Diplomatic dancing

Turkey is walking a diplomatic tightrope with the GCC these days, trying to co-operate over the Syrian crisis while clashing over Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Published in The Gulf, November 2014

When Mevlüt Çavusoglu, Turkey’s newly-appointed foreign minister, ventured abroad for the first time in early September, he made an interesting selection of countries to visit. His first stop was Jordan, followed by Bahrain and Qatar. Given how the conflict in Syria is placing Turkey under ever greater pressure it was not surprising that he chose to visit some countries which are fairly heavily involved in the civil war. But the itinerary was just as notable for the regional capitals he did not visit, such as Tehran, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

These days, Turkey is walking something of a tightrope when it comes to Middle East diplomacy, not least in relation to the Gulf countries, and Çavusoglu’s itinerary clearly reflected that. The problems stem from a number of factors, perhaps the most important of which is disagreement over events in Egypt.

The repeated public criticism that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has meted out to the regime of president Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Egypt has drawn the ire of several Gulf countries. During an address to the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Erdogan wondered aloud about why the UN should exist if it is involved in “defending those who took office through coups” in what was a clear reference to Sisi.

In response the UAE’s foreign affairs ministry issued a statement the following day in which it described Erdogan’s UN speech as “irresponsible” and “a flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of fraternal Egypt and a provocation of the Arab sentiments”.

A further, related problem has been Turkey’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When a number of senior figures from the organisation were encouraged to leave Qatar in September it was Turkey that offered them a home.

At the same time, Turkey’s even more forceful criticism of president Bashar al Assad of Syria has alienated Iran. Relations with Iraq have also been troublesome, given Turkey’s imports of oil from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq against the express wishes of the federal authorities in Baghdad. The recent removal of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki opens the way for a possible easing of those tensions, although the most pressing problem facing his successor, Haider al Abadi, is clearly defeating the Islamic State forces in his country.

All of this means that Çavusoglu had to think carefully before booking any plane tickets to the region, according to observers in Ankara.

“It was a symbolic diplomatic move that is meant to signify that Turkey’s first priority in its foreign policy is still the Middle East,” says Eyüp Ersoy, senior researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara. “These countries [he visited] were chosen as they are not explicitly tied to any noticeable strategic partnerships, competitions or rivalries. Çavusoglu’s visit to any significant actor in the Middle East would have been interpreted in the context of regional geopolitics as Turkey’s move to establish stronger relations with that actor, which would have caused some reactions of third parties.”

Such diplomatic dances are something that all foreign ministers have to come to terms with and the years ahead are likely to throw up many more challenging problems for Çavusoglu and his colleagues.

From the current standpoint it is clear that solving the differences between Ankara and the Gulf capitals will not be easy, but there are potential benefits for everyone if they can make some improvements. That is particularly true when it comes to dealing with the Syrian crisis, where Turkey and the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states find themselves broadly in agreement.

“There is a problem between Turkey and the major Gulf countries, and that is the Muslim Brotherhood issue and the Egypt coup issue. It still stands as a big item in the room,” says Sabiha Gündogar, director of the foreign policy programme at the Turkish Economic & Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). “They are part of this coalition to fight the Islamic State and they are more or less thinking the same on Syria, but this Egyptian coup issue divides them.”

The need to develop a decent working relationship has taken on added urgency in the wake of Turkey’s decision to join the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. A number of Gulf states - notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - have already been playing an active role in taking the fight to Islamic State, by taking part in bombing raids. At the time of writing, Turkey had yet to get involved to the same extent, but it has tanks massed on its border with Syria and seems close to allowing US warplanes to use its air bases for missions into Syria.

The closest relationship that Ankara has in the Gulf is with Qatar, which also backed the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohammed Mursi in Egypt. Doha has had to scale back its support for the Brotherhood to maintain cordial relations with its GCC neighbours, but it is still the most obvious ally for Turkey. In mid-September Erdogan visited Doha where, among other things, he laid the foundation stone to a new Turkish Bazaar with the Amir Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. He also gave a speech pointing to the strength of Turkish-Qatari economic relations.

Indeed, trade ties with all the Gulf countries have risen in importance over the past decade, as a result of a decision by Ankara to try and reduce its dependence on Europe as its main trading partner, not least because its long-standing aim of joining the EU has been going nowhere. In place of the EU, Turkey has sought to develop its political and economic ties with countries to the south and east, including the Middle East.

As a result, according to statistics from the Turkish economy ministry, trade between Turkey and the Middle East grew sevenfold between 2003 and 2012, from $9.5 billion to $65 billion. And the most important markets within the Middle East region are those in the Gulf. Between 2003 and 2012, the GCC’s share of total Turkish exports rose from 3.5 per cent to 8.4 per cent, according to data from the World Bank. Imports did not grow quite as quickly, but they still almost doubled, with the GCC’s share rising from 1.6 per cent of all Turkish imports in 2003 to 2.8 per cent by 2012.

Trade between Turkey and the two other large Gulf economies of Iran and Iraq has also easily outpaced its overall trade growth in these years. As a result of such moves, the league table of Ankara’s biggest trading partners has changed substantially. In 2003 no Gulf country ranked in the top 10 in terms of Turkey’s biggest export markets, but by 2012 there were three Gulf countries in the top five, namely Iraq, Iran and the UAE.

As yet the differences over Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood do not appear to be threatening these economic ties. But it is possible that they will come under strain in the future. In Egypt there have recently been calls by media commentators for a boycott of Turkish goods, because of Turkey’s opposition to the current regime there. If those calls are echoed in the Gulf then there could be problems for Turkish exporters or for Turkish companies active in the region.

Perceptions of Turkey have already been on the decline in many of the Gulf countries in recent years, perhaps as a result of the negative media coverage of its role in Egyptian politics. According to opinion polls carried out by Istanbul-based KA Research and TESEV, the proportion of people in Saudi Arabia who said they had a very or somewhat favourable opinion of Turkey fell slightly from 77 per cent in 2012 to 76 per cent in 2013. It dropped more significantly in the other five GCC states, where the number of respondents who said they had a very or somewhat favourable opinion of Turkey fell from 77 per cent to 65 per cent in the same period.

In other countries in the region the swing has been going in the other direction. In Iraq, for example, favourable opinions of Turkey rose from 55 per cent in 2012 to 67 per cent the year after, and in Iran they rose from 59 to 69 per cent.

Clearly there is much at stake in Turkey’s dealings with the Gulf countries, both economically and diplomatically. The current war of words over Egypt places a question mark over how closely the two sides will be able to co-ordinate their approach to the Syrian crisis, which holds far greater long-term threats than anything that is happening in Cairo.

The key for a prosperous relationship at the moment seems to be for all sides to take things on a case-by-case basis; to work together where they can and to put aside their other disagreements while they do so. That is also true of Turkey’s relations with Tehran, given their differences over Syria. But whether this ‘compartmentalisation’ can or should be maintained over the long-run is open to question.

“Countries are engaging with each other on a case-by-case basis and I don’t see that as very helpful and very sustainable,” says Gündogar. “There needs to be more comprehensive agreements and more comprehensive joint actions and coalitions. These case-by-case engagements feel insecure and I don’t think it is very good for the future of the region.”