Turkey tests the waters with new diplomatic outreach
February is shaping up to be a month in which we can expect to see some important regional and international developments.
On Thursday, Greece hosted a “Friendship Forum” that brought together the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Cyprus and Bahrain. There was a strong Greek outreach to the Arab world last year, in particular to Gulf nations — and it seems more of the same is likely this year.
Meanwhile, Russia, China and Iran are set to hold joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean in the middle of this month. A similar trilateral exercise took place in December 2019, followed soon after by Saudi-Chinese bilateral maritime-security exercises.
In light of these developments and interactions, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s Gulf tour this week, which included visits to Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, gains significance and deeper meaning at a time when all eyes are on the region as it enters a new era.
In an effort to reinforce Turkey’s political ties with the region and enhance economic cooperation with Gulf states, Cavusoglu met ministerial counterparts and other high-level officials during his three-nation tour. And on Monday, before setting off for the Gulf, Cavusoglu’s diplomatic activity included telephone calls to his Iraqi, Bulgarian and Tunisian counterparts. Although little was revealed about these conversations, bilateral and regional issues were surely on the agenda.
The first stop on his Gulf tour was Kuwait, which has been an important partner in the region for Turkey, particularly in the fields of economics and tourism. In an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa, Cavusoglu said this, his first visit to the country, had symbolic significance because of Kuwait’s contribution to the recent resolution of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Gulf nations. He appreciated the contribution Kuwait had made through mediation to ending a dispute that had lasted for more than three years. There is no denying the efforts made by Kuwait to ensure the unity of Gulf states.
Cavusoglu met Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. He also held talks with Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah and Foreign Minister Ahmad Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah.
Last October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kuwait and Qatar, and during his stop in the former he met the new emir and offered his condolences over the death the previous month of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
From Kuwait, Cavusoglu moved to Oman and Qatar, where he held similar meetings and talks on a range of bilateral and regional issues. His visit to the region follows the reconciliation in January of Qatar and other Gulf states.
Turkey was one of the first countries to react to the restoration of diplomatic ties, in a written statement by the Foreign Ministry that said Ankara welcomed the reopening of land, air and sea borders between the countries. It also expressed hope for a comprehensive and lasting solution to the dispute.
There are many in Ankara who believe the resolution of the problems between Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states will have a positive effect on Turkey’s relations with those states. Cavusoglu said that Turkey was ready to improve cooperation with Gulf nations, building on its strategic partnership with the GCC.
By sending its top diplomat to the Gulf, Ankara seems to be seeking regional support for the struggling Turkish economy and ways to boost tourism in the post-coronavirus era. In pursuit of these expectations, Turkey seems to be demonstrating that its relations with the Gulf are part of a long-term strategy.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s outreach to Gulf states through the three countries Cavusoglu visited this week will bear fruit in the long term.
It is hard, however, to make any predictions about the future of Turkish-Gulf relations, as they will depend on developments that are as yet uncertain. How will the Syrian war unfold, for example? Will the instability in Iraq, Libya and Lebanon continue? Will the war in Yemen end anytime soon? How will the role of global actors (Russia, China and the US) evolve in the coming years? The answers to all of these questions are unknown.
For now, finding some common ground in these conflicts and opening new channels for dialogue seem to be the best ways to begin to make a fresh start. The arrival of US President Joe Biden in the White House creates more uncertainty for Turkey and other states in the region.
In light of all these developments, it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s outreach to Gulf states through the three countries Cavusoglu visited this week will bear fruit in the long term.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz