Making sense of Turkey and the Gulf

The chilling effect of the Egyptian military coup on what seems to be promising relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), due to Ankara’s strong disapproval of the way Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted from power cannot be dismissed. Although Turkey has softened its approach to the military-backed new transitional government in Egypt with the president of Turkey sending a congratulatory message to interim leader Adli Mansour on Egypt’s national day on Thursday, the whole saga has nevertheless exposed fundamental differences between the rulers of the Gulf and Turkish leaders on the prospect of governance in the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

This divergence can be distilled down into two distinct camps: one that believes in a democratic regime and a representative government and another that is an ardent supporter of maintaining the status quo with the ruling elites fearful of any change that may lead to instability, chaos and crises. No doubt each side has its own convincing justifications for its policies. The Egyptian case served as an example of a litmus test for this obvious yet unpronounced division between Turkey and the Gulf. The critical question is whether we will be able to turn this crisis of confidence into an opportunity or if we will need to throw away the valuable relationship that was cultivated in recent years which has benefited both sides enormously. My take on this issue is that if both sides can draw the right lessons, we can actually position this potentially strategic partnership into a much healthier and stronger foundation, one that may withstand future challenges.

For one, both the Gulf and Turkey need to invest more into developing an expertise and a pool of human resources that will pave the way for a better understanding of what is really going on in their respective societies. More often than not, common misperceptions and even biases have been hampering the flourishing of ties on both sides. Currently neither side has enough experts and advisors around the ruling establishments that specialize in Turkish or Gulf affairs. The bleak picture of cooperation in academia, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks worsens the case. We have very few Saudi and Emirati students studying in Turkish universities in contrast to some Western countries that are home to thousands of Saudis, for example. The opposite is also true. That means we will keep looking at each other through the prism of third countries which may not necessarily be a good thing for bilateral ties. It is not surprising to see sometimes bad counsel coming from close advisors of the Turkish prime minister when it comes to managing ties with the Gulf. The same bad reflection can be seen on the Gulf mirror as well.

Secondly, both should stop blurring each other’s vision by bringing ideological and religious inclinations to what ought to be a common sense approach. Mixing religion with politics is not a good thing in managing affairs of the state. On the Turkish side, it is unfortunate to see that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been playing with a politically charged Islamic perspective which is disconnected from real politics at times. The prevailing notion of the National View (Milli Görüş), the legacy of the late Necmettin Erbakan, who founded political Islam in Turkey, in foreign policy has apparently irritated most Gulf countries and raised suspicions among ruling elites there. Ankara should do away with this approach and return to the traditional basics of conducting foreign policy.

On the other side, Saudis especially, the heavyweight among Gulf countries, have been trying to maintain their internal balance between the royal family and the orthodox religious establishment by exporting the Wahhabi ideology to other countries, including Turkey. The Saudi rulers’ appeasement of the extremist Wahhabi circles has been a poisoning factor in what should have been pragmatic and practical foreign relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The same negative perception exists today in many countries from Pakistan to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Saudis should stop playing this irritating tune.

In addition, the footprint of religion in politics has also complicated Turkish and Saudi positions in Syria, which was another test of the divergence in approach between Turkey and the Gulf, leaving both sides in a vulnerable position with regard to Iranian encroachment in the Middle East. If apocalyptic speculations around sectarian lines in the Middle East which already loom large on the horizon come true, both Turkey and the Gulf will be needing each other more than ever to confront this serious challenge. This is because no country will be immune to a full-blown Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East.

Thirdly, just as the imposing and condescending attitude displayed by some visiting Turkish leaders in the Gulf irked many of our friends in the region, the quick draw from the Gulf in resorting to trade and economic instruments to pressure the Turkish government into accepting a position on a given issue is also very counterproductive. As we have seen in the post-Egyptian coup era, the emirates fired the first shot across Turkey’s bow by having the UAE Central Bank issue a circular asking local banks for financial exposure to investments in Turkey. Although this step was described as “routine” by the UAE, my sources tell me that the UAE is in fact pushing Saudis to follow suit. If that is true, this may deal an irreparable blow to developing ties between Turkey and the Gulf because it will evaporate the precious trust in investing in a relationship. It will also set a bad precedent that any time the emirates or Saudis differ with the Turkish position, all business may be suspended.

Last but not least is that we have noticed a pattern that amounts to a smear campaign in governments — controlled or directed media on each side which practically serves nothing but to erode mutual trust in public opinion. Constant bashing of each other through the media is a dangerous game that may have long-term negative implications and may even prove to be very difficult to repair. The same is also true in Egypt, where the semi-official Turkish Anadolu news agency has been carrying live broadcasts of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City while giving less or no coverage to anti-Morsi demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The military-backed interim government in Egypt is also manipulating its own media to circulate some anti-Turkey stories as well. Instead of building bridges between media companies and exchanging expertise between press corps, using and abusing the press for negative campaigning is tantamount to a scorched earth policy that will inflict long-term damage on ties between Turkey and Egypt as well as between Turkey and the Gulf.

I guess it all eventually boils down to this: Respecting differences and cherishing diversity is a sine qua non on building mutual trust in foreign policy. Turkey has a different political and social background with unique historic references. Each and every Gulf state also has its own past experience that may not resemble each other, let alone the Turkish one. We have had a promising ride on fostering ties between Turkey and the Gulf States in the last decade or so. It would be a shame to lose that valuable track.

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