Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
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Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

Turkey’s Transforming Relations with the Arab World: The Impact of Recent Turkish High-Level Visits to the Gulf Region

By Mehmet Efe Biresselioglu in Izmir, Turkey

Turkey is becoming increasingly active in its foreign policy-making. There are new principles and approaches in the new Turkish foreign policy rhetoric, including the importance of soft-power, universalism and a new vision for security (including the “zero problems with neighbors” dictum).

New Principles Put into Practice

These principles have clearly been visible in recent international events involving Turkey. Turkey’s Lebanon policy, its role as a mediator between Syria and Israel and its position between Israel and Palestine confirms the new influence of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East. Moreover, Turkey’s constructive approach to Iran’s nuclear issue, in cooperation with Brazil in the UN, and its wider role as go-between for Iran and the Western world have all enhanced and extended the new approach of Turkish foreign policy.

With the beginning of the Davutoğlu era, as well as in the Middle East, Turkey is also becoming more active in Africa (as was noted recently in a interview with Turkish experts Mehmet Ozkan and Birol Akgun), and Asia. All these regions have traditionally been relatively insignificant for Turkish foreign policy-making. However, Turkey is starting to become more active by establishing new embassies, economic visits and new agreements with the countries of these regions.

Turkey is also demonstrating its foreign minister’s “zero problems with neighbors” approach in practice. The recent diplomatic progress with Armenia, the new Turkish approach to the disagreements between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey’s aim of expanding its economic influence throughout its region, while abolishing visa requirements for neighboring countries, exemplify these recent changes in Turkey’s policy within its own neighborhood.

Likewise, Turkey’s regional policy has shifted. The policy is now based on security for all, high-level political dialogue, economic integration and interdependence, in addition to multicultural coexistence. Since the beginning of this period of change, Turkey has reached considerable achievements in its regional power role.

Turkey’s Relations with the Arab World

In order to achieve its ambitions of an increased regional power role, Turkey has also turned its face towards its immediate Arab neighborhood, the Middle East. Under the AKP government, Turkey has taken positive and constructive steps with its relations towards the Arab countries and has been developing its relations on both bilateral and multilateral platforms. Since most of today’s Arab countries were included within the geographical extent of the former Ottoman Empire over long periods, Turkey has always enjoyed deeply-rooted historical, cultural, social and religious ties with the Arab world; now, the new priorities in foreign policy-making make are making Turkey much more proactive here as well.

According to obvious current geopolitical trends, the Middle East in particular has an important place; therefore Turkey attaches great importance to close dialogue and co-operation with the Arab states. Turkey has recently established consultative mechanisms with a number of Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.  Moreover, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime-minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cabinet frequently visit Arab countries both to promote trade and strengthen relationships. However, beyond the Middle East specifically, Turkey has also made great efforts of late to increase its stature within the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Turkey and the Gulf Region

In parallel with its developing relationship with the Arab world in general, Turkey is deepening ties with Gulf states, a process which includes developing better economic relations with energy-rich Gulf countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain- a factor hardly surprising for energy import-dependent Turkey.

Beyond energy, however, Turkish investors in other sectors see opportunities here in states such as Kuwait, where the government has an ambitious urban expansion plans. Clearly there are some gulf region countries that are not energy-rich, such as Yemen, but energy is not the only factor here either. Turkey has historical ties with the region dating back to the Ottoman era and World War I, and the region is critical in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Also, as Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated in his speeches, Turkey is not only looking to develop its economic relations, but to increase and lead the stability and prosperity in the region. To this end, one of his main goals is to establish a free trade area and a visa agreement similar to Europe’s Schengen Visa, which would include the Middle East, the Persian Gulf region and Turkey. Today, Turkey is paying particular importance in the Gulf to Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar in order to increase its influence and to support its role as an emerging regional leader.

Turkey’s Relations with Bahrain

Since diplomatic relations began in 1973, Turkey has maintained a stable relationship with Bahrain. However, in recent years, with Turkey’s changing foreign policy rhetoric, the Turkish government has started to pay high-level visits to Bahrain, such as with those of President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2009.

Here, it is important to note that while not as rich as its neighbors in the Gulf, with its long-term development program, free trade opportunities, investment and foreign currency regulations, Bahrain is one of the region’s most developed economies. In addition, Bahrain leads the petrochemical and aluminum sectors in the region, while it has also acquired a reputation for being a financial capital within the region due to its advanced banking and financial sector.

Turkey is increasing the level of its diplomatic and economic relations with Bahrain, as a leading Gulf state, by signing agreements concerning security, economic and political issues. Furthermore, in the last five years Turkey-Bahrain bilateral trade has increased five-fold to more than $400 million per annum, despite having fallen to under $150 million in 2009 due to the global financial crisis.

Currently, Turkey is actively supporting exports to Bahrain and especially its construction sector. In addition, funds having their origin in Bahrain are prominent in Turkey.  It is also worth noting that President Abdullah Gül was the first foreign president permitted to give a speech in the parliament of Bahrain.

Turkey’s Relations with Kuwait

On January 10, Prime Minister Erdoğan and a number of his cabinet members, including the energy and trade ministers, visited Kuwait. Kuwait was the first stop on the premier’s Gulf region visit, coming before Qatar. During his visits to both countries, Erdoğan also brought a delegation of 500 high-level Turkish officials and businessmen.

One of the main aims of Erdoğan’s visit to Kuwait was to secure a substantial share in Kuwait’s $120 billion worth of investment plans over the next 10 years. Turkish companies are already very active in the Middle East, and are constantly bidding for major projects, especially in the construction sector.

In the Persian Gulf region as well, it seems as though the power of the Turkish economy has become an important tool in Turkish foreign policy-making. However, in his speech, Prime Minister Erdoğan noted the present relatively low level of bilateral trade – approximately only $600 million in total – and stressed the need to increase the degree of business cooperation.

With this goal in mind, both sides ensured during the visit that over 2,000 business meetings were held between Kuwaiti and Turkish businessmen. Moreover, the Kuwait Investment Authority plans to raise its investment in Turkey to $1.7 billion. It is known that Kuwait’s private sector has made key acquisitions in the Turkish banking sector. As Amberin Zaman of Haberturk stated in her column, Erdoğan sees fresh opportunities with the new generations in both Turkey and the larger Muslim world to cooperate more in business than they had in the past.

Apart from pure business, Prime Minister Erdoğan also found an opportunity for political gain while in Kuwait, stressing that Turks and Arabs were brethren in their shared Islamic faith and values. Erdoğan had meetings with Kuwait’s Crown Prince, Prime Minister al-Sabah and Parliament speaker al-Khorafi. Erdoğan discussed bilateral relations as well as international issues such as Cyprus, Iran and Iraq. Both officials reckoned the importance of the territorial integrity of Iraq, Kuwaiti officials support Turkey’s stance on Iran’s Nuclear Program and are also positive on establishing diplomatic relations with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Moreover, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on industrial cooperation. The Turkish premier was also given the “Outstanding Personality in the Islamic World Award” by Kuwaiti Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmad.  At the award ceremony, he used his speech to strongly criticize what he called the “inhumane Israeli Aggression,” referring to incidents in Palestine and the death of nine Turkish citizens in the Mavi Marmara flotilla confrontation last May.

Judging from his condemnation of the world for its perceived lack of response to these incidents, it seems clear once again that Erdoğan is seeking a stronger leadership role for Turkey, especially within the Muslim world. Adding that Turkey and the Turkish people have heart and conscience, he stated that he desired a world where justice was more powerful than power. He used this opportunity to try and increase the Turkish role in global affairs and in the region.

Turkey’s Relations with Qatar

After Kuwait, the Turkish delegation’s next stop was Qatar. The aim of this visit was, once again, to increase Turkish influence in the region, and also to increase the cooperation between Turkey and Middle East/Gulf countries, due to the fact that the Islamic world’s share in the global economy is almost 30 percent presently.

In Qatar, Erdoğan stated that cooperation between members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference would bring prosperity and peace to the Islamic world. As in Kuwait, Turkey hopes to secure a substantial proportion of Qatar’s $150 billion worth of investment plans- especially significant as Qatar has been chosen as the venue for FIFA World Cup 2022. Therefore, Turkish businessmen had a number of meetings with Qatari officials and companies.

In addition, Qatar is expected by Turkish authorities to become a leading LNG exporter in the near future. Therefore, as an energy import-dependent country, Turkey is also seeking to develop LNG projects and a natural gas pipeline with Qatar. Currently, Turkish-Qatari bilateral trade is at the $400-million level, having decreased from $1.2 billion in 2008 due to global financial crises. Consequently, as with other countries, Erdoğan also stressed the need to focus on increasing the volume of trade exchange between the two countries.

Turkey’s Goals in the Gulf Region

Clearly, Turkey is seeking to take on the role of a regional power, and therefore, the Gulf region occupies an important place in its calculations. In order to reach this goal, Turkish entrepreneurs are being used as a tool to spread influence, and to exploit the huge opportunities available in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain in regards to exports, joint investments ad contract services. The aim of Turkey is to further diversify the opportunities for mutual commercial and economic cooperation, thus expanding the market shares of Turkish companies.

Turkey is also aiming to boost its economic and political ties with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), having already signed a memorandum of understanding with CCASG states in order to forge a strategic partnership in all fields.  The volume of trade between Turkey and CCASG states has increased from $1.5 billion in 1999 to an impressive $17.5 billion in 2008. In 2008, GCC exports to Turkey had already increased to five times 2007 levels, while the group’s corresponding import levels increased by almost 15 times.

Turkey’s deepening relationship with the Gulf countries and the Arab world in general has been criticized by the West, as an apparent sign that Turkey is turning its face to the east. However, this ignores the fact that Turkey conducts almost 50% of its trade with the EU and US. Nevertheless, Turkey is diversifying its trade, and the integration of its economy into both Eastern and Western markets confirms Turkey’s globally strong economy and the globalization of its economy. Indeed, considering that this is an era in which countries everywhere in the world are more and more frequently negotiating and cooperating with other countries regardless of nation-state borders, it should not be considered strange that Turkey is casting its nets more widely, as the recent diplomatic and business excursion to the Persian Gulf shows.

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