What a difference a year has made in Turkish-Gulf relations
As we approach the end of 2021, which is defined as a year of de-escalation and reconciliation, a review of Turkish-Gulf relations is important to give a better understanding of how the relationship has risen from rock bottom to reach a peak within the space of only a year.
After 2010, Turkey’s relations with some Gulf Cooperation Council member states experienced a gradual deterioration on several fronts, politically, economically and socially. Due to the extent to which these strained relations had deteriorated, a rapid improvement was not expected.
However, the Middle East has proven many times that when it comes to regional politics there are no permanent enmities or alliances, only permanent interests. The shifting geopolitics and realities in the region have led to the emergence of a new era for its nations, which often put aside their differences for the sake of regional stability.
The year began with a major development that shaped relations in the region in a gradual way. In January, GCC member states met in AlUla in Saudi Arabia, where the collective reconciliation project for the region was worked out. The signing of the AlUla Declaration not only ended a years-long dispute among the council’s members, it also opened the window of opportunity for Turkey to mend its ties with Gulf nations and other regional countries, in particular Egypt.
As prominent Saudi commentator Abdulrahman Al-Rashed said in a recent column: “Even the most optimistic people at that time only said, 'Let us monitor the situation. (While the) differences are multiple and intertwined, individual and collective, and reconciliation projects cannot happen without difficult concessions.'”
The reconciliation process that started in AlUla took many by surprise as, after years of tension, regional countries took major steps to find common ground. This time concessions were made by all for pragmatic outcomes.
Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE and Egypt has been one of the most important outcomes of this new era of reconciliation. After several in-depth meetings involving diplomatic and security channels, Ankara and Cairo have carried out rounds of exploratory talks designed to mend their broken relationship. So far, two rounds of political consultations — the first of which dealt with bilateral matters, and the second with regional matters — have taken place. However, there is yet to be a major breakthrough in Turkish-Egyptian relations, as no high-level meetings or an ambassadorial appointments have taken place so far.
Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE and Egypt has been one of the most important outcomes of this new era of reconciliation.
Turkey’s rapprochement process with the Gulf states has been more rapid. Following several positive messages, Ankara last month received two high-level Gulf officials after almost a decade of tension: The first was Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, and then Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The latter’s visit received the greatest attention as his country was at odds with Turkey on several regional issues.
Needless to say, disagreements remain between those involved in the reconciliation process. However, the view that pragmatism and common interests outweigh political differences is increasingly the most rational option.
As we approach the end of the year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that Turkey aims to strengthen relations with all Gulf countries and is open to dialogue to clear up any misunderstandings. He added that Turkey hopes to cement its unity with the Gulf, which has geostrategic importance to his country’s vision for the Middle East.
Erdogan also underlined the fact that Ankara could also mend its relations with Tel Aviv as part of a similar process to the one with the UAE, if Turkey’s concerns about Palestine are respected. It is likely to expect a reconciliation process to begin between Turkey and Israel given the emerging climate of reconciliation in the region, which is forcing all countries to reevaluate their policies.
Ahead of the 42nd GCC summit, which begins in Riyadh on Dec. 14, diplomatic traffic in the Gulf has also been enhanced. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week embarked on a Gulf tour, with stops in Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Erdogan visited Qatar the same week as the crown prince, and is scheduled to pay a reciprocal visit to the UAE in February.
Thus, a year that began with one summit of Gulf leaders concludes with another. This month’s gathering aims to solidify the reconciliation efforts that started in AlUla, and provide the opportunity for GCC states to enhance cooperation and coordination.
Fruitful outcomes from the summit are also likely to have positive implications for Ankara’s relations with Gulf countries. Turkey, which was once afforded the status of the first non-Gulf strategic partner to the GCC, has significant potential for cooperation with all members.
Putting aside differences and promoting cooperation can help Turkey and the Gulf nations to cope with uncertainties in the region and post-COVID challenges. The coming year should be an opportunity to reinforce the process that was launched with the AlUla Declaration, which created incentives for Ankara to break the ice with GCC countries.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz