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Turkey should lobby Saudi Arabia for GCC ties

Today’s Zaman, Turkey

Turkey should lobby Saudi Arabia for GCC ties

By Abdullah Bozkurt

11 December 2010

Abu Dhabi — I followed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit held in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital, last week and had a chance to see firsthand how the leaders of oil-rich Gulf Arab countries conducted the meeting against the backdrop of the challenges facing the Middle East.

It was unfortunate that the GCC failed to conclude free trade agreement (FTA) talks with Turkey that started half a decade ago and could not produce any concrete results under the strategic dialogue agreement signed in 2008 in Jeddah. The closing statement of the summit just limited itself to welcoming the results of the ministerial meeting held in Kuwait two months ago, a mere lip service to the discussions between the GCC and Turkey.

Through its bilateral ties with individual GCC member states, Turkey has enhanced cooperation in a way unlike anything we had seen in the past century thanks to the renewed interest of Ankara, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in the regional politics of the Middle East. However, the success in bilateral ties has failed to transform itself into a success story in the GCC bloc.

The next summit will be held in Saudi Arabia in 2011 and Turkey should actively lobby Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC — which also includes the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar — to further cooperation with the six-nation bloc. I believe that the political dynamics and economic interests dictate a closer engagement between Turkey and the GCC countries as their interests in the region have converged immensely in recent years.

Given the expansion of Iran’s influence in the region and its controversial nuclear program, Turkey offers a counterbalance to the growing clout of Tehran and surely the Gulf can use this Turkish addition in its future calculations. The GCC was set up in 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution, to stem the militant Shiite regime’s pervasive efforts to penetrate into the Gulf. Three decades later, the perception of the Iranian threat to Gulf nations has not diminished but has grown.

The GCC placed the Iranian threat at the top of its agenda, above the UAE’s territorial dispute over three tiny islands in the Gulf (which were occupied by Iran), the meddling into Palestine and Lebanon and Iraqi affairs, and urged member states to take action to curb Iranian engagement in the Middle East. According to WikiLeaks, the GCC leaders secretly pleaded with the United States to use force to take out the alleged nuclear capability of Iran and threw money around all over to limit the Islamic regime’s influence in the region. On top of that, the GCC countries invested billions in missile defense technology to shield themselves against possible Iranian aggression.

Sandwiched between the pressure applied by the West and the growing Iranian influence in the region, Turkey has uniquely positioned itself to offer a third alternative to the GCC countries: engagement with Iran. Turkey has considerable credit with the Iranian leadership and can talk bluntly and frankly with Tehran to get it to exercise self-restraint and take a reserved approach in dealing with the region lest the Sunni Arab regimes become increasingly worried about Iran’s intentions. No other country in the region, or in the world, can talk to the Iranians and make headway in convincing the leadership to use restraint in dealings in the region, albeit to a limited success.

The GCC does not seem to be fully aware of the benefits Turkey can bring to the table. The key to the Middle East peace process also lies with Ankara’s successful engagement with Syria, whose dispute with Israel can only be settled after Turkey resolves Israel’s water problem, which will happen once Israel gives up the Golan Heights. Water is also becoming a rare commodity in the GCC market, as was emphasized during the last summit of the GCC, and Turkey is blessed with an abundance of water resources in the region.

Turkey played well with Saudi Arabia in keeping the fragile peace in Lebanon and mediated between Riyadh and Damascus to smooth out problems. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in the potential use of its leverage within the GCC to drive other members into further engaging with Turkey, which would benefit the GCC as a bloc as well. Political dialogue with the GCC should be accompanied by closer economic cooperation and both the GCC countries and Turkey can benefit from increased trade and investment.

It appears there is enough political will in the GCC but cumbersome bureaucracy has been hampering progress, as we saw in the FTA negotiations. The leaders of the Gulf countries must weigh in to cut the red tape in doing business with Turkey. Hopefully the new secretary-general of the GCC, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani from Bahrain, understands the stakes here and will fare much better in handling Turkey than the outgoing secretary-general, Abdulrahman Al Attiyah.