Turkiye, GCC seek formal partnership amid regional challenges
The 44th summit of the Supreme Council of the Gulf Cooperation Council, held on Tuesday in Doha, was significant in several respects. The session was the first to be held outside Saudi Arabia since 2018 and the first to be hosted by Qatar since the AlUla Declaration was signed in January 2021, ending the three-year diplomatic rift.
The summit was held in special circumstances, as the region is witnessing many hot developments, most notably the ongoing devastating Israeli onslaught against the Gaza Strip. These are extremely important developments that have many implications for the GCC and regional security. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani underlined that the Gulf nations can play a role in solving the major problems facing the region and the world.
This summit was also remarkable because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was present as a guest. World leaders to have attended previous summits include Nelson Mandela, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Francois Hollande. Erdogan was in Qatar for a two-day visit on the invitation of Sheikh Tamim. The highlight of his visit was the ninth meeting of the Qatar-Turkiye High Strategic Committee, which aimed to review all aspects of relations between the two countries and explore ways to deepen them.
The photo of Erdogan with the Gulf leaders taken at the end of the GCC summit was a significant indication of Ankara’s burgeoning relationship with the bloc’s member states. The inclusion of Erdogan at the GCC summit also reflects Turkiye’s commitment to fostering stronger ties within the region. It aims to find common ground on mutual interests such as bilateral relations, economic partnerships and regional security concerns.
Erdogan’s discussions with the GCC leaders had two dimensions. First was their mutual interest on regional topics, particularly the Palestinian issue and Israel’s aggression on Gaza. The GCC leaders praised the role played by Erdogan and the Turkish government in terms of its support for the Palestinian cause and people. Second was the importance of enhancing their cooperation within the framework of strategic dialogue between the GCC and Turkiye. The significance of implementing joint action plans and strengthening the Turkiye-GCC partnership was emphasized.
The GCC declared Turkiye as a strategic dialogue partner in 2008. With the establishment of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council as a mechanism to allow greater institutionalized collaboration, Turkiye became the first non-Gulf country to acquire the status of strategic partner. This was considered as a huge step on the way to strategic relations. This initiative codified the framework for conducting the relationship and cleared the way for additional intergovernmental meetings. Turkiye and the GCC countries held ministerial meetings from the beginning of the strategic dialogue mechanism and Ankara also launched several initiatives with individual Gulf states at the bilateral level.
The inclusion of Erdogan at the GCC summit reflects Turkiye’s commitment to fostering stronger ties
Five ministerial strategic dialogue meetings between Turkiye and the GCC have been held so far, while Turkiye will host the sixth in the first quarter of 2024. This meeting will take place after a very long break that saw crises both within the GCC itself and in its relations with Ankara. The summit will be an 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 the chances of them institutionalizing their ties, such as through a free trade agreement or discussions on strategic cooperation.
In a speech at the closing session of the summit, Erdogan stressed the great interest that Turkiye holds in strengthening cooperation with the GCC countries, expanding business ties and establishing partnerships in various fields, as well as seeking new opportunities for cooperation.
The most important challenge in Turkiye-GCC strategic relations is the lack of institutionalization. So far, relations have been personal and issue-based, rather than based on any strategy toward the region. There is a divergence of approaches within the GCC itself. All of these factors complicate the creation of a common Turkiye-GCC strategy toward the region. Also, despite the strong economic foundations of this relationship, a free trade agreement has not yet been reached, while Turkiye has so far only been able to conclude such a deal with the UAE.
Over the course of the last decade, several regional developments have overshadowed the progress of the GCC’s integration process and its strategic relationship with Turkiye. This has led to little concentration on the economic and social aspects of cooperation between Turkiye and the GCC. However, there is now a window of opportunity for the two sides to benefit from the new political atmosphere and redirect their energies toward more solid and institutional partnerships that could mitigate any future divergences. Turkiye seems keen to share its strength, know-how and experience with the GCC states to help with the massive transformations going on in these countries under their ambitious vision plans.
In a changing global order, Turkish-GCC relations are dependent on several material, ideational, regional and domestic factors. Turkish policymakers’ conceptions of the country’s place in the regional order appears to be a crucial dimension of their relationship with the GCC states. From the Gulf side, true cooperation with Turkiye relies on strong intraregional cooperation between the GCC states.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz