Kuwait looks to Turkish and Chinese military power
Since the early 2000s, Turkey has given special importance to developing its relations with the Gulf countries, and the past decade in particular has witnessed increasing cooperation in several domains. In particular, Kuwait serves as a significant pillar in Ankara’s policies toward the region.
Last week, Turkey and Kuwait signed a joint defense plan for 2019 aimed at enhancing military cooperation between the two Middle Eastern countries. The defense plan was signed by top military officials from both nations soon after the Turkish-Kuwaiti Cooperation Committee held a series of meetings in Kuwait City on Oct. 9-10. According to the Kuwaiti army, the defense plan was inked with a goal of pursuing joint coordination “for accomplishing harmony, exchange of experience and unifying efforts.”
The news of this defense plan was shared in Turkish media outlets as a crucial development that took place while the region is going through tectonic changes. However, the fact is that there are also military agreements between Ankara and all the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with the exception of Oman, with whom a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation was signed in 2011 and extended in 2013.
For instance, in April, Saudi troops were in Turkey in a major move to impart training and exchange experiences in combined and joint operations, including logistics and command control. In February, Turkey was invited as the guest of honor to the Saudi Armed Forces Exhibition (AFED 2018) and Ankara has shown a keen interest in working closely with Saudi Arabia to build the latter’s defense capabilities.
So, while mentioning defense ties between the countries, we should be careful to not confuse an “agreement” with an “MoU” or a “plan.” Though the news of the signing of the Turkish-Kuwaiti defense plan was quite exaggerated by the media, it was a significant development considering Kuwait’s policy toward Turkey and China, two regional and global actors seeking significant roles in the Middle East.
Amid the backdrop of the relative decline of the US hegemony in the region, Kuwait’s strengthening of its relations with Ankara and Beijing deserves a closer look. Being a country that severely suffered from the Iraqi invasion of 1990-91, Kuwait has adopted a foreign policy line that is significantly shaped by its threat perceptions emanating from regional crises. Within this context, Kuwait has started to seek ways to invest in stronger ties with both Turkey and China, as well as other powers, to strengthen its position in an increasingly vulnerable geopolitical balance of power.
Although Kuwait and other GCC countries are determined to preserve their strategic alliance with the US, they are also seeking to pursue their own defense strategies to guarantee their security in the future.
Thus, Kuwait is increasingly being seen as a key military ally in the region by both Turkey and China, with Beijing having also signed a military agreement with the Gulf country.
To start with Turkey, bilateral relations between the two countries have been developed with agreements in several realms, including economic, trade, defense and political. Last year, the two countries signed agreements during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Kuwait and Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah’s trip to Ankara. The defense sector is a significant area of cooperation between the two countries, and their defense ministers have met several times in the last year to discuss boosting military cooperation.
For Turkey — at a time when Ankara-Washington relations are at an all-time low, ties with Europe are witnessing ups and downs, and it is hard to bet on relations with Russia — having good relations with the Gulf countries is of great importance. Thus, the constructive nature of these relations is crucial, considering the crises these countries are facing in their immediate neighborhood.
From the Chinese side, Beijing considers Kuwait as a key partner for cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. In July, the Kuwaiti emir’s visit to China was significant as both countries agreed to establish a strategic partnership aimed at giving new impetus to relations. The visit also saw the signing of a protocol to boost defense industry cooperation between the countries. The protocol is said to include a preliminary understanding to buy Chinese-made military vehicles and other systems. Kuwait’s emir plays on his considerable diplomatic skills to increase the state’s partners amid the changing power dynamic in the region.
Needless to say, the nature of defense cooperation is such that countries orient their military relations on the basis of their respective national interests and regional strategies in order to maintain their position. Kuwait’s defense cooperation with China and Turkey is based on this understanding. Although Kuwait and other GCC countries are determined to preserve their strategic alliance with the US — despite the uncertainty of the policies of Donald Trump’s administration — they are also seeking to pursue their own defense strategies to guarantee their security in the future; and these two countries appears to be strong potential partners.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.