When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) ascended to power in 2002, Ankara’s foreign policy in the Middle East was extremely different from what it is today. From the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 until the beginning of this century, the ideology and stances of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defined Turkish foreign policy. Suffering from an “Ottoman hangover,” Ankara’s foreign policy was quite cut off from the Arab world.
However, after the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, became prime minister in 2003, Ankara began capitalizing on its soft-power influence and economic potential in the Arab world. Turkey’s efforts to assert itself as a rising power in the Middle East focused on the important role of religion — in this case Sunni Islam — which served as a common denominator between Turkey and most Arab states.
As the ruling neo-Islamist AKP took major steps to civilianize the country’s politics while embracing neo-liberal economic reforms, many in the Middle East viewed Turkey as a model for progress in the region. From the perspective of certain segments in Arab societies that sought democratic reforms, Turkey offered much in terms of setting an example of how a Muslim-majority country could achieve impressive economic growth and democratize at the same time. Doubtless, the relative decline of the United States as a power in the Middle East following the 2003 invasion of Iraq offered Turkey — along with Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — an opportunity to partially fill a vacuum in the region’s geopolitical order.
During the 2000s, as Ankara was focused on establishing solid partnerships across the Arab world, Turkey’s relations with all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — were improving. NATO created the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative of 2004, which sought to develop security cooperation with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE during the alliance’s summit meeting in Istanbul. By 2008, a memorandum of understanding had been signed, making Turkey the first non-Arab country to be given the GCC’s strategic partner status as talks for a free trade agreement were advancing.
Today, however, the Gulf region is polarized by deep divisions that have served to complicate Ankara’s ties with the Arabian Peninsula’s monarchies. Ultimately, political variables in the equation have positioned Turkey as a relatively divisive actor in the GCC’s geopolitical order. Certain Arab Persian Gulf states fear an ascendant Turkey due to a perceived ideological threat stemming from the AKP’s model of democratic Islamism. At the heart of this fear is a speculated challenge to the Islamic and divine legitimacy of royal families such as the Al Saud in Riyadh and the Al Nayhan in Abu Dhabi. For Abu Dhabi in particular, Turkey’s role as a haven for Islamist dissidents from GCC states and Ankara’s outright support for certain Muslim Brotherhood-linked factions from the movement’s Syrian offshoot to Hamas have led to a view of Turkey posing a grave threat.
In 2011, political
openings caused by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings brought such tensions
between Abu Dhabi and Ankara to the fore. The Egyptian coup of 2013, which
toppled an AKP-friendly Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was backed by the
Saudis and Emiratis who were determined to end Egypt’s brief democratic
experiment that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the most populous
Yet that episode did not bring an end to Turkey’s collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the three states’ efforts to back Sunni Islamist rebels fighting the Syrian regime. Nonetheless, Ankara and Riyadh’s agendas began parting ways in Syria after Russia entered the civil war in September 2015, ultimately ending hopes for regime change and prompting Turkey to essentially accept Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president while shifting its focus toward fighting militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria.
The defining moment for Ankara’s Gulf foreign policy proved to be the Qatar crisis as it unfolded through May and June of 2017. Despite Erdoğan’s efforts to help the Gulf states overcome their rift, it became apparent early on that the dispute pitted Doha and Ankara on one side, against Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo on the other. Still Turkey was initially apt to remind the Arab Persian Gulf monarchies of their mutual economic and strategic interests that persisted despite the crisis. As Erdoğan said on July 21, 2017, “Political problems are temporary whereas economic ties are permanent, and I expect investors from the gulf countries to choose long-term ties.”
But what has unfolded in the aftermath of Turkey’s decisions to provide Doha with strong support throughout the crisis has been a souring of relations between Turkey and some GCC member-states, in particular the UAE. Illustrating such sentiments are the increasingly common depictions of Turkey as a “neo-Ottoman” threat in the Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian press. Likewise, Turkey has pronounced Abu Dhabi guilty of backing the failed coup in 2016 as well as supporting the Turkish state’s Kurdish enemies in northern Syria. More recently, in April the spy saga between Ankara and Abu Dhabi further pointed to the downward trajectory of Turkey-UAE relations.
President Erdoğan saw the blockade of Qatar as an opportunity for Ankara to display its loyalty to Doha. Significant is that Emir Tamim was the first foreign head of state to call Erdoğan amid the uncertainty of the 2016 coup plot to express solidarity with Turkey’s legitimate government. The Turkish leadership saw the Saudi and Emirati efforts to carry out regime change in Doha as connected to those states’ alleged roles in the 2016 failed coup plot against Erdoğan and the Egyptian coup of 2013.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, severely damaged relations between Ankara and Riyadh. Although Turkey and Saudi Arabia were able to maintain a relatively cordial tone after the 2016 coup plot and the Qatar crisis despite both episodes creating a degree of friction in bilateral ties, the Khashoggi saga resulted in a major deterioration in Ankara’s relations with the kingdom’s leadership, namely Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Prior to the murder, most of the anger in Turkey’s press over Gulf involvement in the 2016 coup was directed toward Abu Dhabi, growing anti-Saudi sentiment has been on the rise in the Turkish media since October. Nonetheless, Turkish officials are keen to maintain warm relations with King Salman, emphasizing that he, unlike MBS, has no blood on his hands with respect to the Khashoggi affair.
As the Gulf crisis has regionalized significantly since its eruption in mid-2017, the escalating violence and worsening chaos in parts of Libya this year has heavily factored into the Gulf dispute, with Turkey aligned with Qatar and Libya’s UN-recognized government against Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and General Khalifa Haftar.
Fearing the emergence of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in Libya, the UAE and Egypt acted early on to strengthen Haftar’s position as he was combatting a variety of Islamist militias in Libya. Central to the UAE’s support for Haftar is Abu Dhabi’s paranoia of political Islam in virtually all its forms. The Libyan Civil War quickly became a focus in Abu Dhabi’s agenda aimed at countering Turkish and Qatari influence in Africa, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. That Emirati military forces have directly intervened in Libya underscores the extent to which Abu Dhabi is determined to support Haftar and defeat Islamist groups in their quest to seize power.
From the Turkish perspective, Abu Dhabi has played a destabilizing role in Libya by empowering Haftar to the point where he was confident enough to launch his westward offensive on Tripoli in April. The prospects of Haftar establishing a military dictatorship in Libya are alarming, particularly given the commander’s staunchly anti-Turkish rhetoric that mirrors the Egyptian regime’s propaganda against the government in Ankara. In order to counter Haftar’s UAE-backed advance on Tripoli, Turkey has provided drones and armored trucks to forces loyal to Libya’s internationally respected Government of National Accord.
In terms of Ankara’s future relations with the GCC member states, it appears likely that Turkey will maintain a divisive role in the Arabian Peninsula. There are no signs of either the Qatar crisis winding down or Ankara easing its support for Doha in favor of better ties with the blockading states. Furthermore, given the extent to which Turkey has backed Qatar throughout the past two years, there is no reason to expect the parties involved in the crisis to view Ankara as being a neutral mediator capable of bringing both sides toward a resolution.
Notwithstanding these major sources of political friction that shape Ankara’s relations with certain Gulf monarchies, economic ties have their own rationale. Underscored by Turkish companies that still do business with the blockading firms, there remains a widespread perception in the Arabian Peninsula that economic, trade and investment ties with the Turks must continue, especially with respect to national economic diversification programs. What remains to be seen is whether the political tensions heat up to the point whereby sanctions against Turkey are implemented by the UAE, which would severely harm both the Turks and Gulf Arabs from an economic standpoint.
Looking ahead, the GCC member-states recognize that Turkey is a power to contend with in the Arabian Peninsula. The support that Qatar received from Ankara made a major difference in terms of Doha proving capable of weathering the blockade and remaining defiant of its immediate Arab neighbors. At a time when American power in the Middle East is declining, Turkey has established itself as a pillar of the new security landscape in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet as Qatar’s closest regional ally and as a power widely viewed as pro-Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey will remain a divisive actor in the GCC’s polarized environment.
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