Overcoming misgivings in GCC about Turkey

ABU DHABI — It seems the open hand extended by Turkey to further cooperate with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has not been fully reciprocated by the six-nation bloc because of the different outlook each member state presents and projects in the region.

Turkey’s request for visa liberalization or even waivers and signing free trade agreements with GCC countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are still pending. It is very unlikely that the 31st Summit of GCC countries, which began yesterday, will bring any positive news in this regard.

Back in October, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held talks in Kuwait with his counterparts from the GCC. The ministers agreed to form working groups to boost cooperation in trade and investment, agriculture, transportation, communication, energy, culture, tourism, health, education and environment. Judging from free trade talks, which first began in 2005, I do not think the working groups will go anywhere.

The main problem originates from the GCC’s myopic understanding of Turkey. With all GCC countries putting their eggs in the US basket when it comes to challenges put forth by Iran, Iraq and other regional problems, the understanding of a new Turkey involved in regional conflicts more than ever has largely gone unnoticed.

In fact, Turkey offers a third alternative: to engage with Iran through negotiation and dialogue while sharing fully the dangerous prospect of a nuclear Iran in the region with GCC countries. The goal is the same but the methods differ, offering a new way of handling regional affairs from a constructive and confidence-building perspective. As a matter of fact, Turkey is the only country in the region that can talk to the Iranian leadership frankly and ask for restraint when it comes to the rising hair on the back of the Arab countries’ necks.

The striking nuclear swap deal concluded with the help of emerging Brazil is a testament to that effect. Ankara is also talking with Tehran on the fragile political dynamics in Iraq and advising the country’s leadership to avoid shoring up only the Shiite segment of the population. It has been insisting on forming an alliance that has cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic characteristics in governing the country while not giving up the territorial integrity of the country. Both power and revenue sharing agreements should be based on fair distribution and benefit all groups making up the Iraqi population, Turkey argues.

In Lebanon, another GCC interest spot, Turkey has been instrumental in shoring up the alliance, helping the warring factions hold their peace and keeping a stable government there. Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s big brother, has worked closely with Turkey in securing the stability and security in fragile Lebanon. Turkey also brokered a deal to smooth out problems with the Saudis and Syrians this year.

It is about time the GCC countries diversify and engage with Turkey in a much closer way. The 2008 agreement in terms of instituting a “strategic dialogue” in all fields between Turkey and the GCC should not be left on paper, labeled a memorandum of understanding, but should instead be explored and fleshed out with concrete projects of cooperation.

The ground is fertile for such cooperation. Between 2002 and 2008, trade volume increased eightfold, reaching $16.6 billion, before shrinking in 2009 due to the world economic crisis. The numbers are bouncing back nicely and recovering from the crisis. The trade volume in the first seven months of 2010 stood at $5.5 billion in 2010, representing a 25 percent increase as compared to the same period of 2009. The amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) from GCC countries in Turkey is currently above $10 billion.

GCC countries have been discussing a railway link to further connect all six economies. Turkey can be another link in this railway project as well, providing a cargo link between the GCC and Europe and Central Asia. The defense industry is another area where both Turkey and GCC countries are exploring opportunities for cooperation. Turkey is becoming a popular destination for Gulf travelers thanks to Turkish soap operas aired by regional Arab TV stations.

Since both the GCC and Turkey share a common vision for the region, it is obvious that Turkey can bring an extraordinary added value to cooperation among GCC countries not only in the economic field but also in the political and diplomatic spheres. The only remaining problem is the lack of understanding and agreement among the GCC leadership with respect to welcoming Turkish engagement and how far it should be explored and even allowed.

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