Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey and the GCC: Cooperation Amid Diverging Interests

by Steven A. Cook
March 2, 2017

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Saudi King Salman shake hands during a welcoming ceremony in Ankara, Turkey (Umit Bektas/Reuters).

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This paper, which I wrote with Hussein Ibish, was originally published here on the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington’s website on February 28, 2017.

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002, Turkey’s relations with the Gulf Arab countries have fluctuated between varying degrees of cooperation and mutual suspicion. From the Turkish perspective, these dramatic shifts have been driven primarily by changing political needs of the AKP’s leadership against the backdrop of a political worldview that sees Turkey as a natural leader in the Muslim world. This has led to moments of unprecedented cooperation between Turkey and some of the Gulf states, as well as instances of mistrust and competition. This pattern is likely to continue as the Turks cope with multidimensional security threats and domestic political challenges that threaten to further destabilize the country.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries view Turkey as an indispensable Sunni ally and counterweight to Iran, but a difficult, and at times unreliable, partner. This has been especially evident in Syria, where, until recently, Turkey joined Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the main outside powers pressing for regime change. However, this partnership has been strained as Turkey has shifted its focus to Kurdish issues and partnered with Russia on a long-term cease-fire effort. Further, Turkey’s view of Iran as a problem to be managed rather than resolved places Ankara at odds with the Gulf Arab states. Additionally, the Gulf states are divided on the Turkish government’s Islamist leanings, with the United Arab Emirates especially concerned about its regional ideological influence. Gulf Arab countries also have some long-term concerns about Turkey’s regional ambitions. Therefore, Gulf Arabs seek to ensure that Turkey remains an engaged regional power, but not too engaged, playing a major regional role, but not an overbearing one. However, if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to consolidate domestic political power leads him back to a more active and less constructive approach to the region, Turkey and the Gulf Arab countries could once again find themselves on different sides of various regional issues.

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