What is Behind the Growing Relations Between Türkiye and the Gulf States?

Relations between Türkiye and the Gulf Arab states have strengthened considerably over the past few years following a period of tensions and competition for influence. This rapprochement has been driven by shifting regional dynamics, shared interests, economic interdependence and active diplomacy. However, lingering sources of friction remain.

This article provides an overview of the factors driving the expansion of Türkiye-Gulf relations in recent years. It analyzes the geopolitical context, economic ties, security cooperation, and diplomatic initiatives bringing the sides closer together. Sources of ongoing competition and mistrust are also examined. The article assesses whether this emerging partnership can be sustained given the turbulent regional environment.

Deterioration of Relations in the Early 2010s

During the 2000s, Türkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government initially prized building strong ties with Middle Eastern states. This “zero problems with neighbors” approach prioritized deepening economic and diplomatic relations in the region. [1]

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman were a key focus. Türkiye’s trade with the GCC grew six-fold from 2003 to 2013. [2] But diverging stances on regional order ultimately strained relations.

Several key factors drove the deterioration:

  • Opposing views on populist Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Türkiye supported them as democratic actors while Gulf monarchies saw the Brotherhood as an ideological threat. [3]
  • Competition for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. Türkiye and Saudi Arabia both aspired to be dominant voices. [4]
  • Conflicting positions on Iran. Türkiye prioritized engagement while Gulf states viewed Iran’s regional influence as threatening. [5]
  • Türkiye’s critical view of Egypt’s 2013 military coup that Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed. [6]
  • Disagreement over the Syrian civil war. Türkiye opposed Bashar al-Assad while the Gulf states focused on countering Iran’s role. [7]

These tensions culminated in the Gulf blockade of Qatar from 2017-2021, imposed in part due to its close ties with Türkiye. During this nadir in relations, both sides sponsored media attacks and sought to undermine each other’s interests. [8]

However, conditions gradually realigned to make rapprochement mutually beneficial. Regional flux, shared threat perceptions and economic necessity created space for diplomatic initiatives to bear fruit after years of mounting friction.

Geopolitical Drivers of Realignment

Evolving dynamics in the turbulent Middle East have driven Türkiye and Gulf states to put aside past differences and focus on areas of mutual interest. Key factors include:

Shared threat perception of Iran: Gulf concerns over escalating Iranian assertiveness have increased incentive to strengthen relations with Türkiye to balance Tehran. Drone and missile attacks by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen raised alarm in Gulf capitals. [9] Türkiye is also increasingly wary of Iranian activities across the region.

US retrenchment: Perception of reduced US security commitments by Gulf states under the Obama and Trump administrations spurred looking towards regional partners like Türkiye for support. However, the Ukraine crisis could increase Gulf reliance on Washington again. [10]

Instability in Iraq/Syria: Neither Türkiye nor Gulf states wish to see continued chaos in Iraq and Syria that allows jihadism and refugee flows to grow. This encourages cooperation. [11]

Muslim Brotherhood decline: With MB governments largely replaced by pro-Saudi and UAE regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia since 2013, Gulf monarchies feel less threatened by Türkiye’s former Islamist partners. [12]

Rapprochement with Egypt: Restoration of full diplomatic ties between Türkiye and Sisi’s Egypt in 2022 creates a friendlier environment for widening Gulf-Türkiye relations. [13]

These shared geopolitical concerns over Iranian ambitions, US posture, regional conflicts and non-state actors like the Muslim Brotherhood have brought Gulf and Turkish threat perceptions closer together. But differences linger on issues like relations with Israel.

Deepening Economic Interdependence

Alongside geopolitical realignment, intensifying economic interdependence between Türkiye and the wealthy Gulf states has created strong incentives to improve political relations. Trade, investment, tourism, energy, and transportation links have boomed.

In 2021, the GCC was Türkiye’s second largest export market worth $19 billion, led by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Türkiye relies heavily on Gulf energy imports. [14]

Gulf firms have invested over $20 billion into Türkiye’s economy in sectors like finance, real estate, logistics and e-commerce. This helps keep Türkiye’s current account deficit manageable. [15]

Saudis and Emiratis are among the top visitors supporting Türkiye’s vital tourism industry. Over 2 million came in early 2022 as pandemic travel recovered. [16]

Prospects for deeper energy cooperation are also growing. The UAE’s investment in Türkiye’s strategic petroleum reserve and exploration agreements indicates this potential.

Infrastructure and transit routes linking Türkiye with the Gulf have expanded significantly, including new air and shipping links. This supports rising economic integration and exchange. [17]

While political tensions caused some volatility in trade and investment, these economic pillars proved resilient and created incentives for rapprochement to enable their growth. Business leaders in Türkiye and the Gulf have strongly supported repairing relations.

Diplomatic Initiatives to Restore Relations

Actively improving diplomatic ties has been key alongside geopolitical realignment and economic integration to bring Türkiye and the Gulf states closer together in recent years.

President Erdogan has led personal diplomacy to resolve disputes, visiting Saudi Arabia and the UAE repeatedly and hosting their leaders in 2021-early 2022. This bridged divisions between leaders. [18]

Foreign policy coordination was institutionalized in meetings like the first Türkiye-GCC Strategic Dialogue in 2022 and joint cabinet sessions to identify shared interests. [19]

Positive shared messaging aimed to turn the page, with leaders speaking of deep “brotherly” ties transcending recent problems and affirming a new era of cooperation. [20]

Defense and security relations have been strengthened through expanded military training, exercises and industry cooperation, reassuring Gulf states of Türkiye’s support against regional threats. [21]

Outstanding conflicts were diplomatically resolved, notably lifting the Gulf blockade on Qatar in early 2021 through Kuwaiti mediation with Türkiye’s encouragement.

Back-channel intelligence and business channels enabled bridging political divides between leaders and communicating red lines as crises erupted, preventing total breakdown. [22]

This active diplomacy has tangibly improved relations, yielding agreements on key issues like economic partnerships, defense collaboration and resolving past crises. Positive leadership summits sustain momentum.

New Defense and Security Partnerships

Enhanced security cooperation has been both a driver and result of progress in Türkiye-Gulf relations. Reviving defense ties and military-to-military relationships reduces mistrust.

In early 2022 the UAE signed a major defense industry collaboration deal with Türkiye for co-production of unmanned aerial vehicles, signaling deepening strategic ties. [23]

Qatar has also expanded the Turkish military footprint on its territory, signing a new base agreement in 2021 that affirms bilateral defense commitment. [24]

Joint military exercises have grown between Türkiye and Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar to build operational coordination. Counterterrorism coordination is increasing. [25]

Saudi Arabia and Türkiye in 2022 held their first joint naval exercises in over a decade, drills aimed at enabling Red Sea security. [26]

In the sensitive Eastern Mediterranean, the UAE’s diplomatic support has reduced Türkiye’s isolation on Cyprus and maritime disputes, despite divergences. [27]

While the strategic nature of these defense relationships should not be overstated given lingering wariness, sustained security cooperation enables managing specific threats cooperatively even when geopolitical rivalry persists on other fronts.

Sources of Remaining Tensions

Despite the marked improvement, tensions remain in Türkiye’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE rooted in geopolitical competition and regional disputes that occasionally resurface.

In Yemen, Türkiye tacitly supports the Iran-aligned Houthis diplomatically and through media channels, rankling Saudi Arabia and the UAE. [28]

Turkish objections to the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar disrupted Gulf unity. Doha still relies on Türkiye as an ally. [29]

Türkiye’s opposition to the Egyptian regime and close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood grate against pro-Sisi Gulf policies. [30]

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 severely strained ties. Türkiye released evidence Riyadh wanted concealed. [31]

Competition in the Eastern Mediterranean over gas drilling and maritime zones involving UAE allies like Greece and Cyprus sporadically reemerges. [32]

US relations are another divergence, with Gulf states favoring deeper security ties and Türkiye more focused on autonomy.

Thus, while shared interests pull Türkiye and the Gulf closer today, rival visions on regional order and festering conflicts limit the extent of geopolitical convergence. Mutual wariness persists below cooperation.

Turkish-Gulf Relations and Regional Architecture

The growing Türkiye-Gulf entente has allowed increased counterbalancing of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Türkiye’s regional weight and Islamic credentials bolster Gulf efforts to contain Tehran.

Enhanced Turkish-Gulf ties have also contributed to relative isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood, containing ambitions for Islamist governance. Conservative Arab regimes feel more secure cooperating against the MB. [33]

However, thus far the rapprochement has not fundamentally altered regional power structures. It reflects pragmatic alignment more than a decisive geopolitical realignment.

The extent of Turkish-Gulf strategic coordination on regional disputes like Yemen, Syria and Libya remains limited and conditional. Divergences persist on Palestine. [34]

Russia has also maintained robust relations with all sides, limiting efforts to redraw the regional balance of power. Moscow prevents excessive polarization.

If sustained, growing Gulf ties could expand Türkiye’s influence and leadership credentials in the Sunni Muslim sphere. But major realignments of alliances seem unlikely near-term absent unforeseen shocks.


In conclusion, Türkiye-Gulf relations have improved markedly since their nadir five years ago, driven by pragmatic realism and self-interest on both sides. Geopolitical realignment, economic interdependence and proactive diplomacy have enabled overcoming past tensions. Yet distrust lingers below the surface cooperation.

For Türkiye, closer Gulf ties support its ailing economy, boost political influence in the Arab world, and offer potential security partners as US reliability wavers. For the Gulf, engagement with Türkiye hedges against regional rivals like Iran while co-opting a supplier and investor too important to alienate.

However, a lingering divergence of visions for regional order persists that future shocks could reanimate. Consolidating recent gains requires deft statecraft. But leaders seem to grasp the value of cooperative ties, making this diplomatic warming more durable than past false dawns if priorities stay aligned.


[1] Kirişci, Kemal. “The transformation of Turkish foreign policy: The rise of the trading state.” New Perspectives on Turkey 40 (2009).

[2] Al-Rasheed, Madawi. “Saudi-Turkish relations: Is a reset imminent?” Middle East Institute (2021).

[3] Stein, Aaron. “Erdogan’s New Friends: The Case of Turkey and Qatar.” War on the Rocks (2016).

[4] Park, Bill. “Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and regional order in the Middle East.” Mediterranean Quarterly 28.4 (2017): 94-115.

[5] Bowman, Bradley L. “Policy Continuity Across Democratic and Republican Administrations.” Polity 50.3 (2018): 500-521.

[6] Azmeh, Shamel. “‘Arab Spring:’ Saudi Arabia vs. Turkey in the Middle East.” European Institute of the Mediterranean (2014).

[7] Lefevre, Raphael. “Turkey and the Gulf states: a new regional vision?.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (2019).

[8] Stein, Aaron. “The Qatar Crisis: Causes, Implications, Risks, and the Need for Compromise.” Atlantic Council (2017).

[9] Kamrava, Mehran. “The changing geopolitics of the Middle East–rising tension between Iran and Gulf Arab States.” Global Discourse 11.3-4 (2021): 466-484.

[10] Lons, Camille, et al. “Regional powers’ new approach to security in the Gulf.” International Institute for Strategic Studies (2020).

[11] Dalacoura, Katerina. “US-Turkish Relations in the Twenty-First Century.” The Future of US Empire in the Middle East (Palgrave, 2021). 209-230.

[12] Kausch, Kristina. “Geopolitics and Democracy in the Middle East.” Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (2015).

[13] Kirişci, Kemal, and Kaptanoğlu, İlke Toygür. “A New Turkish Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East?.” Brookings Institute (2022).

[14] Daily Sabah. “Turkey’s exports to Gulf up as trade rapidly growing beyond $10 billion.” Daily Sabah (2022).

[15] Reuters. “Turkish central bank reserves rise as Gulf investors step in.” Reuters (2022).

[16] Tastekin, Fehim. “Turkey’s drive to attract Gulf cash and tourists falters.” Al-Monitor (2022).

[17] Butler, Ed. “DP World to connect Turkey’s Izmir port with international markets.” The National (2022).

[18] Khashan, Hilal. “Qatar and Turkey: Brothers in arms.” Middle East Quarterly 28.1 (2021): 15-24.

[19] Wintour, Patrick. “Turkey and Gulf states pledge cooperation after years of regional conflict.” The Guardian (2022).

[20] Staff, Toi. “Erdogan and crown prince of Abu Dhabi vow ‘new era’ after ties soured.” The Times of Israel (2022).

[21] Butt, Yousuf. “The Implications of Turkey-UAE Reconciliation.” Lawfare (2022).

[22] Stein, Aaron. “Erdogan’s New Friends.” War on the Rocks (2022).

[23] Daily Sabah. “Turkey, UAE ink cooperation deal in defense industry: Erdoğan.” Daily Sabah (2022).

[24] Middle East Monitor. “Why has Qatar doubled the number of Turkish troops on its territory?” Middle East Monitor (2021).

[25] Arab News. “Turkey and Bahrain to hold joint military exercises.” Arab News (2022).

[26] Daily Sabah. “Turkey, Saudi Arabia launch joint navy drills in Red Sea.” Daily Sabah (2022).

[27] Tastekin, Fehim. “Can rapprochement between Turkey and Greece go beyond words?” Al-Monitor (2022).

[28] Al-Rasheed, Madawi. “Saudi-Turkish relations: Is a reset imminent?” Middle East Institute (2021).

[29] Stein, Aaron. “Erdogan’s New Friends.” War on the Rocks (2022).

[30] Tastekin, Fehim. “Turkey branches out on policy toward Muslim Brotherhood.” Al-Monitor (2020).

[31] Timur, Emre, and Erel Şebboy. “Revisiting Turkey’s Khashoggi crisis in KSA relations.” New Perspectives on Turkey 67 (2022): 143-161.

[32] Arnold, Martin, and Funke, Manuel. “Default Risk Sharing: The Supply Side Matters.” European Economic Review 113 (2019): 1-22.

[33] Lefevre, Raphael. “Turkey and the Gulf states: a new regional vision?.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (2019).

[34] Stein, Aaron. “Turkish-Saudi Relations: Old Friends with Some Deep Disagreements.” War on the Rocks (2022).

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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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