The Arab Center for research and policy studies held its third “Gulf Studies forum” on 03-05 December, 2016 in Doha.

Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, before delivering his keynotes at the opening of the conference, invited participants to join him in a moment of silence for innocent Arabs who lost their lives across the region. Bishara dedicated the gesture to those being killed by anti-democratic forces. His remarks were followed by the first of four sessions dedicated to the study of relations between the Gulf states and Turkey, organized in conjunction with SETA, the Turkey-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

Numerous speakers throughout made clear that bilateral relations between Turkey and individual Gulf states were almost completely centered on energy, including not only the export of hydrocarbons like oil and gas to Turkey from the Gulf states, but also the transit of Arab oil and gas via Turkish territory. The strength of interest in the specifically Turkish sessions during the meeting was also testament to a widely held belief that Tukey-Gulf ties would inevitably diversify and strengthen. If this seemed like a foregone conclusion to those assembled at the meeting in Doha, it also highlighted the counter-intuitive ways in which these ties had previously been dwarfed.

As Muhittin Ataman, the Head of the SETA institute, put it when responding to a question about Arab fears of Ankara’s regional resurgence: “Arabs have long viewed Turkey through a Western prism”. What was needed, instead, was for a strengthening and lateral expansion of Turkish-Arab and, in particular, Turkish-Gulf ties, which Ataman claimed would dispel Arab misconceptions about Turkey and her ambitions. Trans-national sectarian politics, however, made it difficult for all members of the audience to disregard the potential risks of greater Turkish involvement in Arab affairs. This came into sharp contrast when Ataman turned to Iran which he described as being responsible for the “instrumentalization” of Shia communities “living across the Gulf”. As one Bahraini audience member retorted, however, “it’s not that there are small Shia communities living in the Gulf, Shia Muslims form large and integral parts of our societies, and their loyalty is to the Arab nation”.

There have long been reasons for Arabs to be weary of Turkish intentions. As said by Suliman Al Atiqi, a Kuwaiti scholar speaking during the same day, Arab disenchantment with Turkey was born of Ankara’s unwillingness to back the anti-colonial efforts of the past: Ankara had repeatedly either opposed or abstained from UN General Assembly resolutions demanding Algerian independence and built robust military ties with Israel throughout the 1960s. the eventual thawing of Turkish-Arab relations, said Al Atiqi, which today has spilled over into the cultural realm, was rooted in turbulent international developments in the 1970s.

The first of these involved the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, which pushed up global energy prices and drove Ankara to realize how much it stood to gain from stronger ties with its Arab neighbors. The second involved the Turkish invasion and later occupation of Northern Cyprus. With its NATO alliance being cast into serious doubt, Turkey quickly understood that it needed to look for regional alternatives to its more fickle Western allies. The real opportunity for Ankara to integrate in the Arab regional order had to wait until 1990, when Turkish support for Operation Desert Storm paved the way for Turkish construction companies to take part in the reconstruction of Kuwaiti infrastructure.

Despite this, trade volume between Turkey and various Arab states, and especially in the Gulf, remained remarkably modest for over a decade. As pointed out by Khaled Shams Abdelkader, a Qatari academic speaking on the same panel as Al Atiqi, bilateral trade between Qatar and Turkey stood at a paltry $US 35 million in 2003, rising to over $1 billion today, covering everything from heavy machinery to consumer goods and furniture. This was mirrored, said Abdelkader, by the meteoric rise in the number of Qataris visiting Turkey, which rose to only 150 to over 25,000 during the same time period, and the prominent involvement of Turkish firms in Qatari infrastructure, including preparations for the 2022 World Cup. The real question, for Qatar as well as other Arab states, would be how much this would spill over into defense agreements and a growing sense of solidarity between Turkey, heir to the Ottoman legacy, and the Arab states.

Says Ataman, the growing bonds between Turkey and the Arab states had consequences for both sides, “there are today 1.5 million Arabs living in Istanbul alone”. Today, Ataman added, the Turkish government was even considering allowing university instruction in Arabic to account for refugees from the fallout of the Arab Spring, a move that would overturn a decades-old law in Turkey. “It’s not a simple question of imperialism” he insisted.

Participants at the 2016 Gulf Studies Forum, the third in a series of annual events, will continue their deliberations through Monday, December 5. As part of the event, the official Opening Ceremony of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies was attended by His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of Qatar.