The dialogue is the Gulf version of parallel meetings held in Verkunde (Germany) on Euro-Atlantic security as well as one in Asia on Asian and Pacific security. Invited were Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Yemen and some countries from outside the region, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The dialogue takes up issues related to Gulf security.
Turkey participated in the meeting for the second year in a row. Minister of Defense Vecdi Gönül led a delegation from Turkey that also included a member of Parliament. As head of ASAM, I represented civil society.
Who came? Who did not?
Rather high-level delegations from all the invited countries attended the Manama meeting. The center of attention was, of course, US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. The big surprise was the last-minute decision by Iran not to come to Manama. There had apparently been disagreement within Iran as to who should lead the Iranian delegation. Iran’s absence probably did not detract much from the dialogue, but meant a missed opportunity for Iran to make its views heard to a select group of defense officials and experts.
In attendance were representatives from China and India. The fact that both addressed the dialogue at its plenary sessions was a measure of the increasing importance of these countries as actors on a global scale. It was also a clear manifestation of the fact that in line with the process of globalization, security too was being increasingly more globalized. In other words, Gulf security was being considered not just on a regional basis, but as a matter of interest to all the major powers outside the region as well.
What was discussed?
Two subjects dominated the debate in Bahrain: Iraq and Iran. It was clear that the situation in Iraq was uppermost in the minds of all the delegations. The Iraqi representatives and the US had a hard time in making a case for an Iraq where, in their view, conditions were getting better. The Sunni Arab leaders did not hide their skepticism or their displeasure at the discriminatory way they claimed Iraqi Sunnis were treated. This was the reason given by the prime minister of Qatar in response to a question from the Iraqi delegation as to why Iran and Turkey, two non-Arab states, were invited to the recent summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but not Iraq, an Arab country. (The prime minister of Qatar also stated that both Turkey and Iran had themselves asked to attend the summit.)
The subject of Iran was by far the most important item of discussion at Manama. Iran’s nuclear program, its role in Iraq and its posture in the Gulf were the main areas of concern. US Defense Secretary Gates made clear that despite the conclusion of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report -- that Iran had stopped its activities to acquire nuclear weapons in 2003 -- the international pressure on and sanctions against Iran should be continued. It was interesting to note that the Iraqi delegation was careful in commenting on Iran’s role inside Iraq and even suggested that Iran had begun taking a more positive stance on Iraq in recent months.
The importance of Iran became most evident in the way the Gulf states handled the issue in their various references to Iran. Iran certainly casts a long shadow over the whole region. On the one hand, it was clear that the Gulf states are deeply apprehensive about Iran’s role in the region and concerned with its nuclear program. At the same time, however, the Gulf officials use very circumspect language when they speak about Iran, choosing measured terms about their big neighbor. The Gulf leaders, while emphasizing the need for continued US presence in the region as a security provider, carefully abstained from portraying Iran as the main threat to their stability.
The importance of the US role in the security of the Gulf was upheld by the countries of the region, but not without criticism of US policies in Iraq and especially of its one-sided support of Israel. Defense Secretary Gates, in an answer to a question as to whether the US viewed Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to the region, bluntly said “no.” The answer not only publicly confirmed the well-known secret that Israel did have nuclear weapons, but also reiterated US backing of Israel in a very stark manner.
The three security issues of concern to the Gulf states are Iran’s role and influence in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the situation in Iraq. The US role in the region, while remaining paramount, is becoming more problematic and subjected to hard questioning by the Gulf countries.
Turkey and Gulf security
In such a setting, Turkey is poised to become a security enhancer in the region, provided it is willing to take up the challenge. The fact that Turkey was in Manama signals the recognition of the growing importance and relevance of Turkey as a regional power to the security of the Gulf. Turkey is of increasing interest to the Gulf states for several reasons. With its NATO membership, Turkey can contribute directly to the security needs of the Gulf countries. With its democracy, Turkey can provide tools for addressing political and related problems that affect the stability and therefore the security of these countries. With its secular system of state and society, Turkey can provide directions and avenues for the resolution of problems of gender equality, political participation and social mobility in these societies. Given its relations with and perspective of full membership in the EU, Turkey can provide a Westward orientation to the Gulf. With its highly trained army and acknowledged military traditions, Turkey might supply various forms of training and expertise. In the economic and commercial spheres and in the construction sector, there are many opportunities for Turkish companies.
When viewed in the Gulf context, Turkey is also an actor that can act as a counterweight to Iran in the region. While no one would utter this openly, everyone would be happy to see Turkey playing a balancing role against Iran, now that Iran’s traditional balancers in Iraq and Afghanistan are gone. If Turkey goes this way, it will have to increase its political, economic and strategic presence in the region and do this in ways consistent with the good relations the two neighbors are currently enjoying.
Turkey’s relationship with Israel, which Arab states had long considered a liability, is now viewed as a possible asset. Many have come to realize that Turkey can exert a good influence on Israel. Finally, Turkey’s deep historical and cultural connections with the peoples and countries of the region are today playing a more favorable role as factors of Turkey’s power and influence projection in that geography.
In Manama several positive references to the İstanbul Cooperation Initiative launched at the 2004 NATO summit indicated the continuing interest of the Gulf states to maintain and expand their ties with NATO. That initiative offers practical security cooperation arrangements to the Gulf states. The paramount security provider in the region is and will remain to be the US for a long time to come. Yet given the unpopularity of US policies in the Middle East, NATO could perform useful functions in the field of security. In this context, too, Turkey can play a leading role.
Gulf security is a vital component in the global equation of oil and gas issues. The movement of these societies toward greater participation, good governance and gender equality is an objective in whose realization Turkey can help. Turkey must engage in developing a comprehensive approach toward the Gulf region, the components of which must be tailored to the specifics of the individual countries. In such an approach, the security cooperation dimension must be a constant theme.
* O. Faruk Loğoğlu, Ph.D., is a former Turkish ambassador to the US and a former Foreign Affairs Ministry undersecretary. He currently serves as chairman of the Eurasia Strategic Research Center (ASAM).