On October 7, 2020, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a one-day working visit to Kuwait and Qatar. In Kuwait, he met the new Emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to convey his condolences over the death of the Emir’s predecessor and half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. Shortly afterward, President Erdogan had a one-hour meeting with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha to discuss the strategic bilateral relations between Turkey and Qatar.
According to the Turkish president, the shared projects with Qatar in the military, security, and defense industries constitute the backbone of their bilateral relations. In a press interview, Erdogan asserted that Turkish military presence in Qatar helps maintain Gulf stability. He said that “no one except for those making plans of chaos should be disturbed by Turkey and the Turkish military presence in the Gulf.” — and although he didn’t specify, it is quite obvious that this pointed remark was in reference to Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf crisis was a crossroads for Turkey’s relations with the Gulf states. Not only has it complicated Ankara’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, but it also offered new opportunities for Ankara to strengthen its relations with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.
Making Progress with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman
Trump’s unconventional and unstable policies have raised doubts regarding the guarantee of security for Washington’s relatively small allies in the Gulf. Seizing this moment, Turkey stepped in to present itself as a credible and committed ally to those Gulf states.
Historically, Turkish-Kuwaiti relations had been among the most stable in the region, especially during the era of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah. In the last few years, Turkey and Kuwait further cemented their relationship by signing a variety of agreements covering trade, defense, and economic cooperation. While their bilateral trade remains very modest, having reached a record 278 million in 2018, the two countries aim to increase it to 3 billion. Kuwait’s ambitious development plan, which aspires for the country to be a major trading and financial hub in the Gulf by 2035, will also involve Turkish participation. Ankara aims to play a role, especially with its superior contracting companies that rank second globally.
The GCC crisis pushed Kuwait closer to Turkey as a part of its strategic hedging strategy. Kuwait even reportedly mulled the possibility of hosting a Turkish military base in the country, eventually deciding against it so as not to anger its neighbor Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, Omani-Turkish relations thrived in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis. The anti-Qatar stance by the UAE and Saudi Arabia presented a common interest for Ankara and Muscat to heighten their political, economic, and defense partnership. That the Gulf crisis forced Turkey and Qatar to mend fences with Iran made it easier for Muscat to improve its relations with Ankara.
Turkey’s defense products are becoming increasingly popular in the Gulf. Just last week, Turkey’s Anadolu Shipyard launched “Al Doha” (QTS 91), the first of two cadet training ships for the Qatari Emiri Naval Forces. Lately, Omani authorities have shown particular interest in Turkey’s defense products. Muscat is now one of Ankara military equipment’s top clients, surpassing even Qatar. Recently, unconfirmed information suggested that the Royal Navy of Oman might also be interested in Turkish submarines. Yet, just like Kuwait, Oman remains cautious in its desire to strengthen relations with Turkey, wary of triggering an Iranian or Saudi reaction.
With new leadership in Oman and Kuwait, Turkey will continue to explore ways to enhance its relations with these Gulf countries. Some pundits, however, suggest that the new leaders might be susceptible to Emirati and Saudi influence. If this proves to be correct, it will hamper the advancement of relations with Turkey.
Still an Unfriendly Neighborhood for Turkey
Unlike Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly engaged in an anti-Turkey regional agenda. Last week, the UAE’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash claimed that Turkey’s military presence in Qatar is a source of instability in the Gulf region. This irritation is not without cause; the UAE maintains a grudge towards Turkey because the swift deployment of Turkish troops to Doha during the first days of the 2017 GCC crisis prevented its militarization and foiled Abu Dhabi’s plan to invade Qatar.
The Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul undermined the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Recently, Saudi officials have been urging their citizens not to engage in any business or tourist activity with Turkey. Meanwhile, Saudi and UAE media continue to construct and amplify a negative stereotype of Turkey to incite hatred and inflate nationalism.
The majority of Turks believe that the Saudi hostility towards Ankara is the result of the MBZ’s influence over MBS. From the Turkish perspective, the UAE is a disrupting regional force whose main goal is to undermine Ankara’s position in the region. As such, Abu Dhabi has been aggressively engaged in a hostile anti-Turkey campaign for several years. This antagonism between the UAE and Turkey has made Abu Dhabi willing to cooperate with whoever can hinder Turkey’s role in the region, including foreign powers, dictators, mercenaries, and even Iran and Israel.
While informal relations between the UAE and Israel have been robust during the last decade, the past few years witnessed a formal overt rapprochement. On August 13, 2020, the U.S., Israel, and the UAE issued a joint statement normalizing Israel-UAE relations. The Emirati-Israeli accord came amidst rising tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran, also between Abu Dhabi and Ankara, suggesting that it is directed towards both Turkey and Iran.
Are Turkey and Iran Getting Closer?
In turn, this creates a perception that the increasing hostility of some GCC countries towards Ankara and Tehran will eventually produce a partnership or an alliance, a seemingly logical conclusion by unfolding events. While they have managed to cooperate on selective regional issues, Iran and Turkey could not overcome their main differences, and relations between them are likely to remain very complicated.
In addition to their competing regional models, they also clash in several theatres. Tehran’s support for the Assad regime still constitutes a major problem for Turkey. Last March, Turkey launched a military operation in Syria (Operation Spring Shield), resulting in heavy losses for the Assad regime and the Iran-backed militias.
The two nations are at odds with other issues as well. In the South Caucasus, Ankara supports Azerbaijan in its endeavors to regain its control of Nagorno Karabakh, which is internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, while Tehran traditionally supports Yerevan against Baku. Additionally, Iran is definitely not pleased with the growing political, economic, and military presence of Turkey in the Caucasus and especially in the Gulf, a region that Tehran aspires to lead.
In many of these issues, Iran and the UAE seem closer to each other than Iran and Turkey. UAE’s extremely hostile policy towards Turkey is not suitable for its partners like Egypt and now Israel. While, Egypt keeps intelligence channels open with Turkey on several issues, Israel remains the top supplier of weapons to Ankara’s ally, Azerbaijan, against Armenia.
Moreover, the UAE remains one of Iran’s top economic partners. As Ankara decreased its dependence on Iranian gas over the past few months, Abu Dhabi and Tehran resumed bilateral trade via sea. This enabled Iran to increase its exports to the oil-rich Gulf country by 8% during the first quarter of this calendar year compared to the previous year.
In Syria, Abu Dhabi’s rapprochement with Bashar Al Assad, Iran’s premium ally in the region is very visible. The UAE reportedly tried to convince Assad to sabotage Ankara’s agreement with Moscow in Idlib, of which Iran was not a part. The UAE is also leaning towards Armenia in its struggle against Azerbaijan.
Ultimately, the UAE-Israel agreement is not a game-changer for the relations between Turkey and Iran. While Turkey is also set to enhance its bilateral and multilateral relations with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, especially with the decline of U.S. interest in the region, Ankara’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will probably not recover unless there is a change in leadership in Riyadh, Ankara, or Abu Dhabi, or a major event that shuffles the cards again.
Dr. Ali Bakeer is an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and international relations.