Since the 6th of February, south-eastern Türkiye and northern Syria have been battered by devastating earthquakes and aftershocks, marking the worst natural disaster to strike the region in decades. The death toll is shocking; in the two weeks since the first earthquake struck the region, more than 50,000 have lost their lives. The humanitarian catastrophe wrought by the disaster spans ten Turkish cities, with over 130,000 residential properties lost. The estimated cost of rebuilding these homes stands at nearly $45 billion. In the midst of these chaotic and mournful days, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have offered emergency aid packages to and have actively involved themselves with humanitarian rescue efforts.
Humanitarian Boots on the Ground
On February 7, the international search and rescue team of Qatar’s Internal Security Force (Lekhwiya) joined Kuwaiti and Emirati emergency teams in Türkiye to participate in search and rescue operations with the local authorities. The search and rescue teams of Oman and Saudi Arabia arrived two days later, the latter bearing significant stores of medical supplies, and Bahrain’s Royal Guard landed in the area on February 11. The UAE’s rescue team established an emergency care hospital that has an accident department, operation rooms, intensive care units, and screening equipment working with 15 doctors and 40 nurses. When a second wave of tremors struck the region on February 20, Riyadh dispatched a second search and rescue squad to Hatay province, on the Turkish border with Syria.
Aside from their search-and-rescue assistance on the ground, every GCC state has set aside financial assistance and relief packages for the victims of the earthquakes. The Gulf’s Arab monarchies established air bridges for the transportation of food, shelter materials, and medical supplies. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a call from GCC leaders to offer their condolences and support. Turkish embassies on the Arabian Peninsula have launched public relations campaigns urging collaboration with residents and citizens of these countries. Soon after, Turkish embassies and regional NGOs began shipping relief aid directly to Turkey. A special aid program for Türkiye and Syria was launched by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, and the Saudi-based Sahem Platform generated more than $100 million donations from 1.6 million individuals and companies. This outpouring of humanitarian aid highlights the financial heft of the GCC states, as well as the importance the Gulf monarchies place on their relationship with Ankara.
Saudi Arabia was not the only country that leveraged the power of its state-run entities to assist the victims of the earthquakes. Qatar TV and Qatar Media Corporation (QMC) televised a live fundraising event in collaboration with the Qatar Red Crescent Society, Qatar Charity, and the Regulatory Authority for Charitable Activities (RACA). The broadcast raised $46 million in donations. Qatar’s Emir Tamim personally donated $14 million to earthquake survivors. Doha went one step further, committing 10,000 portable cabins and mobile homes used during the FIFA World Cup 2022 to Türkiye. For its part, the Kuwaiti cabinet pledged $30 million to relief efforts, in addition to public support through the Turkish embassy in Kuwait. The Namaa Charitable Society of Kuwait has distributed food and blankets to people in the disaster area. In addition to pledging $100 million, the UAE conducted shuttle diplomacy between Türkiye and Syria to deliver aid to northern Syria.
Humanitarian Diplomacy Comes Home to Roost
In many ways, the outpouring of international support for Türkiye reflects Ankara’s long dedication to humanitarian diplomacy. Indeed, Türkiye’s state-led efforts have proven critical to international and local NGOs responding to disasters and conflicts in Somalia, Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, and Pakistan. Its cooperation with international humanitarian organizations notwithstanding, Türkiye currently hosts the largest population of Syrian refugees—a reality that only bolsters its image as a major humanitarian player. The UN Resident Coordinator in Türkiye, Alvaro Rodriguez, stressed the country’s role in humanitarian assistance and interpreted international support for earthquake survivors as recognition of Türkiye’s past generosity.
It appears that international sympathy for Türkiye extends beyond its previous humanitarian partners or the governments of rich states. For instance, the Yemeni diaspora in Türkiye collected almost $1 million for earthquake survivors, despite the devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen caused by the conflict. Interestingly, Turkish aid for Yemen in the past few years has largely been apolitical, occurring outside discussions of Türkiye’s complex policy towards the war in Yemen. While it has acknowledged the humanitarian toll of the war in Yemen, provides aid to Yemen and hosts large numbers of Yemeni refugees, Ankara supports the Saudi perception of the Houthis as a destabilizing militia and an immediate threat to the Gulf’s security, and has offered qualified support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Amid this complex narrative of the Yemen war from Türkiye’s political elites, the Yemenis there dispatched 10 trucks full of relief supplies to the country’s shattered southern region. Takwakkol Karman, a Türkiye-based Yemeni activist and Nobel Prize winner, operated a personal donation campaign through the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD).
In the context of Türkiye’s relations with the GCC states, the current round of humanitarian diplomacy takes on a political dimension. Türkiye’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE came under severe strain during the GCC Crisis of 2017, and these relationships only began to warm again after de-escalatory moves in 2022. The blockade of Qatar, Türkiye’s pledge of military support to Doha, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, conflicts over the future of Syria, and the fierce debate over the status of the Muslim Brotherhood placed a significant distance between Ankara and many Gulf capitals.
At the moment, relations are better characterized by small, “ice-breaking” diplomatic and economic steps, rather than a rapid reconstruction of the bilateral relationships. However, as Türkiye’s humanitarian diplomacy helped Ankara expand its soft power, the actions and substantial pledges of support—particularly from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—may foster better trust between the parties and encourage future rapprochement. Indeed, the UAE’s field hospital, the rescue teams from other GCC states, and Emir Tamim’s rapid decision to ship thousands of portable containers to Türkiye have garnered significant praise on Turkish social media. The Arab monarchies’ support of Türkiye during the quake is a milestone in relations between Ankara and the Gulf. Of course, the parties have not waded into the various issues that continue to divide them, but the Gulf states’ assistance serves to lay a strong foundation for trust and future talks.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.