by Dalia Ziada
Turkey was one of the causes of the Gulf crisis, and it is, also, one of the biggest beneficiaries from it.
Indeed! The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Summit 41, held in Saudi Arabia, today, is a “historic summit par excellence,” as Anwar Gargash, the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs described it. That is not only because this summit puts an end to the almost four years of diplomatic crisis between GCC countries, the longest in history; but also, because it comes at a time when the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are re-arranging their priorities and re-assessing their alliances, in light of Joseph Biden’s victory with the U.S. presidential elections, in November.
Most MENA countries are trying to preempt the speculated moves of the new U.S. Administration on some of the main issues of concern in the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, such as democratization and human rights, the Iranian threat, the rising influence of Russia, and Turkey’s influence on certain Arab countries.
Observers, from all over the world, not only in the Arab region, are looking forward to the outcomes of the 41st GCC Summit, especially on the issue of reconciliation between GCC countries. For nearly four years, GCC countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, along with the non-GCC country of Egypt, labeled by media as “the Arab quartet,” applied diplomatic and economic blockade on neighbor Qatar, in an attempt to control its flawed foreign policies that hurt the national security of most countries in the region.
The preliminary meetings of the Summit tells that the blockade imposed on Qatar is going to be broken as a first step towards full reconciliation. That is despite the fact that Qatar is not willing to abide by the thirteen conditions, previously set by the boycotting countries; including cutting diplomatic relations with Iran, and terminating military cooperation with Turkey and removing the Turkish military base in Qatar. Ironically, the Arab quartet boycott of Qatar, during the past four years, led to strengthening Qatar’s military, diplomatic and commercial relations with both Iran and Turkey.
Turkey was one of the causes of the Gulf crisis, and it is, also, one of the biggest beneficiaries from it. In addition to the Turkish military presence in the Gulf region, which Qatar enabled, Erdogan regime has benefited a lot from Qatari funding for his expansionist ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. For example, Qatar’s Ministry of Defense is the partner and the financer of Turkish military forces and its affiliated mercenary militia in Libya, since the Turkish military intervention in Libya, in December 2019, under the umbrella of providing support to the Government of National Accord (GNA), in Tripoli.
Qatar has, also, pumped large amounts of cash to save the Turkish economy from collapse, due to the government’s failed policies, last year. In May 2020, Qatar deposited 10 billion dollars to the Turkish Central Bank, as part of what was announced at the time as an agreement of currency exchange with Qatar. Above all that is the huge Qatari investments in the Turkish military sector. In November, Turkish parliamentary opposition grilled Ministry of Defense, Hulusi Akar, over Qatar’s purchase of 49.9% of shares in a national Turkish factory manufacturing Altay tanks, worth of 20 billion dollars.
Nevertheless, Turkey is the first country, perhaps in the whole world, to applaud the Gulf reconciliation. Immediately after Saudi Arabia announced the opening of the sea and land borders with Qatar, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement welcoming the end of the Gulf crisis and asserting Turkey’s position as “a strategic partner for GCC countries, which supports and works for the security and stability of the Gulf region.”
This new friendly Turkish stance towards the Arab Gulf countries contrasts, greatly, with Turkey’s moves in the region. For more than six years, Turkey had been tilting all the way towards Qatar, Iran and the non-state Islamic organizations which they sponsor, at the expense of its strategic relations with the most important players in the Gulf region; namely Saudi and Emirates.
One recent example on Turkey’s explicit hostility towards UAE for example, took place in August, when Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, in an interview with the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV, threatened to “hold the UAE accountable at the right place and time,” in reaction to UAE’s standing at several points in the region to thwart Turkish political and military interventions, as is the case in Libya, right now, for instance. Turkey, also, fueled a media campaign about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, in an attempt to turn the international public opinion against the then new Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman.
Yet, it seems that Turkey, like all other countries in the region, is now rearranging its priorities and re-aligning its relations with neighbor countries, in light of the declared opposition of the new U.S. Administration to Erdogan’s regime. The newly adopted Turkish foreign policy is galvanized by Turkey’s tendency to abandon its ally Iran. In the last month of 2020, Turkey sent several indirect signals to the United States and its NATO allies, about its willingness to take their side against Iran. Simultaneously, Turkey started to fix its relationship with Saudi Arabia, following the G20 summit, in December, to end long years of tit-for-tat politics between both of them.
In short, the Middle East and North Africa, the region blazing with eternal conflicts, is witnessing a critical stage of transformation, in which everything is being reconfigured; within countries, between regional states, and between the region and the world. Turkey, due to its geographic location and expanding military powers, is expected to play an important role in managing crucial files affecting the political and economic future of MENA countries.
Turkey could also benefit from these expected transformations to resolve some of its long-standing problems that are linked to or dependent on MENA countries, such as the conflict over the maritime delamination in the eastern Mediterranean, the historical crisis with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and the threat of terrorism on its southern borders.
Turkey’s success in seizing this opportunity is conditional on appropriately aligning its foreign policy with the interests of the main players in MENA, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. That includes fixing political rifts with these countries, as well as terminating support to political Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which Turkey provides its members with a safe haven, since they fled Egypt, in 2013.
Piece first published by Liberal Democracy Institute.
Dalia Ziada is Director of Liberal Democracy Institute. She writes on Militancy and Islamism, and about MENA affairs. She tweets under @DaliaZiada.