Hiding in plain sight: Opportunities to boost Turkish-Gulf relations
In 2008, Turkey became the first country to have a mechanism of strategic dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Thanks to this partnership, Turkey’s economic and political ties with the individual GCC countries have strengthened in recent years. However, it is hard to say the same successful record has been seen in academia. Despite the improvement in relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries, with several agreements being signed and reciprocal visits taking place, they still have a deep lack of knowledge and comprehensive understanding of each other’s priorities, agendas and capabilities.
Gulf academics and their Turkish interlocutors came to the conclusion that Turkey-GCC ties should go beyond economics in order to overcome the knowledge gap between the two sides and further strengthen their cultural, political and economic ties.
The first hidden opportunity in Turkish-Gulf relations is to establish a strong link between academics from both sides. This could be done through exchange programs between academics, students and journalists. Besides political, economic and defense deals, Turkey and Gulf nations should ink cooperation deals on education. Following a country through secondary sources, regardless of how much you have read up on it, will lead one to miss some points in interpreting developments there. Therefore, the two sides should work on bringing out “area specialists” who in the future could play a significant role in the decision-making process.
The second hidden opportunity is non-governmental interaction. In order to have an impact on the decision-making process, efforts at the civil society level should be increased by NGOs such as think-tanks and policy centers. Non-governmental interaction is a vital part of international relations, and is perhaps more important in the Turkish-Gulf relationship than most other bilateral connections. Thus, collective work by civil society, academia and the media may play a very significant role in cementing ties between Turkey and the Gulf. If both sides also solve the lack of knowledge issue, any crisis that may occur in the future could be easily overcome.
The tool of culture also offers an opportunity. Efforts could be made to hold cultural events that bring together Turkish and Gulf artists, musicians and photographers, as strong and solid diplomatic relations can only be sustained if these relations are accepted in society. Therefore, events that help introduce the two sides’ cultures to the people will have a positive impact on Turkish-Gulf relations in the long-term.
The fourth hidden opportunity is to carry out joint humanitarian activities. Last week’s initiative to bring together thousands of women from several countries to march to the Syrian border in order to draw attention to the plight of imprisoned Syrian women was significant in this sense. There should be efforts to carry out other initiatives between Turkish and Gulf women. Believing in the wisdom of women, I think there could be several fields that women from both sides could cooperate on. The inclusion of the views and perspectives of women in the decision-making process on both sides would help boost the Turkey-Gulf relationship. There is already growing evidence that women’s participation in peace processes improves stability.
In order to sustain and strengthen diplomatic ties, the two sides should engage in joint projects in the fields of academia, non-governmental cooperation, culture and humanitarian work.
We often hear trade volumes, economic data, energy deals and tourism figures discussed with regard to the Turkish-Gulf relationship. The Gulf is increasingly important to Turkey for energy security, as a source of investment capital, as a player in finance and the Islamic banking sector, and as a major market for its defense and construction industries. In the opposite direction, Turkey matters to the Gulf countries that want to diversify their economies and attract foreign investment. Also, when it comes to Iranian expansion, regional stability and national security, Turkey and the Gulf find themselves on the same page. The most important dimension of this understanding is defense cooperation.
Needless to say, there has been significant development in the areas of energy, infrastructure, defense and tourism, while business ties are the pillars of the relationship. However, in order to sustain this situation and further strengthen it, the hidden opportunities should not be overlooked. For me, the most accurate indicator of a bilateral relationship is the eagerness of the two peoples to engage and understand one another. At the end of the day, people-to-people relationships constitute the basis of state-to-state relationships.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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