Turkish elections were held at a time when the region had already entered into an era of de-escalation and normalization. Within that context, the outcome of the elections in Turkiye was particularly important for the Gulf states that look for predictable Turkish foreign policy in the post-election era.
Gulf states maintained a neutral stance without making any statements through official nor non-official channels during the election season in Turkiye, adopting mostly a “wait-and-see” approach. However, the outcome of the elections was highly critical for them as Turkiye is a major actor in the region where the Gulf states have significant investments and projects in accordance with their ambitious national visions.
Leaderships in the Gulf states were among the first to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his re-election. Gulf states immediately expressed their strong commitment to maintain and further improve the ongoing process of enhancing relations with Ankara during Erdogan’s upcoming term.
With Erdogan securing another five-year term now, what is next for the Turkish-Gulf relations? Given the current atmosphere of reconciliation in the region, Ankara will continue to prioritize its relations with the Gulf states, which are important actors in Turkiye’s trade and defense markets. In this regard, Ankara will try to deepen its economic, political and security ties with the individual Gulf states. In doing this, it is likely that the Turkish-Gulf relations will continue to have a personalized nature as it has been in the past two decades. Today, many leaders use personal diplomacy in establishing relations with foreign leaders as a “shortcut” to achieve foreign policy objectives. Erdogan is certainly one of those leaders in the world who use the power of personal diplomacy, which is often considered a practical way to resolve crises and extend bilateral cooperation. Therefore, the next five years of Erdogan’s tenure are likely to bring a continuation of the personalities’ cooperation on a range of areas.
In the new era, as an external actor, Turkiye should establish a unified and comprehensive strategy towards the Gulf Cooperation Council itself, while it could still continue to bilaterally cooperate with individual GCC states on separate dossiers. Turkiye-GCC relations still require a solid strategic and institutionalized partnership. Personalized foreign policy may bring with itself benefits, but achieving an institutional level would turn the relationship into a sustained engagement that could boost relations to an altogether new level.
Besides this, Turkiye’s bilateral ties with each GCC state have their own dynamics. For instance, the case of the Turkish-Saudi relationship is an interesting one. The relations between Ankara and Riyadh were relatively cordial during the 2000s, only to witness a sharp downturn during the 2010s. With the start of the 2020s, both countries have again worked toward restoring a positive trend. Recent reconciliation efforts indicate that the positive momentum achieved is likely to continue.
Under the current leaderships in two countries, Ankara and Riyadh are expected to continue pursuing ambitious foreign policy agendas. There are three key areas, namely economic, defense, and regional/international, where the Turkish-Saudi relationship is expected to develop over the next five years. Both countries signed multiple deals in March with this objective in mind. Additionally, there may be closer cooperation on other regional issues of mutual interest. For instance, Ankara and Riyadh have a stake in resolving the ongoing Sudanese crisis and could collaborate to reach a settlement between the warring factions.
It is noteworthy that Qatar, with whom Ankara’s relations have rapidly improved in the past decade, was the first Gulf state to congratulate Erdogan on his electoral success. Another five years is likely to witness more Qatari investments in Turkiye parallel with a growing role of Turkish defense industry in Qatar. Although Turkish-Qatari relations found solid ground due to both regional and global factors, the leaderships’ role in enhancing this relationship shouldn’t be underestimated.
Turkish-Qatari relations will also see closer cooperation on regional issues of mutual interest. For instance, Syria and the issue of the repatriation of the Syrian refugees in Turkiye will be among those issues. In his victory speech, Erdogan said Turkiye would repatriate at least one million Syrians to northern Syria, liberated from terrorist groups, with a Qatari-backed housing project. Besides Syria, Libya and Sudan will be regional dossiers that Turkiye and Qatar will likely continue to cooperate with.
There are certainly areas that other GCC states, such as the UAE, would cooperate with Turkiye in Erdogan’s tenure. This week, Turkiye and the UAE ratified the free trade deal, inked in March, to increase trade between two countries to $40 billion in the next five years. It remains to be seen whether other GCC states would follow the same path.
Meanwhile, it is also essential to consider the international dimension, particularly the outcome of the 2024 US presidential elections which may significantly influence Turkiye’s relations with the Gulf states. Keeping this in mind, it should be noted that there are still political disagreements between Turkiye and some GCC states that parties should engage into an “agree to disagree” understanding to avoid future deadlocks.
Erdogan is expected to visit the Gulf and Egypt soon, which reflects the importance of the Gulf states in the Turkish foreign policy agenda in the upcoming term. In light of the recent rapprochement process with the Gulf states, let us hope for a new Turkish approach to the Gulf region that may go beyond the economic-and-security nexus and include a sociocultural dimension to bring long-term benefits for all sides.