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Turkey and the GCC: language barrier hampers shared interests

In 2008, Turkey became the first country to have a mechanism of strategic dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

In 2008, Turkey became the first country to have a mechanism of strategic dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). With this strategic partnership, Turkey’s economic and political ties with the individual GCC countries strengthened in the recent years. As the Middle East went through critical times in the past few years, Turkey came out as the main reliable partner in the region that the GCC countries considered cooperating with.

However, despite the remarkable improvement in Turkey-GCC relations in the recent years, the harsh stance of Ankara towards the ousting of President Mohammad Mursi in Egypt and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bold remarks has put Turkey’s ties with the Gulf States -- excluding Qatar -- in a difficult situation and created dissatisfaction in anti-Brotherhood regimes in the Gulf. This dissatisfaction has reflected both politics and economic ties between Turkey and the Gulf with the latter withdrawing its investments from Turkey as an attempt to punish Erdogan’s government.

Last week, prominent academics from several Gulf countries came together with their Turkish counterparts at a workshop on “the Future of Turkey’s Model and Role” in United Arab Emirates organized by the Abu-Dhabi-based Emirates Policy Center. During the two-day long discussions at the workshop, Arab academics questioned the real motivation behind Turkey’s support to Ikhwan.

It seems Erdogan will continue to create distaste in the Gulf capitals in the coming months

Sinem Cengiz

According to them, unless the Turkish government changes its stance on Egypt, Gulf will not take a positive step towards Ankara any time soon. The Turkish stance on Egypt has led to the questioning of the Turkish sincerity in the region, said academics, adding that Erdogan’s abusing of Egypt during his election campaigns has irked the Gulf capitals.

Distaste in the Gulf

However, it seems Erdogan will continue to create distaste in the Gulf capitals in the coming months as he came out strong from the local elections held in March. Also, Turkey is approaching the presidential election, beating Egypt’s regime will be one of the main cards that Erdogan will use.

I believe that there is nothing wrong if a leader personally feels sympathy towards any Islamic movement, including Muslim Brotherhood. But this sympathy should not be reflected in country’s foreign policy and should not be used as a tool for domestic political gains. Furthermore, this sympathy should not be at the expense of losing friends in an already volatile region.

One participant said: “Turkey’s Islamic sensitivity in the region is important. However, when it pursues policies regarding the region, it should not ignore the realities on the ground. Turkey should more clearly explain its policy towards the region, we want to know it. We should be able to understand each other’s policies.

One of the major mistakes of the Turkish leadership in the Egyptian crisis was failing to read Gulf concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood. From the other side, Gulf countries failed to read the real reason behind Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Erdogan’s foreign policy rhetoric

Gulf leaderships should be able to understand that Erdogan’s foreign policy rhetoric is totally based on domestic political gains. Taking this into account, Gulf countries should not risk their ties with Turkey due to Erdogan’s policies; but, rather should establish long-term policies towards the country based on strategic calculations.

However, there is a deep the lack of knowledge and comprehensive understanding between Turkey and the Gulf stated towards each other’s priorities, agendas and capabilities in the region. This is the biggest sticking point in relations. The Egyptian crisis showed us that Turkey and Gulf actors are failing to develop realistic understanding and expectations of each other – which eventually undermined the mutual trust needed for furthering cooperation between two sides.

At the end of the day, Arab academics with their Turkish interlocutors came to a conclusion that Turkey and GCC ties should go beyond Turkish soap operas and, in order to overcome the knowledge gap between two sides, strong cultural and political ties should be established.

Issue of language

The first and foremost issue is language. There should be exchange programs between academics, students and journalists as a first step to overcome the language barrier. The two sides should ink cooperation deals on education. Not knowing the language, regardless of how much you have read up on it, will lead one to miss some points in interpreting the developments there. Knowing a language rescues one from being dependent on other sources.

Secondly, in order to have impact on the decision making process, efforts on the civil societal level should be increased by the non-governmental organizations. Civil society, academia and media could play a very significant role in cementing ties between Turkey and the Gulf countries. If both sides will solve the “lack of knowledge” issue, the conjunctural crisis between Turkey and the Gulf could be easily overcome. Both sides should assume the responsibility of not risking the ties that they have strived to cultivate in the past decade. I still believe that it is “better late than never” to overcome the misunderstandings between the two sides.

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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.