion, the policies of Tehran in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and its nuclear program are concerning for both sides.
Lastly, the policies of former US President Barack Obama not only brought instability to the Middle East but also disappointed the US regional allies, namely Turkey and the Gulf countries. The reluctant policies of Obama in Syria led to the emergence of several threats in the war-torn country which are now harming US allies in the region.
When it comes to relations with the US, terrorism, Iranian expansion, regional stability and national security, Turkey and the Gulf understand each other now more than ever. The most important dimension of this understanding is defense cooperation. That is to say, we are most likely to see an even closer defense alliance between Turkey and the Gulf in the future as long as the aforementioned regional threats continue to exist.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.