Qatar and Turkey’s enduring partnership has allowed Ankara to re-emerge as a security provider in the Gulf for the first time in over a century. By Ali Bakır in Doha News on June 4 , 2023.
In one of the most fiercely contested Presidential and general elections Turkey has ever seen, President Erdogan secured a resounding victory last month.
Seven leading opposition figures had joined forces to unseat Erdogan and his entrenched ruling AKP party, but their efforts proved insufficient.
The two camps presented starkly contrasting visions for Turkey’s future, with divergent perspectives on identity and foreign policy.
The opposition’s strategy, however, was more fixated on ousting Erdogan than providing a substantial alternative. They resorted to a desperate pattern of waging fear campaigning, using racism and hate narratives to exacerbate polarisation within the Turkish society and put pressure on the president and his supporters.
This tactic, however, failed to yield the votes needed for a victory. Even after a crushing defeat, the opposition, self-proclaimed democrats, did not take responsibility or resign.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu remained obstinate in the face of calls to step down, despite a track record of losses against Erdogan and the AKP since 2010.
The 2023 elections drew worldwide attention, with several countries and the Western media openly advocating for Kilicdaroglu. Despite this, the opposition faced a humiliating defeat, and failed to secure both the presidency and parliamentary majority.
Erdogan’s triumph ensures another five-year term and a parliamentary majority for his party’s alliance, forcing global observers to adjust to this reality.
Turkey-Gulf relations: what is expected?
Turkey’s position is of particular significance to the Gulf region, and a robust, autonomous Turkey is crucial for Gulf countries.
Erdogan’s re-election signifies an era of continuity and stability in the relationship that has prevailed since late 2020. Leaders of the Gulf, including the Amir of Qatar, UAE President MBZ, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince MBS, were among the first to congratulate the Turkish president.
In the wake of his re-election, Erdogan is expected to engage in a series of high-level diplomatic meetings with Arab Gulf leaders.
President MBZ of the UAE is poised to be the first Gulf leader to visit Erdogan following his election, and meetings with the Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, and Saudi leaders are on the horizon, with the Qatari leader expected to visit Turkey, and Erdogan expected to visit Saudi Arabia during this month.
Turkey aims to deepen economic ties with the GCC countries, seeking to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI), secure infrastructure contracts, boost tourism, and align its strengths and capacities with the strategic visions and doctrines of the Arab Gulf States in fields such as development, diversified economy, infrastructure, renewable and green energy, technology and defence.
One of Erdogan’s long-term goals is to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the Arab Gulf bloc. Turkey and the Arab Gulf bloc have immense potential for economic growth, yet their current trade volume does not reflect this.
A Free Trade Agreement could be the key to unlocking this potential and boosting trade between the two parties significantly.
To make this happen, Turkey may seek the help of its allies, Qatar and the UAE, to push this agenda within the GCC.
The Syria file
Another issue that requires the collective engagement of the GCC is Turkey’s plan to establish safe cities for Syrian refugees in Northern Syria.
While some GCC states have normalised relations with the Assad regime without any tangible benefits, Turkey believes that a price must be paid for such normalisation. This includes the commitment to fight agains the terrorism of the YPG-PKK, ensure a safe and voluntary return of refugees and progress in the political transition file.
Turkish officials were recently displeased with Assad’s use of the Arab League platform to criticise Ankara from Saudi Arabia, the host country.
As such, Turkey will likely seek coordination with the bloc on the Syrian matter in the coming period. The Syrian file is complex, but Turkey remains committed to finding solutions and working with its partners in the Gulf to achieve its goals.
Despite these broad objectives, the ongoing intra-GCC competition may limit collective efforts, potentially leading Turkey to focus on bilateral relations in its dealings with the GCC countries.
During the last few years, Turkey proved that it is a credible, capable, and committed partner; aiding its allies in times of need has increased its value in the eyes of countries looking for diversification options on regional the international levels, in the age of US decline.
In terms of bilateral relationships within the GCC, Turkey’s primary ally is Qatar.
The alliance, which dates back to 2014, has proven resilient and mutually supportive, especially during challenging times.
This enduring partnership has enabled Turkey to re-emerge as a security provider in the Gulf for the first time in over a century.
Though the economic interaction between the two countries has increased following the 2017 GCC crisis and blockade against Qatar, the volume of bilateral trade is relatively small and stands at an estimated $2 billion.
During the last few years, Qatar increased its FDI in Turkey but is still less than the accumulative volume of UAE’s FDI since 2002. Yet, Qatar remains ahead of other GCC states in terms of investing in Turkey’s defence industry.
The Gulf state is Ankara’s primary partner in producing the next generation main battle tank, Altay, despite not being a top importer of Turkey’s defence equipment.
For the alliance to endure and remain robust there is a need to increase both the volume of bilateral trade and Doha’s FDI in Ankara along with a focus on strategic investments in key sectors such as the defence industry, automotive, energy and manufacturing, among others.
Turkey and Qatar should also activate their bilateral cooperation on diplomatic, economic, and security level vis-à-vis third countries and pressing issues in different parts of the world, especially in Africa.
There is a room for both Ankara and Doha to join forces and increase their influence in different regions and emergencies whenever needed.
There is also a need to work on multi-lateral cooperation and agendas across several regional theatres with key countries such as Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Ukraine among others.
The relationship between the UAE and Turkey has also seen remarkable progress recently.
Only three days after Erdogan’s election victory, Abu Dhabi ratified the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Ankara, a move that could potentially inflate bilateral trade to $40 billion within a few years.
This means that Abu Dhabi will fortify its position as the unchallenged economic partner of Turkey in the Gulf.
The UAE has already signaled its intention and will to increase its investments in several critical sectors in Turkey in a bid to increase its cooperation in the defence field and import more Turkish weapons.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy, has a relatively weak economic relationship with Turkey, hinting at a need for significant improvement.
Bilateral trade between the two countries is currently valued at approximately $5 billion, signifying a need to elevate bilateral ties to their potential, with key sectors demanding more attention such as trade, business, investments, energy, infrastructure, technology and defence.
A Bloomberg report last week highlighted Saudi Aramco’s meeting with roughly 80 Turkish contractors, discussing potential projects in the kingdom worth a staggering $50 billion over the next two years.
This signals a significant uptick in collaborative efforts aimed at bolstering the economic bond between the countries.
Turkey’s diplomatic and economic relations with Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain are also expected to strengthen in the foreseeable future.
The key question that arises is the readiness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to intensify their efforts in this regard.
With Erdogan’s re-election, Turkey’s relationship with the GCC is poised for transformation.
The strengthening of bilateral ties, particularly with Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, underscores Turkey’s ambition to deepen economic cooperation and its role as a security provider.
However, internal competition within the GCC as well as uncertainties concerning the regional and international dynamics, especially those related to the US and the next US administration could limit collective engagement as well as engagement with some GCC countries.
As Turkey navigates the geopolitical landscape, a balance between individual partnerships and multilateral collaboration will be crucial in realising its goals.
Ali Bakir is a senior researcher at Ibn Khaldon Center, and assistant professor of foreign policy, security, and defence at Qatar University.