Time to take Turkey-Gulf thaw beyond traditional limits
After almost a decade of tense ties, Ankara last month received two high-level Gulf officials: First, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, and then Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE. The latter’s visit received great attention in the media, which covered the recent thaw in relations between Turkey and the UAE from the political and economic angles, particularly focusing on the investments expected to be made by the Gulf country.
However, if a new era in Turkish-Gulf relations is to start, then it should go beyond politics and the economy and should also include social, cultural and media dimensions in order to enhance the rapprochement process and bring long-term benefits for both sides.
Unfortunately, on the Turkish side, much of the analysis on the Gulf focuses on oil and the economy or on security paradigms, eventually leading to a reductionist view that prevents a comprehensive understanding of the domestic and sociopolitical dimensions in this unique region. The Gulf is indeed of great importance owing to its energy resources and geographic location. However, its public, culture and language are equally important when it comes to reading these countries from different angles.
For decades, the Gulf region only came to discussions in Turkey either in times of crisis or when major accords — whether economic or security-based — were signed between the two sides. What can be done to move beyond this traditionalist view of Turkish-Gulf relations and how can the new areas of cooperation be explored?
Bilateral relations have many levels that could open doors to potential cooperation. While the most visible level is the official contact between heads of state and officials, other levels include the contact between nongovernmental organizations, academics, businesspeople and the media, which can help to bolster and strengthen official relations. These levels, which involve unofficial dialogue between these actors, not only build bridges between nations but also encourage new perspectives.
Mostly referred to as Track II diplomacy, this process plays a crucial role in promoting understanding between countries, especially during and after times of crisis. Initiating such a process fosters closer connections beyond the state level and may also produce a deeper understanding of each country’s capabilities and priorities in the region. However, in order to open effective and fruitful unofficial dialogue channels between institutions, academics, journalists and NGOs with the right knowledge, expertise and experience need to be brought together to contribute to the advancement of Turkey-Gulf relations.
Besides NGO cooperation, media exchanges and business connections, language scholarships for students and academics could also help increase understanding of each side’s cultural and social dynamics. Cultural contact provides an opportunity for unofficial relationships that can help to recalibrate ties amid changing times. Understanding the cultural contexts remains key to achieving progress during this rapprochement process. Both Turkey and the Gulf countries have influential tools for cultural dialogue between institutions and the public. In particular, public diplomacy, also known as people’s diplomacy, is a crucial way to mend the ties between Turkey and the Gulf nations after years of tension.
Moreover, it is significant to include young people, who offer key voices within society, to discuss the future opportunities and challenges in Turkish-Gulf relations. The media has also become an integral part of diplomatic relations, as it plays an important role in transforming ties. One of the areas that was influenced by the tense relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries in the past decade was the media. More efforts could be made to create a forum between the state-run media organizations of the two sides.
Academia is another field where more attention is required. For many years, both Turkish and Gulf scholars have relied on secondary sources, mainly Western-oriented, to understand the other side. However, resorting to a Western perspective to explain the developments in the Gulf or in Turkey not only illustrates a break with reality, but also doesn’t contribute to the studies of the two sides, which deserve more attention.
Cultural contact provides an opportunity for unofficial relationships that can help to recalibrate ties amid changing times.
In the past decade, political realities within the region have created uncertainty and unpredictability, and have led to a change in the traditional diplomatic relations. When the issues concerning states become too contentious for governments to navigate easily, non-diplomatic channels can help to maintain communications between states on issues critical to the bilateral relationship. The past decade has shown that such a channel failed to exist between Turkey and the Gulf states. In this new era, launching one will be crucial.
Although this channel is by no means a substitute for state-level relations, I believe it will be important as a complementary forum that can serve strategic national interests and find common ground in ways that the respective governments cannot. Thus, through informal meetings between civil society figures, academics, journalists and businesspeople, this dialogue will complement bilateral efforts between Turkey and the Gulf states for mutual long-term benefits.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz