Bahrain-Turkey ties ripe for expansion
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa was, in August 2016, the first Arab leader to visit Turkey following the failed coup attempt that took place the previous month. The Bahraini king was warmly welcomed in Ankara, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later stated: “You stood with us during our most difficult days and you have held a highly significant place in our hearts. Turkey will never forget this stance.” Manama’s move was so deeply appreciated in Ankara that Erdogan chose Bahrain as the first leg of his three-country Gulf tour in February 2017.
In retrospect, bilateral ties between Ankara and Manama have been stable and smooth, but have never significantly developed, as have Turkey’s relations with the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. While Turkey opened its embassy in Manama in 1990, the Gulf country’s embassy in Ankara has only been in operation since 2008, quite late when compared to other GCC countries. However, despite the slowness of past relations, Turkey and Bahrain have quickly improved their ties in recent years. Based on the joint historical and cultural links between the two countries, relations in recent years have been improving in all fields.
The years of 2016 and 2017 were exceptional in Turkish-Bahraini relations. Both nations’ leaders indicated their interest in bringing fresh momentum to the bilateral relationship with mutual visits and the signing of several agreements. During the respective visits of King Hamad and Erdogan, numerous agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were inked in the fields of defense, culture, education, energy, tourism and the economy.
Turkey’s being a NATO member means it is a significant partner for Bahrain.
Bilateral defense relations have particularly developed in parallel with the political ties. In February 2017, during Erdogan’s visit, an MoU was signed on defense industry cooperation. That followed an August 2012 military training cooperation agreement, which was inked at a time when Ankara was signing similar deals with other GCC countries that sought to benefit from its military experience and defense capabilities.
It is significant to underline that there is an increasing interest by Turkish defense companies to attend this year’s Bahrain International Airshow, which will take place from Nov. 14-16. Regular participants Otokar — Turkey’s largest privately owned defense company — Roketsan and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) have all confirmed they will be returning to the show, while Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) has also given its support and will be encouraging other Turkish defense industry businesses to exhibit. The event provides an opportunity for the Turkish defense industry to open up to Gulf markets. Roketsan and TAI in particular have already gained contracts in the UAE and other countries during these events.
Additionally, Turkey’s being a NATO member means it is a significant partner for Bahrain. A delegation of Bahraini diplomats this month visited the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division of NATO headquarters. The visit took place in the framework of NATO Public Diplomacy activities under the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), which was launched at the NATO summit in the Turkish city in 2004 and aims to contribute to long-term global and regional security by offering countries of the broader Middle East region practical bilateral security cooperation with NATO. Bahrain is among the GCC countries that have shown an interest in the ICI.
From the trade dimension, Bahrain has undertaken considerable economic diversification measures in manufacturing, refining, tourism and finance. Although the trade volume between Turkey and Bahrain is not yet at the desired level compared to other Gulf countries, there is still an opportunity for Ankara to reach new sources of energy through its ties to Bahrain, while Manama can also attract Turkish investments. During my visit to Bahrain this week, the most attention-grabbing point was how the country is rapidly developing its infrastructure. It seems it will undoubtedly further open up to foreign markets in the future.
Despite the poor record of economic ties, there are significant security aspects to the Turkish-Bahraini relationship that means Manama considers Ankara to be a potential and safe partner to cooperate with on regional crises. Bahrain, like other GCC members, seeks to deepen its ties with Turkey, as the archipelago kingdom considers rising Iranian expansionism, increasing terrorism, and the proxy wars of the global powers in the region as big threats to its stability and security. Iranian expansionism, which looms large in the minds of the Bahraini leadership, is particularly seen as an existential threat. Although Turkey does not view Iran through a similar lens, it will never bet on relations with Tehran. Moreover, Iranian activities in Iraq and Syria are reason enough to raise eyebrows in Ankara.
Within this context, Bahrain aims to strengthen its foreign ties with diverse partners in the region, with whom it shares mutual interests and perceptions of common security challenges and transnational threats. For Turkey, increasing its number of partners in the region is crucial and an asset for the future. In sum, the boosting of ties seems to be a win-win situation for both sides.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.