Earlier this month, the US news agency Bloomberg carried a report entitled “Gulf Reaches Out to Erdogan in Wary Move to Ease Tensions” quoting anonymous sources in the region and indicating some kind of potential Gulf-Turkey rapprochement. Though no official confirmation or denial has been given since then, media reports in the region have carried hints that the ice is thawing between Turkey and the Gulf.
The gist of the Bloomberg report was that the “United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are holding out for the possibility of better ties with Turkey that could benefit trade and security in a volatile region.”
But it also cast doubts on the possibility of the success of such moves. “The moves are tentative, given the backdrop of long-standing tensions and jostling for influence. They are also likely to fall foul of the Gulf duo’s insistence that Turkey rein in support for the Muslim Brotherhood,” the report concluded.
Last week, Emirati media highlighted the cordial exchange between a Turkish minister and an Emirati official on the Emirati Hope probe reaching Mars. Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri, UAE minister of state for advanced sciences, thanked Mustafa Varank, Turkey’s minister of industry and technology, for his good wishes on the success of the space mission.
Al-Amiri said in a tweet that “we also believe that space exploration has always been a means to build bridges and advance our collective human understanding.” This was in a reply to a tweet by Varank in which he said that “each new discovery in space has the potential of increasing international cooperation, serving the interests of the world peace. The success of the UAE in the Hope mission, in which they have been investing for a long time, is worthy of appraisal. Congratulations!”
Turkish media and Arabic outlets sympathetic to it have been propagating the claim that officials from the Gulf countries have been meeting with their Turkish counterparts in a bid to restore active relations following the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on 5 January declaring the end of the boycott of Qatar by the Arab Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
Turkish reports and social media posts by Turkish officials have arrogantly portrayed this as the “Gulf coming back to us,” similar to the way Doha has been portraying the reconciliation with the Arab Quartet as a “victory” for its policies.
Yet, there has been a shift in Gulf policy, especially with the new US administration in the White House. This has involved a need to prepare for regional challenges without dragging out internal conflicts. From the Qatar crisis to the war in Yemen, the Saudis have felt the need to reassert their stance as leaders of the GCC when US President Joe Biden re-engaged in negotiations with Tehran. Riyadh is keen on including Iran’s ballistic missiles programme in any negotiated deal between the US and Iran.
A semi-official source in the Gulf told Al-Ahram Weekly that pragmatism in politics meant the need to be flexible enough to make tactical shifts without compromising basic principles. “You may need to engage to change others’ positions on controversial issues. Take the [Muslim] Brotherhood, for example. The basic principle is that the group is designated as a terrorist organisation by many countries in the region. That will not change. But pragmatism means that you reach compromises to dilute the support the group gets from other countries in the region,” the source said.
Since the reconciliation between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours in early January, analysts have been floating the suggestion that the same will soon happen between the Gulf and Turkey. Both share a policy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and its militant offshoots in the region. When the boycott of Qatar started in 2017, the Turkish military presence in the small Gulf country increased to the extent of establishing a Turkish military base in Qatar. Doha has stressed that its enhanced relationship with both Turkey and Iran will not be affected by the reconciliation with the Gulf countries.
The reconciliation agreement between Doha and the Arab Quartet also seems vague as its details have not been made public. The Qataris are hailing the achievement of their main objective, which was resolving multiple issues with the Saudis, but the overall situation is still precarious.
Bahrain and the UAE, along with Egypt, will not tolerate the continuation of Qatari support for the Brotherhood and militant groups. Even Saudi Arabia, which might have tactically needed to soften positions and unify a camp against Iran, should be wary of Doha’s role as a spearhead for Turkish and Iranian influence in the region.
A Dubai-based Saudi analyst told the Weekly that Saudi Arabia was committed to coordinating its policy on common issues with its allies. “If [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is to continue his rhetoric about Egypt and provide a life-line for the Brotherhood, the Kingdom will not accept a deal with him. The same applies to the UAE,” he said.
He suggested that meetings might happen, as there has been no formal severance of relations and trade is still ongoing despite the popular boycott of Turkish goods in the Gulf. “Officially, Saudi Arabia has not boycotted Turkey. But the unofficial boycott has led to Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia dropping by a remarkable 92 per cent in January year-on-year, according to data released by the Turkish Exporters Union,” he said.
The UAE is a larger trade partner, with annual trade with Turkey worth more than $8 billion, while Turkey-Saudi trade is less than $5 billion a year. Turkey is keen on reclaiming strong trade and investment relations with the Gulf countries. Its enhanced relations with Qatar over recent years have poured a few billion from Doha into the Turkish economy. However, the dire economic situation in Turkey would be exacerbated by a Saudi and Emirati drop in trade and investment.
As the Gulf source put it, “Erdogan has proved elusive and volatile, so any rapprochement would be cautious rather than cosy.” The next few weeks and months will show if Turkish-Gulf relations are indeed to go from cold to warm, or whether they will continue at a standstill.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly