Turkey and the GCC States: Between a Foe and an Ally
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s institutional failure has largely resulted from its members lacking shared interests and common threat perceptions. The six GCC states’ divergent views on Turkey’s geopolitical ascendancy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) constitutes a salient example. Put simply, how Gulf Arab states should respond to Ankara’s regional role is a question that further divides the GCC.
There is a spectrum, with Turkey’s ally, Qatar, on one end and its foe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the other. The other four GCC members are at various points in between these two poles. Kuwait and Oman, while not as close to Ankara as Qatar, are both Turkey-friendly states. Saudi Arabia, although less rigidly opposed to Turkey than Abu Dhabi, has become an important part of anti-Turkish bloc of Arab states, especially following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018. So has Bahrain, mainly due to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s pressure.
Qatar: A Political and Fiscal Ally
Qatar is, hands down, Turkey’s most solid and reliable ally, not only in the GCC but throughout the entire MENA region too. Across so many issues—from the Libyan and Syrian civil wars to the Palestinian question—Doha and Ankara are closely aligned. The two countries considered the rise of various Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-linked Arab parties in the post-2011 era as an opportunity to increase their regional influence.
The Qatari-Turkish alliance cannot be fully understood as simply two countries sharing common perceptions of political openings that occurred in the MENA region almost a decade ago. Relations have cemented due to the GCC crisis, whereby Turkish support for Doha heavily contributed to the Qataris’ ability to stand strong without humiliatingly capitulating to the blockading states’ set of demands, which included shutting down Turkey’s military base in Qatar. The growing Turkish military presence in Qatar has been an important component of this support that Doha has received from Ankara since the siege began.
Additionally, when Washington targeted Turkey with sanctions in 2018 amid the Andrew Brunson saga, which pushed Turkey into a currency crisis, Doha rescued President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government by allocating some USD 15 billion worth of direct investments into Turkey to support the country’s economy. Furthermore, Qatar’s Central Bank signed a USD 3 billion fixed-rate currency swap agreement with Turkey’s Central Bank, boosting Ankara’s heavily depleted foreign currency reserves. The 2020 joint decision to expand the currency swap scheme to mitigate the economic shocks from the coronavirus pandemic on Ankara underscored this deal’s importance.
Turkey and Qatar share much of the same foreign policy vision and many common perceptions of regional threats, namely the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis. Through Turkey’s military might and Qatar’s financial resources, the two countries have established an alliance in the MENA region that would be difficult to imagine coming to an end as long as officials in Ankara and Doha maintain negative views on the conduct of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo, which both the Turkish and Qatari governments see as extremely dangerous.
UAE: Staunch Opponent of Ankara
More than any other Arab Gulf country, the UAE is the most committed to countering Turkey. From an ideological perspective, Abu Dhabi is rigidly opposed to the MB. In Abu Dhabi’s eyes, when it comes to the MB, it is either ‘with us or against us’, thus countering the Ankara-Doha axis and the MB as an international movement is the highest priority for Abu Dhabi’s current foreign policy agenda. The UAE has gone as far as supporting military generals, like in the case of Libya, the regimes in Syria and Egypt, and separatists such as Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC) in order to eliminate the MB’s role and weaken Ankara’s geopolitical position in the Arab world.
Some analysts have gone as far as describing the tensions in Emirati-Turkish relations as a new “cold war” that plays out in many corners of the Islamic world. In the Levant, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, the Maghreb, Central Asia, and the Caucuses, Abu Dhabi and Ankara are challenging each other’s influence, often in ways that are highly destabilizing, with Libya being the prime example.
Despite the MB being a very important variable in the equation, the Emirati-Turkish rivalry is about more. Ultimately, within the geopolitical context of declining US influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, both Abu Dhabi and Ankara are busy trying to fill power vacuums while defining a new regional order on their own terms.
When challenging Turkey’s foreign policy agenda in the Arab region, Emirati narratives largely rest on the notion that Arab states and societies must cooperate to resist Turkey’s “colonial” conduct in Syria, Libya, etc. This war of narratives is being fought in the world of DC lobbying, where Abu Dhabi is the main driver of anti-Turkish discourse. In the months ahead, the Hagia Sophia controversy will allow the UAE to push the message that Turkey’s government stands for intolerance and extremism, therefore not representing an ally that the US should trust.
Saudi Arabia: Suspicious of Ankara’s Regional Agenda
With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)’s ascendancy to power since 2015, Riyadh’s relationship with Ankara has deteriorated. Although the Qatar crisis did not harm Saudi-Turkish ties nearly as much the blockade damaged UAE-Turkey relations, the Khashoggi affair added significant amounts of tension to the Kingdom’s relationship with Ankara. Yet such heightened friction stemming from Saudi agents killing the journalist at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018 followed years of Riyadh and Ankara’s growing competition for a leadership role in the Islamic world that has played out in various ways. From the Qatar crisis to the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the conflict in Syria to Libya’s civil war, all these differences have pitted Saudi Arabia against Turkey’s interests.
Over time Saudi Arabia has become highly suspicious of Turkey’s motivations for becoming involved in Gulf affairs. Riyadh views Ankara’s expanding military presence in Qatar and Erdogan’s decision to support Doha amid the GCC crisis as Turkish attempts to contest Saudi Arabia’s leadership position within the Arabian Peninsula. More recently, reports about Turkey’s increasing interest in Yemen—a conflict in which Saudi Arabia is militarily involved—contributed to MbS’s growing unease with Ankara’s regional agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s latest diplomatic moves include accusing Turkey of financing and sponsoring “extremist militias” in Somalia, Libya, and Syria and expressing solidarity with Cyprus and Greece against Ankara’s conduct in the Eastern Mediterranean. This seems to suggest that MbS is currently ignoring those in the Al Saud family that would favor amending ties with Turkey in order to work more closely with another Sunni powerhouse in the face of the persistent “Iranian threat”.
Bahrain: Fiscally Tied to UAE Influence
Hostility towards Iran and close political alignment with Saudi Arabia has traditionally characterized Bahrain’s foreign policy. Within this context, Manama has, at least up until somewhat recently, considered Turkey an important partner, not only geopolitically, but also in the domains of trade and construction.
However, the UAE played a crucial role in orchestrating a USD 10 billion bailout package—co-financed by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—to support Bahrain’s struggling economy. Police from the Emirates also joined Saudi military forces in helping the Bahraini authorities crush the Shi’a-dominated uprising of 2011. Consequently, Abu Dhabi’s political influence over Manama has increased in the post-Arab Spring period. The UAE’s strengthening hand in Bahrain has pushed Manama towards aligning more closely with Abu Dhabi on key regional dossiers. Due to Emirati pressure, Bahrain has demonstrated an increasing opposition to Turkey’s military involvement in Arab countries. In particular, Bahrain has joined the UAE in opposing Ankara’s military offensive, “Operation Peace Spring”, in northern Syria, as well as re-normalizing relations with Syria’s government. Manama also condemned Erdogan’s decision to deploy troops in Libya.
Kuwait: Seeking Security and Stability in the Power Vacuum
Kuwait’s leadership views Turkey favorably. Kuwait City sees deepening ties with Ankara as a way to strengthen Kuwait’s security and geopolitical positions in an increasingly volatile region.
Kuwait, which has relied on the US as a security guarantor since 1991, is forced to devise new ways for maintaining security in a changing Middle East whereby Washington is disengaging from any leadership role. With Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as neighbors, the Kuwaitis find themselves in an increasingly dangerous region where there are constant concerns about the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” agenda spiraling out of control. Therefore, as Kuwait’s leadership notices Turkey’s military muscle in Libya, Iraq, Qatar, and Syria, Kuwait City has been keen to increase its engagement with Ankara.
The importance of the security and defense domains in motivating Kuwait’s diplomatic outreach to Ankara was underscored by Kuwait’s decision in 2018 to sign a joint defense plan with Turkey, envisioning a stronger defense cooperation and for Kuwaiti troops to receive Ankara’s military training.
Oman: Traditionally Neutral but Facing Fiscal Uncertainty
The main challenge faced by Oman’s new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, is navigating the sultanate’s increasingly problematic economic situation while maintaining Muscat’s traditional foreign policy independence and its role as a regional balancer.
Sultan Haitham is worried that he could soon be forced to request a bailout package from Oman’s GCC neighbors to avoid implementing unpopular fiscal austerity measures. Omanis are concerned about how this could increase Saudi and/or Emirati leverage over Muscat’s foreign policy. In particular, Riyadh has been pressuring Oman to downgrade its ties with Iran. Moreover, Oman is increasingly suspicious when it comes to Abu Dhabi’s agenda in neighboring Yemen and concerned by UAE nationals’ acquisitions of land which the sultanate’s authorities consider strategic.
The sultanate could consider strengthening its relationship with Turkey in order to counter mounting pressures from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The increasingly friendly and profitable Muscat-Doha relationship could pave the way for closer Omani-Turkish coordination. Despite this, Oman has not made any significant diplomatic initiative to reach out to Ankara, at least when compared to Qatar and Kuwait.
As demonstrated, the GCC’s different members have diverse views on Ankara’s growing power in the region. Whether Turkey is a “colonizer” of Arab land that Arab states must aggressively counter or a fellow Muslim country whose presence in the Gulf region contributes to stability is the basis of a debate that Gulf Arabs are unlikely to quickly or amicably resolve. Although Qatar’s relationship with Turkey has become quite institutionalized and consolidated, perhaps the most important questions to ask are related to the future of Ankara’s relations with the GCC’s two “neutral” states, Kuwait and Oman, both considered “balancing” powers in an increasingly polarized region. Moreover, if the Saudi-Emirati axis seeks to put more pressure on Kuwait City and Muscat in order to conform to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s desires for the region, the Kuwaitis and Omanis may choose to deepen their relations with Turkey in order to gain greater strategic depth.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.
Antonino Occhiuto, based in Rome, completed his postgraduate studies in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he obtained a Master of Science (MSc) in International Politics, a course specifically focused on the Middle East and security and defence affairs. His main areas of research and specialisation are the relations between EU and GCC member states, internal political dynamics in the GCCs, Yemen and security in the Gulf. He contributes periodically with magazines and newspapers both in English and Italian and to the Italian Review of Geopolitics “Limes”. Antonino has already presented at high level forums including the EMSI conference in Nicosia (2018), IEMed’s EuroMeSCo conference in Barcelona (2019) and DGAP-organised forums in Berlin and Amman (2019). Antonino currently works as Analyst and Researcher at Gulf State Analytics (GSA).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.