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Turkey’s Security Role in the Gulf Region: Exploring the Case of a Newcomer

Author: Ali Bakir

Affiliation: Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar

Organization/Publisher: Turkish Studies Journal 

Date/Place: February 2023 / Qatar

Type of Literature: Journal Article   

Number of Pages: 23

Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683849.2023.2182686?src=

 

Keywords: Türkiye, Security, Middle East, Gulf Cooperation Council, Türkiye-Gulf Relationship, U.S., China, Russia, Iran, Foreign Policy, Multi-polar World, Defense

 

Brief:

This paper provides a detailed review of Turkey’s comprehensive shift in its domestic and international outlook since 2000. It focuses on the changing dynamics in the broader Gulf region, particularly as Turkey aims to reduce its reliance on imported arms and weapons by developing its own defense industry. Turkey has successfully met 70% of its domestic defense needs and has seen a significant increase in defense industry exports, amounting to over $4 billion annually. The author argues that the crisis in the Gulf has accelerated Ankara’s geo-strategic approach to its Gulf policy.

 

According to the author, Turkey has emerged as a key player in the security of the Arabian Gulf region for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Gulf identified Turkey as its “first strategic partner” in 2009. However, this paper also acknowledges the limitations imposed by individual Gulf members regarding the extent to which Turkey’s role can be expanded. It also highlights the role of Iran in relation to Turkey’s growing closeness with Gulf nations.

The author suggests that Kuwait and Oman would likely endorse a more significant Turkish role in the Gulf if certain conditions are met. These conditions include the continuation of strong ties with Turkey in the future and the avoidance of significant contradictions between Turkey and the United States. Additionally, the absence of explicit objections, particularly from Saudi Arabia, is crucial. However, the perspectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia differ from those of Kuwait and Oman. These countries are concerned that Turkey’s increased security role may be directed against them. The ideological considerations of the ruling figures in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, among other complications, are likely to impede Turkey’s quest for a larger security role in the Gulf, especially if there are no significant changes at the governmental level or in the nature of the relations in the foreseeable future, as noted in the paper.

However, the paper suggests that Abu Dhabi may be more open, at least theoretically, to an increased Turkish security involvement in the Gulf compared to Saudi Arabia. This openness would require a significant amount of confidence-building measures and the absence of ideological considerations. Regarding Iran, the author describes Tehran as a historic competitor of Ankara in the region, although the latter would prefer better trade ties with Iran.

 

Despite the challenging situation, the two countries have managed to cooperate on some regional issues in recent times but have also found themselves in conflicting positions on many others. During the 2017 Gulf crisis, when a Saudi-led bloc was pitted against Qatar, Turkey drew closer to Iran in order to support Qatar. However, the paper points out that Tehran was not pleased with Ankara playing a larger economic and security role in Qatar and the Gulf.

 

In fact, Iran obstructed the passage of Turkish trucks carrying food and goods to Qatar, citing bureaucratic procedures. The situation was resolved through a verbal agreement in August 2017 and a signed agreement in November 2017 involving Doha, Ankara, and Tehran. Tehran also expressed displeasure with Turkey’s direct military presence in Qatar. The complex relationship between Turkey and Iran is evident in various theaters, such as Iraq, Syria, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, among others, as explained in the paper.

 

The Iranian strategy towards Turkey in the Middle East aims to block Ankara’s access to the Gulf region by disrupting the land connection extending from Iranian positions in Iraq through Syria to Lebanon. Iran has heavily invested in countering Turkey in Lebanon. The paper also notes the gradual withdrawal of the United States, the main security provider for Gulf monarchies, from the Middle East, which creates opportunities for other regional and international players to assume a role. However, the paper cautions that the US cannot be fully replaced at present.

 

The US’s reduced presence in the region is primarily due to its focus on the Far East to contain China’s expanding economic and military influence. While Turkey has gained the capacity to pursue an autonomous foreign policy in the past decade, the paper suggests that Ankara’s role in the region will face challenges from the US. The US is not entirely comfortable with Turkey’s independent foreign policy and seems to prefer delegating more responsibilities and granting a bigger role to an umbrella bloc consisting of Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies rather than Turkey, at least for now, according to the author’s observations.

 

According to the paper, Ankara’s relations with Washington, as well as the US’ relations with Gulf nations, Iran, and Israel, will have an impact on Turkey’s role in the region. The author also highlights the role of other extra-regional powers, including China, Russia, and India. Since the publication of the paper, Beijing has achieved a diplomatic feat by facilitating the signing of a bilateral deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations. This development is significant considering that Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016.

 

The paper acknowledges India’s interest in the Middle East as one of the largest energy importers, with substantial remittance inflows from Gulf nations. The trade between India and Gulf nations surpassed $150 billion in 2021-2022. In terms of Russia, the Gulf nations perceive it as an expanding regional power and influential global player that utilizes hard power to pursue its foreign policy objectives. While bilateral trade between Moscow and Middle Eastern nations has remained around $4 billion, Russia’s focus in its relations with the region lies in security and energy.

China, a heavily-dependent energy importer from Gulf nations, has become a significant newcomer to the Middle East. The paper emphasizes that China, as the world’s most populous country, had a minimal presence in the Gulf until around two decades ago. However, it is now the top trade partner of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, constituting approximately 15.8% of the bloc’s total trade with the world. Chinese investments and construction projects in the region between 2005 and 2021 surpassed $100 billion. China also offers the Arab Gulf monarchies opportunities in surveillance technology, 5G networks, and artificial intelligence, as agreed upon during the latest summit between China and GCC nations held in Riyadh in December 2022.

Considering the broader picture and the role of extra-regional actors, the paper suggests that the growing interests and roles of China, India, and Russia in the Gulf region could pose a challenge to Turkey’s emerging security role in the Gulf. One reason for Turkey’s limited role, according to the author, is that China and Russia are nuclear powers and members of the United Nations Security Council with veto powers, while Turkey is perceived as a less powerful player in terms of military and political strength.

 

Nevertheless, the paper concludes that Turkey’s aspiration, desire, and will to seek an elevated security role in the Gulf have also been influenced by the country’s internal dynamics. Turkey’s increasingly autonomous foreign policy, the development of its indigenous defense industry, and its forward defense policy have encouraged decision-makers in Ankara to aspire to a more active role in the Gulf.

By: Riyaz ul Khaliq, CIGA Non-resident Research Associate

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