Kuwait may be key to improving Turkey-Gulf ties
Since the beginning of this year, there have been countless reports of the possibility of Turkey “normalizing” its relations with Egypt, Israel and the Gulf countries.
These reports have a basis in reality, as Turkish officials have on several occasions made it clear that Ankara wants to mend ties with these regional actors — in particular those in the Gulf and especially after the January AlUla Declaration that ended the years-long dispute with Qatar.
In the past two decades, Turkey’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have gone through ebbs and flows. Although Turkey’s relations with the GCC reached a high point after the regional bloc granted Ankara the status of strategic partner in 2008, developments in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in Syria, Egypt and Libya, and more recently the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, have put Turkey on a collision course with some Gulf countries.
Ankara, which has good relations with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, has stated that it is ready to make an effort to mend relations with the other Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Kuwait has a long history of mediation in the region, most recently the crucial role it played in ending the dispute with Qatar. Can it play a similar role in talks with Turkey? To answer this it is important to take a closer look at Turkish-Kuwaiti relations.
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Sabah paid a two-day official visit to Ankara last week. He was in the Turkish capital to co-chair the second meeting of the Turkey-Kuwait Joint Committee for Cooperation. The first was held in October 2013. This meeting, almost eight years later and at the foreign ministerial level, is viewed as highly significant.
It has a long history of mediation in the region, most recently the crucial role it played in ending the dispute with Qatar
During the press conference that followed, ministers announced six agreements covering a number of sectors had been signed as part of the efforts to develop relations between the two countries. In addition, a five-year action plan was agreed and the two sides exchanged views on a number of regional issues, in particular Syria, Yemen and Libya.
In February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu completed a Gulf tour that included visits to Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. The first stop was Kuwait, which has been an important regional partner for Turkey, particularly in the fields of economics and tourism. In an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba, Cavusoglu said that the visit — his first to the country — had symbolic significance because of Kuwait’s contribution to the recent resolution of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf nations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had also visited Kuwait and Qatar last October. During his stop in the former, he met the new emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and offered condolences over the death the previous month of his predecessor, Sheikh Sabah.
There are five motivating factors in Turkish-Kuwaiti ties: Historical/political, economic, security/defense, regional vision, and humanitarian assistance. Despite the rumors in 2018 that the Kuwaitis had asked Ankara to establish a military base on their soil, Kuwait ultimately opted for a less controversial option and instead signed an agreement for defense and security cooperation.
Turkey hosts millions of displaced Syrians and is providing humanitarian assistance to them in its refugee camps. Kuwait is among the largest donors of aid to the Syrian people and has carried out several humanitarian campaigns at Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria.
Turkey’s relationship with Kuwait could be described as the most stable of any with a GCC nation, without any significant ups or downs. It has not been affected, negatively or positively, by any issues. Ankara is now placing special importance on developing its relations with Gulf countries, despite their ideological differences, and Kuwait could serve as a significant pillar in the Turkish outreach to the region.
There were reports last week that Cavusoglu had twice called his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani. They are said to have discussed bilateral ties and possible mutual visits. If any such visit happened in the near future, it would represent a significant development in Turkey-Gulf relations.
Erdogan also stated last month that Saudi Arabia was interested in buying armed drones from Turkey, the latest sign of a potential thaw in relations between the two states.
With the GCC rift with Qatar over and Libya’s war beginning to wane, there are opportunities for further cooperation. Time will tell whether any nations go down that path.
I have, for years, been supportive of mutual and respectful relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries. The two sides share a wide range of common interests and concerns in this volatile region, such as increasing Iranian activity, the rise of threats emanating from non-state actors, and the involvement of global actors in regional affairs.
Every state has its own perception of threats and vision for its posture in the region. However, diplomacy is a strong tool that can be used to mitigate ideological differences. No one expects that the issues Turkey has with the Gulf nations will be resolved overnight — but any step taken along this path will be a big step indeed.
*Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz