October 8, 2010


Turkey's New Foreign Policy

Sean Foley, Ph.D. - 10/7/2010

In October 1927 Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk delivered a historic speech in which he explained why Turks had to abandon the Ottoman Empire and embrace his new state. Ataturk pointed out the high cost and futility of seeking an empire extending beyond Turkish-populated lands:

“Do you know,” he asked, “how many sons of Anatolia have perished in the scorching sands of Yemen?” In future, Ataturk promised, Turks would no longer die in wars in Yemen or the Arabian Peninsula—a region of the world that had become synonymous with the plight of the Ottoman soldier in Turkish folklore and popular songs. Ataturk’s successors closely adhered to his warnings and put a priority on Turkey’s relations with the United States and Western Europe over its ties to Arab states during the Cold War.[1]

For their part, many Arabs emphasized their suffering under four centuries of Ottoman rule and their resistance to the Turks. During a banquet in Mecca in 1931, the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, pointed his finger at an Ottoman prince and described how his ancestors had fought those of the prince rather than call themselves servants of the Ottoman Caliphate.[2] Decades later, Saudi school textbooks hailed their kingdom as the great “torch” that had lit the “path of liberation” of the Arab world from the yoke of Ottoman rule and European imperialism.[3]

Few disagreed in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared Turkey persona non grata in the Arab world in 1954 after Ankara opposed Algerian independence.[4] As recently as 2002, Turkey and Saudi Arabia accused each other of committing “cultural” massacres after Ankara criticized Riyadh for razing a historic Ottoman-Turkish Fort in Mecca to make way for a new housing project.[5]

A year later, however, a series of events began a rapid improvement in relations between Turkey and the Arab world—especially the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Not only has bilateral trade and investment blossomed, but Ankara and GCC governments have also synthesized their approaches toward many (but by no means all) foreign policy challenges in the Middle East. When Saudi King Abdallah made his landmark visit to Turkey in 2006, his guards told their Turkish counterparts in Turkish that they had come to their “second homeland.”[6]

Other Gulf leaders have followed Abdallah to Turkey, and Turkish leaders expressed warm words when visiting the Gulf. During Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to Riyadh in January 2010, he stated that Turkish cooperation with Saudi Arabia was just as important as Turkey’s desire to join the European Union.[7]

This article seeks to explain why Turkey’s relations have improved so rapidly with the GCC states over the last decade. It is argued that the new relationship represents the convergence of four policy factors.

The first factor is the Turkish Parliament’s refusal to allow Washington to use Turkish territory in 2003 to invade Iraq. This decision prompted Gulf Arabs to reconsider their views of Turkey for the first time in decades and allowed Turkish leaders to emphasize aspects of their nation’s foreign policy that had long been overshadowed by Ankara’s Western alliances.

The second factor is Ankara’s adoption of polices aimed at encouraging Turkey’s economy to grow rapidly, controlling the country’s southeast border, and resolving political problems in the Middle East—even if that meant opposing Turkey’s traditional strategic partner, the United States.[8]

The third factor is the twin economic and political shocks in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century that transformed the Gulf Arabs’ worldview: the oil market’s collapse and regional instability following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The fourth factor is Ankara and the GCC’s recognition that a mutual alliance could address the fact that once-key determinants of their foreign policies—the European Union for Turkey; the United States for the GCC—may no longer be as valuable.

At the same time, one should be careful not to overstate the importance of recent improvements in Turkish relations with the Gulf states. Nor should one underestimate the significance of longstanding differences over Iran or alliances that Gulf monarchs maintain with the United States.


The blossoming of Turkish relations with the Gulf began in the context of a seemingly critical setback for U.S.-Turkish relations and for Erdogan personally. In 2003, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalat ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) had only recently taken office, and Washington asked it to authorize the U.S. military to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq. In response, Erdogan’s governing coalition presented a resolution in the Turkish parliament to let U.S. troops go through Turkey into northern Iraq. Government officials stressed the dangers of refusing an urgent request of the sole superpower in the world and of not having “a seat at the table” or any voice in the adjudication of future Iraqi affairs.[9]

Yet the proposal found scant support in Turkish society. During the 1990-1991 war over Kuwait, Ankara had strongly backed Washington but in exchange lost millions of dollars in trade and gained only unstable borders. The virtually independent Kurdish region in northern Iraq had greatly escalated tensions among Turkey’s own Kurdish community in the country’s southeast. The new U.S. invasion promised even more problems. Polls showed that 80 percent of Turks saw the invasion as a U.S. attempt to grab Iraq’s oil and to show U.S. power. When parliament voted on the government’s resolution, March 1, 2003, it was defeated.[10]

For Erdogan, however, the apparent defeat became the turning point in Turkey’s relationship with the Gulf states (and also the United States). Turks were moving toward a new view of their Islamic and regional role and would no longer blindly follow the West’s lead in international affairs.[11] Gulf governments, many of which had been similarly torn between their ties to Washington and opposition to the invasion of Iraq, saw Ankara for the first time as a potential ally. The chaos in Iraq after the invasion, al-Qaida terrorist attacks in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the emergence of a Shi‘a government in Iraq reinforced the new perception that Turkey was an potential friend facing many of the same challenges the Gulf states did.[12]

Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear power (and potentially nuclear weapons) along with the perception that Washington had “abandoned” Iraq to Iran only added to the desire of some in the Gulf that Ankara revive the Ottoman Empire’s role as the Sunni state that would check Iranian and Shi‘a power in Iraq.[13] This increasing interest in Turkey spilled into the Arab media, much of which is owned by Gulf nationals or based in the GCC. In December 2004, 200 representatives of the Arab media attended Erdogan’s press conference on Turkey’s candidacy to join the European Union.[14]


Two additional factors reinforced Turkey’s political position in the Gulf. First, Gulf royal families had never completely rejected their historic ties to Turkey. Effat al-Thunayyan, the most prominent wife of former Saudi King Faysal, had been born and raised in Turkey and spoke fluent Turkish. Two of her sons held significant positions in the Saudi government. Turki al-Faysal was the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, while Saud bin Faysal was Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister.[15]

Second, the widely-held belief that Ankara would suffer dire consequences for refusing Washington’s request did not come to pass. Washington accepted the decision of the Turkish parliament without protest and rewarded Ankara by seeking better economic and political ties. Following Erdogan’s visit to Washington in 2004, U.S.-Turkish ties were far stronger than they had been before 2003. Nor did Erdogan pay a steep price in Washington when he differed with U.S. policy by giving support to Palestinian groups and harshly criticizing Israeli actions. Thus, it seemed that Turkey was now both more important as a regional power and strong enough to say “no” to the United States.[16]

Turkey’s role in the Gulf was not just words and a few photo-opportunities; it also reflected the life experiences of Turkish Foreign Minister (later President) Abdullah Gul and the approach to foreign policy promoted by Turkish academic and diplomat Ahmet Davutoglu. Gul had lived in Saudi Arabia from 1983 to 1991. There he had worked as a financial analyst for the Islamic Development Bank, learned to speak Arabic, and had reportedly befriended King Abdallah.[17]

Gul also shared Davutoglu’s vision for a new foreign policy, the “zero problem policy towards Turkey’s neighbors.” In Davutoglu’s eyes, this vision seeks the “consolidation of democracy” and to settle “disputes, which directly or indirectly concern Turkey.”[18] Ultimately, he said, the policy aims to create a stable, integrated, and prosperous region from Europe to North Africa to the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Gulf.[19]

At its core, Davutoglu’s “zero problem policy” addresses two separate but related problems that had haunted Turkish leaders for a decade: generating enough economic growth to keep pace with Turkey’s growing population and controlling the southeast border and Kurdish insurgency there. The economic recession in 2001 highlighted the country’s need to increase its exports and take advantage of lucrative, untapped markets for Turkish goods, especially in the Arab world, Russia, and Iran.[20] While Europe would still be important to Turkey’s economy in future, the recession showed that trade with Europe by itself was no longer sufficient to meet the country’s goals. In addition, the recession highlighted the possibility that there were two additional, untapped sources of income for Turkey:

Pipelines through Turkey would connect Russia, Iran, and other energy-producing nations to consumers in Europe. Islamic banks could attract more capital than Turkey’s traditional Western-style financial institutions, which use interest and are therefore off-limits to Muslims, especially from the Gulf, who see interest as forbidden under Islamic law.[21]

These new economic linkages in the Middle East would expand Turkey’s economy and give Ankara the leverage needed to compel its southern neighbors and Iran to help secure Turkey’s borders and pacify the Kurds there. Such a strategy was also significant since these neighbors also had Kurdish populations and had supported the political aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds in the past.[22] Equally importantly, many Kurds saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a golden opportunity to create an independent Kurdish state, which might even include southeast Turkey. Unlike the Turks, Kurds had actively supported the invasion of Iraq and expected Washington’s sympathy for their aspirations.[23]


From the start, Ankara’s new policy produced the intended benefits, in no small part because of the assistance of the Gulf states. Turkey’s trade in the region expanded markedly; per capita income in Turkey doubled and economic growth averaged seven percent between 2002 and 2007. Ankara also won impressive foreign policy victories. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) foreign ministers’ meeting in 2004 adopted a Turkish proposal to elect its chairman for the first time. The members then selected Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turk, to serve as the organization’s chair.

Saudi Arabia was critical to Ihsanoglu and Turkey’s success, since Riyadh hosts the headquarters of the OIC and has always had a great deal of influence over how the organization is managed. As recently as 2000, Saudi Arabia had strongly opposed Ankara’s attempts to nominate a Turk for the OIC chair because Riyadh was not comfortable with Turkey’s Islamic credentials.[24]

The OIC vote marked the start of a process by which Saudi Arabia and other GCC states lent their support to key Turkish initiatives. During this same period, Ankara aligned its regional polices with those of the GCC. The Gulf states backed Turkey’s candidacy for observer status in the Arab League and to have a seat on the UN Security Council.[25] They also backed U.S. and NATO measures supported by Turkey—the Wider Middle East Initiative and NATO’s security partnership with the GCC—along with the idea of Ankara being a mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute.[26] Equally important, Gulf governments supported a unified Iraq and opposed Kurdish efforts to form an independent Kurdish state.[27]

Turkish diplomacy throughout the 2006 Lebanon War, the political crisis in Lebanon in 2008, and the Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2009 mirrored the diplomacy of Qatar and other Gulf states. Gulf Arabs cheered Erdogan as if he were one of their own when he angrily left a televised panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos International Conference in Switzerland to protest Israeli military actions in Gaza. In March 2010, Saudi Arabia awarded the Turkish Prime Minister its King Faisal Award for his services to Islam.[28]

While much of the diplomacy and cultural exchanges were done on an ad hoc basis, Turkish and GCC foreign ministers formally met in Saudi Arabia in 2008, where they signed a memorandum of understanding, and again in Turkey in 2009.[29] Turkey and the Gulf states also signed a commercial agreement in 2005, and Turkey began negotiating bilateral trade agreements with individual GCC states. These agreements signaled a shift in thinking among policymakers and business in Turkey and the Gulf as well as recognition that each had assets which could assist the other in addressing structural weaknesses in their economies.


Of course, the potential for many of these steps between Turkey and the Gulf had existed since the 1970s. Turkey has the educated workers, modern companies, and technological expertise needed in the Gulf; GCC states have the petroleum, consumer markets, and investment capital that Turkey desires.[30] But Gulf states gave priority to massive financial and commercial links with firms in Europe and North America rather than those in Turkey. In the eyes of GCC leaders, these investments guaranteed the success of military alliances that shielded the Gulf states from the Soviet Union, Iran, and other hostile neighbors. This policy seemingly proved their worth in 1990 and 1991 when a U.S.-led coalition saved Kuwait from an Iraqi occupation.

However, the collapse of oil prices in the late 1990s and U.S. policies after 2001 forced Gulf states to reevaluate these assumptions. Because of their dependence on the proceeds from oil exports, the sudden, severe drops in oil prices in the late 1990s eviscerated government budgets and curtailed economic growth.

In response, Gulf states sought to decrease their dependence on oil exports by replicating the success of Dubai. Through a combination of foreign direct investment, advanced infrastructure, and heavy borrowing, Dubai had built an economy dependent not on oil exports but on transportation, modern manufacturing, and services. Even as world oil prices doubled, doubled again, and doubled still again between 1999 and 2008, Gulf governments--convinced that oil prices would once again collapse--put their rapidly rising incomes in non-oil industries and investments.[31]

Furthermore, as U.S. forces in Iraq appeared powerless to contain the country’s civil war or to check either Iran or Sunni extremist groups, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states no longer believed their relationship or investments in the United States to be as strategically valuable. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, Saudi Foreign Minister Faysal expressed his and Gulf Arabs’ frustration with U.S. policy in the Middle East. When asked at an August 2006 news conference about U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that the war in Lebanon was part of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” Faysal rebuked his U.S. counterpart. He stated that Saudi Arabia wanted “to go back to the old Middle East.” Faysal added that the only things he saw “from this new Middle East” were “more problems and more disasters.” Finally, enhanced scrutiny of large Gulf investments throughout the world and of Gulf Arabs when they traveled to Europe and North America after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks only fueled disillusionment with Washington’s policies in the Middle East.[32]


For Gulf Arabs, Turkey was a natural alternative. The economy was growing, Ankara addressed issues Washington seemingly ignored in the Middle East, and the Turks needed Gulf capital. Although the Turkish government was committed to Turkey’s candidacy to join the EU, the “zero conflict policy” had always in part been meant to be a hedge against the possibility that the candidacy would never succeed. Such a possibility became increasingly likely after 2006, as leaders of two of the EU strongest states--France and Germany--publicly opposed Turkey’s candidacy to join the Union. To compensate, Turkish officials sought even more capital from the Gulf and stressed their country’s Islamic heritage and openness to Muslim visitors from the Middle East. In 2007, Turkey’s finance minister, Kemal Unakitan, told Kuwait’s minister of industry and trade, Falah Muhammad al-Hajiri:

“Forget about the United States and the European countries. When you go to the United States, they even make you take off your shoes. Forget these places. The best thing that you can do is to invest and vacation here. We have excellent hotels. If you want, you can go to mosque; if you want, you can go to nightclubs.”[33]

Both Turkey and the Gulf states saw each other as a viable alternative to their old strategic partners in the West. The CEO of Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Trade Corporation, Talim Harb, expressed the hopes of many in Turkey and the Gulf when he declared in Istanbul in 2007, that “our relationship with Turks will be one of ‘win-win’ for both of us.”[34]

To date, this has proved true in terms of the bilateral financial relationship. Gulf corporations and individuals from Dubai, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have made billions of dollars of investments in Turkish real estate, banks, hospitals, and educational institutions. They have also bought large interests in prominent Turkish companies, such as Turkcell, the nation’s largest mobile phone provider.[35] According to Turkish government statistics, Gulf investments in Turkey grew from nearly nothing in 2003 to nearly $2 billion in 2008.[36]

Turkish companies were similarly successful in the Gulf. Turkish-Gulf trade grew from $17 billion in 1998 to $166 billion in 2008.[37] Turkish exports to the UAE alone grew from $239 million in 1998 to over $79 billion in 2008.[38] In 2004, Turkish companies were the seventh largest in terms of contracts awarded at the annual Gulf International Trade Show in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.[39] They have grown steadily ever since. In 2006, Baytur, a Turkish construction company, won a $124 million contract to build Qatar’s Islamic museum and a $245 million contract to build the Qatari national library.[40] That same year, a Turkish-Austrian company—Tepe, Akfen, Vie—won an $869 million contract to assist building a new terminal and to manage the international airport outside of Doha.[41]


As impressive as Turkey’s political and commercial cooperation has been with the Gulf since 2003, that relationship has significant political, economic, and ultimately cultural limitations. The most important limitation is Iran and its nuclear program. Ankara and the Gulf states do not agree on the basic threat represented by Iran and how to address it. While Turkey’s government has repeatedly expressed concern that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, it has argued that diplomatic engagement is the only path to resolving tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ankara refuses to back U.S. and international proposals to use diplomatic isolation, sanctions, or military action to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. It sees no need to serve as a Sunni counterweight to Tehran in the Gulf or Iraq. Ironically, this approach reflects the same logic that has driven Ankara’s successful approach to the Gulf, “the zero problem policy.” Iran is one of Turkey’s largest neighbors, is a profitable market for Turkish goods,[42] ships its gas via Turkey to Europe, and can help to manage the Kurds and Turkey’s southeast border.[43]

By contrast, Gulf Arabs view Iran, its nuclear power program, and regional influence as alarming and potentially apocalyptic. In their eyes, Iran helped to humiliate Sunni Arabs in Iraq, seeks to influence Shi‘a Muslims in Gulf states, and ultimately aims to expel Sunnis from the Arabian Peninsula.[44] Should a confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program reach a military crisis, Turkey and the GCC would pursue diametrically opposite positions. While Turkey worked to resolve the conflict peacefully with Tehran,[45] GCC military forces have conducted exercises with the U.S. navy in preparation for a military confrontation with Iran.[46] Such exercises exemplify the vitality of GCC security ties to the United States and the growing gap in Turkey’s relations with the GCC and the United States. Moreover, Gulf governments—unlike Iran—provided little public support for Ankara during the crisis that followed the Israeli interception of a Turkish-led flotilla heading to Gaza in June 2010.

Another significant limitation to Turkey’s relationship with the Gulf states is economic. Although Turkish trade with the Gulf has grown and Gulf foreign investment has increased rapidly in Turkey since 2003, neither comes close to matching that of the EU, individual European states, or the United States.[47] The EU accounted for 48 percent of Turkey’s trade in 2008,[48] while European investments in Turkey were six times larger than those of the GCC in 2008.[49] Nor have Gulf Arabs and their governments abandoned investments in Europe or North America. The United States also remains an important source of investment for the Gulf itself. These financial ties are reinforced by the fact that a key export of the GCC, petroleum, is bought and sold throughout the world in U.S. dollars. That linkage is unlikely to change soon.

Finally, U.S. and European institutional and cultural linkages built with Turkey and the GCC during the Cold War remain relevant today. Turkey is still part of the NATO alliance; Turkish links with the West remain strong. Military, cultural, and economic ties continue to bind the Europe and the United States to the Gulf states. One need only look at the fact Tayyip Erdogan sent his children to attend college not in the Gulf but in the United States—just as many of his colleagues in the Gulf continue to do so today. These relationships and interests will determine how things develop between Turkey and the Gulf states in future.