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Turkish-Kuwaiti ties: riding out the storm

Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a three-day official visit to Kuwait, despite tensions with other GCC countries

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a three-day official visit to Kuwait, from April 1-3, on the invitation of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. Kuwait was the first Middle Eastern country that the top Turkish official visited following the nationwide local elections in Turkey on March 30.

Gul visited the tiny energy-rich Gulf country with four ministers and a large delegation of businessmen. Turkish and Kuwait officials signed four agreements on crucial areas, such as cooperation on military training, press and information, archives and maritime transportation.

Although Gul visited the Gulf country to reciprocate the Kuwaiti emir’s visit to Turkey last April, the visit had symbolic importance and carried significant messages to the regional countries.

The visited didn’t only coincide with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, but also took place at a time when Turkey’s relations with the Gulf countries have been strained due to disagreements on Egypt.

Along with other Gulf States, Kuwait, which has deep concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and its influence in the region, also took sides with the new regime in Cairo after the ousting of the Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi last year and has provided financial aid to the country. On the other side, Turkey has emerged as one of the fiercest international critics of Mursi’s removal, calling it an “unacceptable coup.”

Slow and sure policy

However, Kuwait didn’t adopt a sharp rhetoric in its Egypt policy, rather it preferred to pursue a more “slow and sure” policy towards the country. Also, Kuwait, a country aspiring to take on a larger Mideast regional diplomatic role, comes to the forefront with its efforts to mediate between conflicting parties in the region.

The visit took place at a time when Turkey’s relations with the Gulf countries have been strained

Sinem Cengiz

Despite the fact that Turkey and Kuwait may have adopted opposing attitudes over the ousting of Mursi, the two countries are dependent on each other due to their respective foreign policy interests.

For Kuwait’s part, the Gulf country considers Turkey as a strong balancing power in the region against the policies of the Shiite bloc, namely Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Kuwait, which has a considerable Shiite population, sees the Shiite-dominated policies of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, known to be close to Syrian regime’s main ally Iran, as a danger to its stability and security.

In need of cooperating with Turkey

Kuwait perceives Iran, which sees the Gulf as its own backyard and believes it has a legitimate interest in expanding its influence there, as a vital threat and is searching for a reliable partner with which it can strengthen its ties to counterforce the Shiite threat. In steps Turkey.

Iranian influence on the Shiite population in the Gulf states, Iraq’s monopolizing policies in the region and most importantly the economic interests push Kuwait to disregard Turkey’s Egypt policy and cooperate with Ankara.

Therefore, in order to maintain the balance in the region, Kuwait is in need of cooperating with Turkey, while this cooperation also complies with Turkey’s foreign interests.

As stated, Gul’s visit lasted for three days and several meetings took place between the officials of two countries. Egypt was indeed a certain topic on table to be discussed. The visit provided a chance for officials to discuss Egypt in depth.

What I heard from a Turkish official was that Kuwait may not even consider providing financial aid to Cairo after the presidential elections due to take place in late May, differently from the Gulf countries.

Business ties

During the visit, another important development was that a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of a Turkish company’s project called ‘‘Small Boat Harbor’’. The project, carried out by Turkish company STFA with Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), aims to build the one of the largest harbors in the world and will support Kuwait’s expansion of oil production.

The construction of the harbor was suspended for a while due to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bold statement over Egypt, but re-started after the visit of Gul, who stated during the ceremony of the project and his own visit would contribute to the reinforcement of Turkey-Kuwait relations.

Meanwhile, beside the economic ties, Turkey’s pursuit of selling some its “top-notch” defense systems has also dominated the visit. A large delegation of defense company representatives accompanied Gul during his Kuwait visit, with the aim of clinching new contracts and developing arms systems with the Gulf country. Turkey and Kuwait signed a defense agreement last year during the emir’s visit.

Also, Turkey is apprising for three tenders in Kuwait. Turkish officials are optimistic about hearing a positive response from the Kuwaiti side.

It is not a secret that Gul is a favored Turkish official in the eyes of Arab leaderships, which took a critical stance against Erdogan after the Turkish prime minister’s harsh rhetoric towards Egypt.

“Kuwait in specific has been an issue of key importance since the beginning of my political career. The region is going through a critical period which requires coordination and consultation between Turkey and Kuwait,” said Gul in a meeting with editors-in-chief of Kuwaiti newspapers.

Gul has used his Kuwait visit as an opportunity to convey Turkey’s messages to the region. In this visit, Gul had three messages: “First: We agree to disagree on Egypt but the business should go on. Second: We may have strained relations with other Gulf countries, but our cooperation with Kuwait would be maintained. Three: We are aware of the importance of energy in the world; therefore Kuwait provides business opportunities in the energy sector for Turkish entrepreneurs as it has the world’s sixth largest oil reserves.” Meanwhile, the message that Kuwait gave in response was: “we will not risk our political and economic ties with Turkey while the situation in Egypt has not been settled down.”

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Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the most circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.