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Turkey-GCC Relations: From Personal Diplomacy to Institutional Version?

Today, many leaders use personal diplomacy in establishing relations with foreign leaders as a “shortcut” to achieve foreign policy objectives. State leaders often believe that personal diplomacy can help to resolve crises and extend bilateral cooperation. In some cases, however, personalized foreign policy may not benefit and could even harm a country’s interests in the long run, both politically and economically. This has been the case with Turkey’s relations with some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

As Turkey and some GCC states move toward a new era in their relationship after a decade-long period of tension, what steps can both sides take to move beyond the personalized nature of the Turkey-GCC relationship and institutionalize it for long-term mutual benefits?

In the early 2000s, in fact some steps were taken to institutionalize Turkey-GCC bonds. In May 2005, Turkey and the GCC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Bahrain to improve relations on political, economic, defense, security, and cultural matters. After a legal regulation passed in 2003 regarding the entrance of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Turkey that provided equal treatment for local and foreign investors, the GCC countries started to pay more attention to investing in the country. Turkey aimed to become a prominent destination for Gulf capital which began to leave unfriendly Western markets in the post-9/11 environment. In this vein, Turkey also established joint business councils with each of the Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia (2003), the United Arab Emirates (2005), and Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman (2006).

In this context, the most important development in the economic sphere came in 2005, when former Turkish president Abdullah Gül and then-Secretary-General of the GCC Abdul Rahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah inked a framework agreement to start discussions on a free trade agreement (FTA) between Turkey and the GCC states. At a ministerial meeting in Kuwait in 2010 between Turkey and the GCC countries, then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized that the free trade agreement should be realized as soon as possible. However, the GCC noted that despite economic progress, there were still difficulties in concluding the agreement. The GCC and Turkey have held four rounds of discussions on the FTA since the two sides signed the initial framework deal. It was said that the global economic crisis of 2009 was the main reason behind the GCC’s suspending of FTA negotiations with several countries, including Turkey. However, now that the UAE and Turkey have each declared, during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the Abu Dhabi in mid-February, that they plan to resume FTA talks to improve Turkish-Emirati commercial relations, the topic of an FTA with GCC as a bloc once again came to the agenda.

The “Germany” of the Middle East

The second, and perhaps the most significant, initiative to institutionalize political dialogue between Turkey and the GCC came when the bloc declared Turkey as a strategic partner in 2008. With the establishment of the “High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” (HLSCC), as a mechanism of greater institutionalized collaboration, Turkey became the first non-Gulf country to acquire the status of strategic partner. The then-chairman of the GCC Ministerial Council, Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasem al Thani, stated that “the signing of the memo is a step on the way to strategic relations.” The initiative provided the framework for conducting the relationship and opened the way for additional intergovernmental meetings. Turkey and the GCC countries held ministerial meetings from the beginning of the strategic dialogue mechanism, and Ankara also launched several initiatives with the individual GCC countries at the bilateral level. For instance, Turkey played a significant role in the establishment of the strategic dialogue between NATO and four out of six GCC states – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE – through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) of 2004. Crucially, Turkey, which is a member of NATO and has the second-largest army in the bloc after the United States, actively helped to strengthen the partnership between NATO and the GCC.

Other noteworthy developments also had indirect positive impacts on the Turkey-GCC relationship. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a Turkish academic and diplomat, was elected as secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 2005, a contest in which the GCC states’ backing proved critical. In this period, Turkey also gained the status of observer in the Arab League and, in 2007, then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and then-Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa inked a framework agreement for the establishment of the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in order to institutionalize the relationship.

The 2000s also saw a revival of Turkish contract-based and project-tied labor migration to the GCC region, both in scale and scope. Two main factors led to this trend. First, a conservative government came to power in Turkey, creating an inclination of shared values toward closer relations with the GCC countries. Second, the structural transformation of the Turkish economy, and the creation of “Anatolian Tigers” who were eager to do business with GCC countries, played an important role in sending Turkish companies to the region. The trade volume between Turkey and the GCC has increased rapidly in those years but remains well below their potential levels. In the absence of the Arab Spring, Turkey could have become the “Germany” of the region for GCC investments; but the two sides have failed so far to realize the full potential of their commercial relations because of political developments related to the Arab uprisings.

What Went Wrong?

In geopolitical terms, the limitations preventing a solid strategic and institutionalized partnership between Turkey and the GCC emerged visibly in the last decade. While Turkey and the GCC states share some broad objectives, their positions have sharply diverged on regional issues, leading in some cases to direct confrontation between Ankara and some GCC capitals. On the GCC side, internal disputes have further complicated the formation of a solid strategic partnership with Turkey. While the GCC member states share common regional concerns, they too have diverged on some issues related to foreign and domestic politics. In addition to their different perspectives towards Iran and Israel, Turkey itself has contributed to the divergence within the GCC dynamics over the past decade. The divergence in their approach towards Ankara led to the emergence of three smaller blocs within the GCC: Turkey’s relations with Qatar have advanced, its relations with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have deteriorated, and its relations with Kuwait and Oman have largely followed a sustained and stable path. In view of the individual interests of each nation, Turkey has followed a different pattern with individual GCC countries, taking steps and signing deals with each on a different and individual basis.

For this reason, rather than establishing a unified and comprehensive strategy towards the GCC itself, Ankara has pursued different goals in each constituent state. Conversely, each GCC state has had different expectations from Turkey. Both the intra-bloc divergences and lack of a common strategy towards Turkey, as well as the presence of personalized foreign policymaking, led Turkey and the GCC to miss countless opportunities towards an institutional and sustainable relationship. Several initiatives launched in the early 2000s failed to turn into a sustained engagement that could boost relations to an altogether new level.

In this context, only a turn away from a personalized foreign policy to an institutionalized version can help both Ankara and the GCC capitals fill the growing gap between their ideas and their capabilities in their foreign policies. Scholars contend that personalized foreign policy decision-making is more likely to suffer from discontinuities than institutionalized practices. Now that some of the issues that led to the tension between Turkey and the GCC states – the 2017-2021 Qatar diplomatic crisis, for instance – have been partially resolved, new steps should be taken to materialize the GCC-Turkey Strategic Dialogue Mechanism of 2008. Both Turkey and the GCC states are traditional U.S. partners and given that the U.S. seeks a gradual disengagement from the region, it is important to seize the incentives to emphasize strategic partnership with institutional tools. Economic tools, cooperation in the realm of security, and, most importantly, public diplomacy, could each be key components in institutionalizing the GCC-Turkey relationship.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Sinem Cengiz, born and raised in Kuwait, is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs, and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book “Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East.” She tweets at @SinemCngz


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