Turkey tries to rebuild bridges with the Gulf

President Erdogan is on a concerted charm offensive with the Gulf states. Having irked many of the region’s kings, princes and emirs over his support for the Arab Spring revolutions in general and the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular, he now seems determined to undo the damage. Published in Gulf States News, 7 May 2015

So far in 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already made several trips to the Gulf. The first was to Riyadh in January, when he took time out from a trip around the Horn of Africa to attend King Abdullah’s funeral. He was back in the kingdom in early March for a meeting with King Salman. Then, in early April, he went to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and, at the end of the month, visited Kuwait City to meet Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al- Sabah and other senior figures.

In between, Erdogan has welcomed numerous Gulf royals to Turkey. The then Saudi interior minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (now crown prince) came at the beginning of April, just before Erdogan headed to Iran. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad was in Ankara on 12 March (just before the major development conference in Egypt which neither leader attended), and was back in Turkey in late April to attend a ceremony to mark the centenary of the start of the battle of Gallipoli, known in Turkey as the battle of Çanakkale (see page 11). Emir Tamim met Erdogan on both occasions.

Contacts have also been kept up between face-to-face meetings, including a phone call on 11 April between Erdogan and King Salman. It is too early to say what all this activity will amount to, but there are many potential areas where there could be movement. Perhaps the simplest is the potential to boost trade and investment. Erdogan has set a target of doubling trade with both Iran and Kuwait, for example, to $30bn and $1bn a year respectively. Such an outcome would, no doubt, be welcomed by all concerned.

But it is the political discussions that represent the more significant aspect of the travel and diplomacy. There are a number of important and interlinked issues at stake, including the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and Iran’s role in the region. On the whole, Turkey has been siding with its fellow Sunnis in the Gulf Arab states on these issues, although it regularly insists that it is not pursuing a sectarian agenda.

Erdogan has been particularly vocal in his support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen. On 30 March, a few days after the Saudi air force began its bombing runs, he promised “any and all kinds of logistical and intelligence support to the operation led by Saudi Arabia”. A few days later, his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Iran’s action in Yemen “may bring catastrophe” to the region.

Such remarks do not go down well in Tehran, and there were some calls in Iran for Erdogan’s trip to be cancelled. The 7 April visit went ahead as planned though, and, with the two presidents trying to play down their foreign policy differences, included the signing of eight memorandums of understanding covering co-operation in fields as diverse as diplomacy, health, environment, industry and women’s studies.

The difficulty for Turkey is that it relies on Iran for a lot of its energy imports, meaning that Erdogan faces a tricky balancing act if he is to continue offering strong support to Riyadh. In addition, Iran has significant leverage in Iraq (whose president, Fouad Massoum, met Erdogan in Turkey on 22 April), and could play a useful role in helping to find a resolution to the crisis in Syria, given its alliance with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Ankara has good reason to want the Syrian war to end as soon as possible, given the potential for instability to spread across the border. Turkey is home to some 1.7m Syrian refugees, and there are rising social tensions with the host communities. And while the fighting is still contained within Syria, Ankara also worries about what greater autonomy for Syria’s Kurds might mean for its own Kurdish minority.

Recent reports have suggested that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey plan to co-ordinate their activities more closely in Syria. On 12 April, The Huffington Post, quoting “sources familiar with the discussions”, reported that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have for several months been holding high-level talks, brokered by Qatar, to form a military alliance to take on Assad. Under the supposed plan, Turkish ground troops and the Saudi air force would bolster the efforts of rebel forces fighting the Syrian government. While there are plenty of political and logistical reasons why putting boots on the ground in Syria may not take place, Ankara and Riyadh do seem to be co-ordinating their support for rebel groups inside Syria.

Although all these issues are closely interlinked, some suggest Turkey is deliberately taking a piece-by-piece approach to the region, in a way that it has not done in the past, in an effort to develop and maintain reasonably good relations with as many governments as it can. “As far as we can see, what is happening is that Ankara is trying to compartmentalise its relationship with the regional countries. It’s going back to a bilateral regional policy,” deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center at Istanbul Kültür University Sylvia Tiryaki said. “Both the president and the government have been trying to put the bilateral relationships back on track.”

This does not mark a return to the ‘zero problems with our neighbours’ policy that Turkey developed when Erdogan was prime minister and his successor in that role, Ahmet Davutoglu, was foreign minister. For one thing, it is hard to envisage any circumstances under which relations with Assad could be repaired. But it does seem to mark a new era in Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly with the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Turkey’s efforts to repair relations with the GCC come at an interesting time for another reason. In October, it will be 10 years since it began negotiations to become a member of the European Union (EU). Those talks are going nowhere, and tensions between Brussels and Ankara are, if anything, getting worse as a result of restrictions on the media and the judiciary in Turkey.

The Middle East offers an alternative source of trade, which Turkey is keen to exploit. There is no way that the Middle East region could be a viable replacement for all trade with the EU, but it could help to reduce Turkey’s dependence on Europe. That cannot happen without better political and diplomatic ties, though, which means the charm offensive is likely to continue for some time.