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A New Regionalism: Türkiye and the Gulf Cooperation Council

28 Jun 2024

A New Regionalism: Türkiye and the Gulf Cooperation Council

28 Jun 2024

Türkiye’s relationship with the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has expanded exponentially in the last two decades. This expansion is in part the product of natural progression, with several Gulf Arab states attaining independence from the late 1970s onward. Türkiye’s interest in the region began growing in this formative period and has peaked under the leadership of the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Today, Türkiye’s various relations with member states of the GCC showcase an extensive variety of strategic, political, economic and defense ties. Ankara’s relationship with Gulf capitals occupies a significant portion of the country’s strategic rationale. Türkiye’s activist regional policy is intrinsically linked to bilateral arrangements with several Gulf capitals, adding yet another layer to the relationship. These arrangements have proliferated and grown in significance as part of the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, a direct result of diminishing American presence and less reliance on Washington’s overall leadership.

This paper considers Türkiye-GCC ties on three fronts. First, it considers the novel regional setting of relations—the context that has allowed the undeniable flourishing of strategic ties between Ankara and Gulf Arab capitals. Türkiye and the GCC states have been navigating the strategic departure of the U.S. in distinct manners—yet both parties have done so with the goal of achieving enhanced security and effectively managing risks. The second section considers the nexus of Türkiye-GCC ties: Trade. In 2023, the trade volume between Türkiye and the Gulf Arab states was valued at over US$22 billion,[1] an amount that is set to grow further with the introduction of free trade arrangements (FTA), increasing defense expenditure on the part of the Gulf and a broad program of monetary rationalization in Türkiye. The final parameter discussed in this paper is the growing defense ties between Türkiye and the GCC. GCC member states show a strong desire for Turkish defense products, grounding the relationship in a new political economy that meshes several strategic aspects into a cluster for cooperation.

As Türkiye-GCC ties appear to be on course to continue expanding and benefiting from the strong interest of Turkish and Gulf leadership, this paper also offers a series of policy recommendations for the future of ties. Namely, it calls for the institutionalization of cooperation between Türkiye and the GCC through various mechanisms. While Ankara enjoys extremely close relations with several Gulf capitals, a routine and structured relationship with the GCC administrations would add a layer of potent multilateralism to ties.

Finally, the paper argues that Türkiye-GCC ties constitute a new regionalism in the form of diversified security and strategic arrangements amongst Middle Eastern states. This trend fits into wider strands of multilateralism and the multiplication of hedging middle powers in the emerging global order. It is also concurrent with the increasing autonomy of both Türkiye and select GCC member states, namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Mapping the new regionalism

The U.S.’ diminishing presence in the Middle East multiplied security anxieties amongst Washington’s key allies in the region, which include Ankara and the various Gulf capitals. This anxiety has in turn given way to a new sense of regionalism, emerging as a form of necessity but then becoming the cornerstone of the Middle East’s political setting. Increasingly, actors across the Middle East are looking inward, seeking novel bilateral arrangements that diminish security risks. The Abraham Accords, Ankara’s drive to normalize and subsequently vastly improve ties with various regional capitals and intra-Gulf normalization following the Qatar crisis can all be named examples of this very drive.[2]

This new regionalism has taken effect as American allies in the Middle East increasingly face a mismatch between their expectations and the U.S.’ willingness to address them. This is apparent across several fault lines that impact both Türkiye and the member states of the GCC. In Syria, Türkiye and the U.S. continue to navigate drastically distinct positions on the status of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Ankara arguing that the entity has undeniable links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This impasse has confined Türkiye-U.S. relations on regional cooperation, prompting Ankara to seek alliances with Arab partners as a balancing mechanism against the growing rift with the U.S.

Gulf capitals faced a similar struggle with the U.S. at the onset of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action[3] (JCPOA), fearing a resurgent Iran that would become financially capable. Indeed, largely to the displeasure of the U.S., GCC member states enjoy extensive relations with America’s rivals, China and Russia, again seeking to balance their portfolio of relations. Such episodes have inadvertently pushed Abu Dhabi and Riyadh closer to Ankara. With Türkiye unsuccessful in shaping American policy in the region, President Erdoğan turned to influential powers in the vicinity, seeking alignment in regional policy. This can largely be ascertained as the reasoning behind the extensive diplomatic process that ushered in a new era in relations with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Ankara’s relations with GCC capitals have flourished in this setting of mutual security anxieties exacerbated by Washington’s unwillingness to sustain a direct presence in the region. In various conflicts across the region, both the influence of Türkiye and the Gulf can be felt acutely and often simultaneously. This is apparent across Syria and Libya, where Türkiye’s activist foreign policy necessitates strategic coordination with Gulf capitals.

This new regionalism also came into effect during President Erdoğan’s latest visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Erdoğan, who was joined by Emirati Energy Minister Suhail Mohamed Al Mazrouei and Qatari Transport Minister Jassim bin Saif bin Ahmed Al Sulaiti in signing a memorandum on the “Development Road”[4] project. The “Development Road” oversees the construction of mass infrastructure linking the Gulf to European markets via Türkiye. While the project currently stands in the preliminary phase, its promulgation remains significant, nonetheless. Regional states look poised to steer the political and economic agenda of the Middle East.

Economic anchoring

Türkiye-GCC ties benefit from perpetually expanding trade relations, grounding the relationship. Geographic proximity and the natural overlap of business sectors have created a large trade zone between the two entities. Ankara’s most significant economic partner in the GCC is the UAE, a product of the UAE’s strong non-oil economy and the multiplicity of Turkish businesses functioning in the Emirates. This relationship was crowned last year with the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement[5] (CEPA). The CEPA will have been in effect for a year by September 2024, likely resulting in the highest trade volume ever recorded between the two countries. Already, Türkiye-UAE trade in 2023 had reached over US$15 billion,[6] constituting the largest portion of Ankara’s trade within the GCC. This amount makes the UAE one of Türkiye’s most significant trading partners and vice versa. The visibility of Turkish businesses in the Emirates, and recent reports on an impending financial acquisition in Türkiye’s banking sector by First Abu Dhabi Bank[7] (FAB) are testament to this. The UAE is followed by Saudi Arabia,[8] Qatar and Oman in the total volume of trade.

The Türkiye-UAE CEPA serves as a model for furthering economic relations between Türkiye and other countries in the Arab Gulf. Again, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and linked projects such as NEOM and Mukaab serve as opportunities for Türkiye. The mass resurrecting of Saudi infrastructure and cityscapes could benefit from the extensive network of Turkish construction enterprises functioning across the region.

Türkiye-GCC trade ties are vivid and wide-encompassing. Ankara’s economic rationale does not merely perceive the GCC as a source for energy imports; rather, it views the GCC as a significant market for Turkish goods and services. The relative ease of access to these markets has made such investments abundant. Türkiye and the GCC now cooperate on strategically significant economic sectors such as defense and food security. While defense ties are discussed in length below, cooperation in the food industry is worth noting in this section. The UAE’s first processed cheese factory is operated by the Turkish “Pınar”[9] and functions as a hub for exports to other regional states as well. Turkish expertise in the agriculture and food sectors is an asset for GCC member states, which are in the process of rationalizing the political economy of food sourcing as part of wider long-term strategic thinking.

Defense ties

Türkiye’s ties to the region surpass the fields of economic cooperation and showcase a genuine strategic outlook on the Gulf. This was apparent in Ankara’s ratification of troop deployment into Qatar in 2017—with a Turkish military base in operation in the country. Gulf states have also become Türkiye’s homegrown defense industry’s largest clients in terms of acquisition and prospects for co-production. Four of the six GCC member states operate Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) produced by Baykar Industries, namely the TB-2. There is a significant amount of cross-sector cooperation between Türkiye and GCC states as well. Qatar owns a 49% stake in BMC, formerly the British Motor Company in Türkiye, one of Türkiye’s largest manufacturers of military vehicles. Again, the UAE’s EDGE group has been cooperating with Baykar Industries in equipping TB-2 and Akıncı units with Emirati-produced Al Tariq P3 and P5 payloads. As per recent developments, Baykar has agreed to a co-production agreement for Akıncı UAVs with Saudi defense authorities, undertaking a massive leap[10] in expanding the sector’s footprint.

There are several reasons for the burgeoning defense relationship between Ankara and the Gulf capitals. First is the relative competitiveness of Turkish defense products, and particularly UAVs. Gulf Arab states are some of the largest defense spenders on a per capita basis and have long-term defense acquisition needs that necessitate the diversification of their portfolios. Second is the ease of exports, a major marker of distinction from the Gulf’s defense acquisitions from the West. Turkish defense exports are not scrutinized by the parliament, and delivery follows shortly after the agreement. This is in stark contrast to acquisitions from the U.S., which are under heavy Congressional scrutiny and often follow mass politicization in the American political sphere. Erdoğan’s mass influence on the Turkish defense sector and family links to the sector’s most successful export firm, Baykar, ensure the sustained delivery of products to government clients.

Prospects and scenarios

There is a myriad of opportunities for the future of Türkiye-GCC ties. Recently, both sides began exploratory talks on a bloc-wide[11] FTA. This is a significant development that would add to the lack of institutional framework in the Türkiye-GCC relationship. Regular forums between the two parties, such as an annual meeting of heads of state, foreign ministers, and finance ministers, could follow as part of the proceedings. A bloc-wide FTA with Türkiye could easily see trade volume double or even triple. Türkiye and the GCC could function as a loose bloc in navigating the intricacies of international trade, motivating allies in the West to align with said initiatives as well.

Indeed, more cohesion between Türkiye and the Gulf capitals could act to influence U.S. policy in the region as well. Ankara and GCC capitals suffer from the same mismatch in expectations from the U.S. Often, the U.S. domestic political sphere, the institutional positions of U.S. government departments and a general ignorance of the nuances in the Middle East have created discord between the region and Washington. There is likely merit in Türkiye, the GCC and the U.S. establishing forms of regular trilateral communication to address crises in the region. Such a forum could greatly assist in addressing the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Gaza.

Syria is an intriguing case in which Türkiye-Gulf cooperation will likely assert itself in the short term. As the Arab world moves to readmit Syria into its ranks, Türkiye could benefit from this trend. Ankara has also shown an interest in re-evaluating ties with the government in Damascus, though these endeavors have largely failed. The political tracks originating from Tehran and Moscow have failed to secure an arrangement between Ankara and Damascus, despite a clear indication that Türkiye is interested in normalizing ties.[12] The Arab Gulf states could aid in this endeavor, particularly now that Saudi Arabia has reopened its embassy in Damascus.

A diplomatic meeting between Turkish and Syrian officials appears more likely to be in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh rather than Moscow or Tehran. This new regionalism could aid in Ankara’s efforts to establish a lasting solution to its security dilemma over Syria, with ventures involving Russia and Iran largely proving to be ineffective. Ankara’s security guarantees could be met in a format that involves a wider Gulf Arab consensus. Indeed, it is likely that Türkiye and the Gulf will spearhead efforts to rebuild the war-torn country once a comprehensive political settlement is reached, creating yet another opening for likely cohesion. Türkiye and Qatar[13] already extensively cooperate on the matter of reconstruction and providing housing for displaced Syrians. A similar rationale could be employed over the conflict in Libya, another theater in the Middle East in which Türkiye is directly involved. Türkiye and the GCC could push for a comprehensive political settlement, combining their influences to motivate Libya’s various stakeholders.


The scarcity of prosperity and enduring stability in the Middle East makes Türkiye and the Arab Gulf unique entities on their own. Both are well integrated into the global economic system and boast some of the region’s wealthiest areas. All Gulf-Arab states have a strategic relationship with the U.S., with some named major non-NATO allies. Türkiye itself remains one of Washington’s closest partners in the region and NATO’s easternmost flank. This mutuality has in essence pushed Ankara and the Gulf closer, building on what is essentially a shared worldview bound by a common interest in seeing the international order sustained. The emergence of revisionism in the region and the proliferation of security risks associated with the U.S.’ unwillingness to take on an active role have hastened this union.

This new regionalism is not necessarily a challenge to the U.S. lead order, nor is it meant to replace the security arrangements that each GCC state and Türkiye maintain with Washington. However, given the U.S.’ ambiguous position on the region, and the uncertainties of the American political system, states sharing similar goals are expected to continue aligning to overcome widespread security anxiety. In this sense, Türkiye and the GCC are also poised to steer U.S. policy—at times as a joint front in addressing common challenges. An institutional format in Türkiye-GCC links would be a major step forward in establishing an effective political dialogue with the U.S., serving both Gulf and Turkish interests.

While the expansion of Türkiye-GCC ties is indeed structural at their inception point, both parties have now evolved to complement one another and moved beyond circumstances of mere pragmatism and statecraft. The economies of the GCC and Türkiye are poised to further integrate, building on the prospect of an eventual bloc-wide FTA. The CEPA signed between Ankara and Abu Dhabi continues to function as a model in this regard. If negotiations on a bloc-wide FTA are indeed finalized, the trend of regionalism will have furthered, indeed marking a first in the GCC’s history of inking a bloc-wide FTA with a regional state.

Building on the solid ground of trade links, Türkiye-GCC ties are at an unprecedented peak, largely as the result of effective leadership diplomacy. Now, there is an opportunity to institutionalize the relationship to secure its viability for the next generation of political elites. Indeed, as Türkiye and the Gulf further integrate on security cooperation and move to jointly steer the regional agenda, such institutional grounding will emerge as a necessity.

[1] “Türkiye’s trade volume with GCC countries surges 11-fold,” Daily Sabah, November 12, 2023,

[2] Galip Dalay, “Turkey’s Middle East Reset: A Precursor for Re-Escalation?,” Middle East Council on Global Affairs, August 9, 2022,

[3] Tobias Brock, “The Gulf States and the Iran Nuclear Deal: Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, November 29, 2021,

[4] “Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, UAE sign preliminary deal to cooperate on Development Road project,” Reuters, April 22, 2024,

[5] Gavin Gibbon, “UAE-Turkey Cepa deal to boost non-oil trade to $40bn,” Arabian Gulf Business Insight, March 3, 2023,

[6] Gökhan Ergöçün, “Türkiye-UAE trade volume this year to hit $15B, says Turkish trade minister,” Anadolu Agency, October 31, 2023,

[7] Archana Narayanan, Nicolas Parasie, and Inci Ozbek, “First Abu Dhabi Bank Said to Eye Turkey for Overseas Push,” Bloomberg, April 5, 2024,

[8] Övünç Kutlu, “Türkiye aims to raise trade volume with Saudi Arabia to $30B: Vice president,” Anadolu Agency, February 15, 2024,

[9] Nilanjana Gupta, “Inside UAE’s first processed cheese factory,” The National, February 4, 2024,

[10] Batu Coşkun, “Turkey’s Military-Industrial Complex: Drones, Diplomacy and Succession,” TRENDS Research & Advisory, April 22, 2024,

[11] “Turkey and Gulf states to launch talks for free trade pact,” Reuters, March 21, 2024,

[12] “Türkiye’s Erdogan Criticizes Syria Over Normalization,” Asharq Al-Awsat, September 5, 2023,ürkiye’s-erdogan-criticizes-syria-over-normalization%C2%A0.

[13] “Turkey kicks off Syria housing project for refugee returns, France 24, May 25, 2023,

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