Geo-politics overshadow Turkey's shallow relationship with Gulf States
Overlapping interests are driving Turkey's relations with the Gulf States, but differences remain over long-term political visions of the region.
By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 04/06/12
As the violence in Syria continues, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately, while also working quietly to funnel money and support to the Syrian opposition as part of a larger effort to unify and make more cohesive the fractious Syrian opposition movement.
(From left) Foreign ministers Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa of Bahrain, Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey during the fourth ministerial meeting of Turkey-Gulf Cooperation Council in Istanbul on January 28th. [Reuters]
The co-operation over Syria has been matched with expanded diplomatic outreach and a renewed push to deepen trade and economic ties with the wealthy Gulf States.
Turkey's breakdown in relations with Assad have taken place against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with Iraq and Iran, which further solidified the ongoing partnership of convenience between the Sunni Gulf states.
Eager to prevent a post-Assad Syria from following the violent and turbulent path of post-2003 Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf states have taken an active role in supporting Syria's fragmented opposition.
But the overlapping interests in the short-term have masked differing long-term interests, and the divergence in support for the numerous elements vying for political power in Syria.
"The Gulf States and Turkey agree that they want Assad out, but they don't have a strategy about how to go about it," Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, told SES Türkiye.
Turkey and Qatar, by and large, have thrown much of their support behind the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia is using its leverage with other, and less well known, Islamist groups, as well as tribal groups, according to Hokayem.
"The Saudis are more comfortable with the Salafis, whereas [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan sees himself as being close to the brothers in terms of their style and politics," Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert and professor at the University of Vermont, told SES Türkiye.
In the long term, however, it is also not certain that the three have similar visions for Syria's future. While Qatar is eager to carve out regional influence with its checkbook, Saudi Arabia is eager to use the ongoing crisis to shore up its political interests vis-à-vis Iran.
"Saudi Arabia is playing an old fashioned regional power game," said Gause.
Turkey, on the other hand, is working hard to avoid being drawn into a sectarian battle with Iran and Iraq. Ankara is instead working to ensure that its political, security and economic interests are preserved in a post-Assad Syria.
Critically, Turkey is intent on managing the transition so as to limit the possibility that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) does not take advantage of any chaos to re-establish itself in Syria's Kurdish regions.
According to Birol Baskan, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's Qatar campus, the Gulf States entertain the idea that Turkey could balance Iran.
"I do not think that Turkey sees the problem that way," Baskan said. "[Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu and [Prime Minister] Erdogan have been very honest about their non-sectarian approach to the issue."
This divergence is matched by hesitancy amongst the Gulf leadership about Turkey's push to establish itself as a political and economic leader in the Middle East.
"You have to keep in mind that there are historic and cultural rivalries, there are concerns about Erdogan's perceived religious, pro-Muslim Brotherhood agenda, and you feel in some sectors in the Gulf simple jealousy about Turkey's arrival," Hokayem said.
While relations have certainly improved, the idea that three are amidst a strategic rapprochement overstates the depth of current relations. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have similar short-term interests, but differences remain about the political future of the region, and the leadership role all three are vying to fill.