Turkiye and GCC states aim to propel ties to new heights
Last weekend, I attended the inaugural Gulf Cooperation Council-Turkiye Economic Forum held in Istanbul, which was aimed at bolstering economic cooperation between the Gulf states and Turkiye, while increasing the value of trade exchange between the two sides.
The preparations for the event were extensive and the outcomes highly successful. High-profile figures attended from both sides. On the Turkish side, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, Trade Minister Omer Bolat, various bureaucrats and prominent business figures were present. From the Gulf side, GCC Secretary-General Jasem Al-Budaiwi, ministers, undersecretaries at economy ministries and diplomats from all the Gulf states attended the event. The prestigious forum was organized by the Gulf Research Center from Saudi Arabia and the International Cooperation Platform from Turkiye.
The forum included several panels that highlighted diverse economic fields, including trade, agriculture, food industries, infrastructure, transportation, logistics, tourism, investment, industry, energy, sports and the digital economy.
I had the honor of moderating a panel featuring Deemah Al-Yahya, the first secretary-general of the Digital Cooperation Organization. Al-Yahya, a Saudi digital economy expert and a tech diplomat, addressed the potential of the digital economy and the role of tech diplomacy between the GCC states and Turkiye. Al-Yahya is a lifelong tech enthusiast with a passion for empowering women in the digital economy sphere. She has trained more than 26,000 women in the technology industry, has served as a catalyst on various global boards — in some being the first and only woman — and is an exceptional example of women having a bigger place in the growing Turkish-Gulf relations.
Turkiye and the GCC are set to hold the sixth meeting of their strategic discussion in the first quarter of next year
On the sidelines of the forum, I had the opportunity to have a brief discussion with Al-Budaiwi. He highlighted two essential elements for strengthening GCC-Turkiye relations. Firstly, he emphasized the resumption of talks between Turkiye and the GCC states regarding a free trade agreement. In 2005, Turkiye and the GCC signed a framework agreement to launch talks on a free trade agreement. Although discussions began in the early 2000s, Turkiye has only recently reached a free trade agreement with the UAE, with the aim of increasing the trade volume between the two countries from $18.9 billion last year to $40 billion in five years’ time. Turkiye seeks similar agreements with the other GCC states.
Secondly, Al-Budaiwi stressed the importance of “strategic” relationships, stating that “Turkiye represents a very significant strategic partner to the GCC states, and therefore having a strong relationship with it is crucial for us.” He also mentioned that Turkiye and the GCC are set to hold the sixth meeting of their strategic discussion in Istanbul in the first quarter of next year. The fifth one was held back in 2016. “Now, after eight years, we will have the sixth one. It is very important because it will pave the way for the strengthening of our relationship,” Al-Budaiwi said.
Why is this upcoming meeting so important? It will take place after a very long break that saw both crises within the GCC itself and the deterioration of Turkish-Gulf relations. Secondly, it is the outcome of Ankara’s normalization of its relations with the GCC states since early 2021. The deterioration of Turkish-Gulf relations in the past decade adversely affected all the institutional gains that had been achieved, such as the free trade agreement talks and the discussions on strategic cooperation. In 2008, Turkiye had become the first non-Gulf country to be declared a strategic partner of the GCC.
At last weekend’s forum, the Turkish trade minister underlined that the trade volume between Turkiye and the GCC states had increased from $2.1 billion to $22.7 billion between 2002 and 2022. That is an 11-fold increase, he noted. This figure looks promising, but GCC-Turkiye trade is still below its potential. Ankara has ambitious plans to almost triple this figure in the next five years.
Several delegations from the Gulf states have visited Turkiye in a bid to develop economic and political relations
The GCC states are also keen to scale up their footprint in Turkiye. Several delegations from the Gulf states have visited the country this year in a bid to develop economic and political relations between the two parties. Both sides are trying to make this new era a win-win situation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in July also cemented a new era of economic cooperation with the Gulf region. In this regard, Erdogan’s appointment of Simsek as finance minister signaled a return to economic orthodoxy and the prioritization of market stability, instilling confidence among Gulf investors about the investment climate in Turkiye. Simsek, during his speech at the economic forum, gave signals that his policies aim to secure more trade with the GCC states.
It was clear from the forum that both sides are committed to building on the promises made during the rapprochement. A major driving factor behind this mutual approach is that both Turkiye and the GCC states want to diversify their partners in a multipolar world in a way that could benefit both their national interests and the well-being of their people.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz