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How Turkey is at the forefront of Gulf security alliances

Ankara already has a military base in Qatar. Could there be more to come across the region?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a speech in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on 15 February 2022 (AFP)

In recent years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman - have increased their military ties with Turkey

The Turkey-Qatar alliance in particular has grown robust over the past decade, culminating in the establishment of a 2014 defence pact, the deployment of Turkish troops in Doha during the 2017 GCC crisis, and the 2019 inauguration of a joint command headquarters at Khalid Bin Al Walid Military Camp.

As several GCC nations have been recalibrating their defence partnerships, Turkey has been at the forefront of this shift, seeking to solidify its position as a regional power. 

The evolving dynamics between Turkey and the Gulf states are emblematic of a larger geopolitical chess game. As the Middle East grapples with power vacuums and shifting allegiances, many nations are keen to forge new alliances and bolster existing ones. 

Turkey, with its strategic location and military prowess, has emerged as a sought-after partner for many GCC nations as they navigate the tumultuous waters of regional politics.

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Turkey’s military bases strategy has been a vital part of its efforts to thwart rising security threats and expand its influence across the region, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Qatar hosts Turkey’s first military base in the Gulf, but there could be more to come. 

Ankara has been open about its intentions to expand Turkey’s military partnerships in the Gulf. In 2017, as neighbouring states imposed a blockade against Qatar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that he had proposed establishing a Turkish military base on Saudi soil in 2015. In fact, the Saudis have been exploring a Turkish security option vis-a-vis the Iranian threat for quite some time.

Strengthened ties

According to declassified portions of a confidential document linked to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Saudis officially considered the option of Turkey as a security guarantor as early as 2011. Riyadh was looking beyond Washington for security assurances, given the instability wrought by the Arab uprisings, the absence of significant US forces in Saudi Arabia after the 2003 Iraq War, and renewed US diplomacy with Iran under the Obama administration.

While the Arab uprisings strained Turkish-Saudi relations, these ties have been strengthened since 2021, part of a pattern of de-escalation across the Middle East that was capped off by the recent Saudi-Iranian deal brokered by China. As nations recognise the benefits of increased regional cooperation, Turkey has stood out as a particularly valuable partner.

This past August, in an address marking the 101st anniversary of Turkey’s Victory Day, the Turkish ambassador to Kuwait, Tuba Sonmez, highlighted the burgeoning military and security ties between Turkey and Kuwait. She reportedly said Turkey would be ready to establish a military base in Kuwait, should the Gulf nation express such a desire.

The experiences of the past decade show that Turkey is committed to protecting its allies and friends in times of need

This would not be an unprecedented measure. Turkey has sent military advisers to Kuwait before in times of crisis, including in the early 1980s, amid efforts to contain the spillover effects of the Iranian revolution and to counter Soviet attempts to reach the Gulf after the invasion of Afghanistan. 

During the GCC crisis, Kuwait and Turkey each played a pivotal role in averting a military conflict. The geopolitical tremors of the time left smaller US-allied nations in the region questioning the reliability of American security guarantees. Rumours swirled in 2017 about Kuwait possibly seeking a Turkish military presence on its soil, a move seen at the time as a counterbalance to escalating tensions in the Gulf.

A well-informed Kuwaiti official said in 2017: “Kuwait cannot challenge Saudi Arabia the way some other Gulf countries have … Neither can we hedge our policies with Iran now, but enhanced relations with Turkey can help us. The huge uncertainty [among our neighbours] is scary; that’s why we have to prepare for undesirable consequences.” 

But amid fears that such a step would antagonise Riyadh, Kuwait looked elsewhere for a second layer of protection, with reports in 2018 pointing to a potential British naval base in the offing. While Kuwaiti officials played down these developments, the two nations resumed joint military training in 2022. 

Kuwait and Turkey did, however, sign a comprehensive joint defence pact in late 2018, underscoring their commitment to mutual security interests.

Strategic autonomy

Elsewhere in the region, the intra-GCC conflict and US-Iran escalation also had an impact. In 2020, rumours emerged that Oman, one of the top importers of Turkish military hardware at the time, might host a Turkish naval base. Neither country confirmed this. In fact, during the Gulf crisis, just like Kuwait, Oman sought an increased British military presence rather than asking for Turkish troops.

After the GCC crisis was resolved through the 2021 al-Ula agreement, Turkey’s defence relations with Kuwait were further strengthened. A joint military exercise that same year highlighted their shared strategic objectives. 

How Turkey has become a major player in Gulf regional security
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Another milestone came this year, as Kuwait joined the ranks of nations acquiring Turkey’s renowned Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which have been deployed in myriad conflicts from North Africa to Ukraine. The Turkish ambassador to Kuwait has been instrumental in fostering these defence ties.

Despite recent moves towards regional de-escalation, Iran remains a factor in this security calculus. In 2015, Kuwait charged more than two dozen people with “spying for the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah to carry out aggressive acts against the State of Kuwait”. The following year, amid a row between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the execution of a Shia cleric, Kuwait downgraded its diplomatic relations with Tehran, a step that was reversed six years later. 

While some Kuwaiti experts might think that the US presence in the small, oil-rich Gulf country is enough to deter any conventional foreign attacks, others believe such a dependence leaves Kuwait vulnerable.

Events such as the 2019 Iranian attacks against Saudi oil facilities have underscored the need for Gulf states to diversify defence alliances, rather than relying solely on western powers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have looked to Russia and China in this regard, while also investing in their own military-industrial capacities as part of their longer-term objectives of building strategic autonomy. 

Here, Turkey, with its proven track record and robust defence capabilities, presents a compelling proposition. The experiences of the past decade - in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Qatar, Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere - show that Turkey is committed to protecting its allies and friends in times of need, and that its support or intervention can be a game-changer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ali Bakir is a research assistant professor at Ibn Khaldun Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. He is following geopolitical and security trends in the Middle East, great power politics, small states' behaviour, emerging unconventional risks and threats, with a special focus on Turkey’s foreign and defence policies, Turkey-Arab and Turkey-Gulf relations. He tweets @AliBakeer
Robert Mason is non resident senior research fellow at Gulf Research Center, Jeddah.
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