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Kuwait moving up again on Turkey's BFF list

Kuwait and Turkey are increasing their military and economic ties as Kuwait looks for relationships beyond the troubled Gulf Cooperation Council and Ankara stands to benefit from the oil-rich country's growing military and infrastructure budgets.

Turkey and Kuwait have rapidly been expanding their relations over the past few years. But 2017 has been remarkable by all accounts, with a new record in high-level visits between the two countries.

In March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in Ankara. Six months later, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah visited Turkey with an exceptionally high-level delegation. The visit was fruitful, and the two parties signed six accords and agreements covering areas of cooperation in double taxation, small- and medium-sized enterprises, civil aviation, telecommunication and information technology, security and youth issues.

In addition to many Turkish ministers who visited Kuwait in 2017, Erdogan visited there in May and July, and just this week on Nov. 14, bringing the number of meetings between him and the Kuwaiti emir to six in two years.

Before Turkey and Qatar upgraded their relations to a strategic level in the past few years, Kuwait was Turkey’s best friend in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Affiliations are shifting once again.

According to one Kuwaiti diplomat, “The mutual desire to enhance the relations between [Turkey and Kuwait] was already there, but the current regional circumstances helped shed light on it. Politics, economy and defense are always on the agenda of the high-level meetings.”

The diplomat, who served in Turkey years ago, told Al-Monitor, “I don’t think that the extensive meetings between the officials [of the two countries] are necessarily dependent on the GCC crisis. Yet the crisis helped the relations gain momentum because Kuwait and Turkey are active players in regional politics and have no interest prolonging it.”

Unlike some other GCC countries, Kuwait was one of the first to denounce the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. In return, Ankara was among the first to support Kuwait's mediation effort in the latest GCC crisis.

Turkey and Kuwait recognized the catastrophic implications of the GCC turmoil and demonstrated proactive diplomacy in its early stages in an attempt to resolve it peacefully. According to an exclusive article published in Kuwait’s Al-Qabas, Ankara led the efforts to contain the crisis and prevent it from escalating by conducting backdoor diplomacy in the first few days after it erupted. When it comes to Kuwait's efforts, the emir has executed relentless shuttle diplomacy during the past few months.

Though the two countries have not succeeded in ending the strife, they did prevent it from rising to a military confrontation. Still, a blockade against Qatar imposed June 5 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain continues. The awkward and simmering GCC situation is driving Kuwait to look beyond the crumbling organization for friends. Obviously, the ultimate goal of such a move is to safeguard itself and resort to its traditional policies of strategic hedging.

“Kuwait cannot challenge Saudi Arabia the way some other Gulf countries have. However, we cannot agree on everything, either. We have a considerably advanced democratic experience compared with our neighbors," said a well-informed Kuwaiti source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“Neither can we hedge our policies with Iran now, but enhanced relations with Turkey can help us. The huge uncertainty [among our neighbors] is scary; that’s why we have to prepare for undesirable consequences,” the source added, referring to the Kuwaiti emir’s warning last month of GCC collapse.

Beyond the GCC crisis, Turkey's priority is its economy, which is becoming sensitive and vulnerable to regional shocks. The government needs to increase its exports, attract more foreign investments, acquire more hard currency and secure more outside projects for Turkish companies. Enhanced relations with some Gulf countries, including Kuwait, can help achieve these goals.

Turkey and Kuwait aim to increase their bilateral trade volume to $3 billion by 2020, from $542 million this year. It is an ambitious goal given the short time left, but the two sides have significant potential if they manage to overcome some bureaucratic challenges, encourage the private sector and focus on their mutual needs. They have already discussed the idea of establishing an industrial trade zone to serve the Turkish private sector, though plans haven't been finalized yet.

Kuwait is also a booming market for Turkish contractors. As stated last year by Turkey’s Development Minister Lutfi Elvan, economic ties are developing rapidly, with Turkish contractors now carrying out some $6.3 billion worth of projects. This year, Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board estimates that figure at $6.6 billion.

Once dubbed the pearl of the Gulf, Kuwait lags on development. However, according to the Kuwait National Development Plan released at the beginning of 2017, that is about to change. The ambitious plan targets investments of tens of billions of dollars for high-quality enhancements of Kuwait's infrastructure through 2035. Of course, Turkish firms are eyeing the lion's share of those investments and are well-positioned to help execute such massive projects quickly.

The defense sector is another area of cooperation between the two countries. Their defense ministers have met several times this year to discuss boosting military cooperation. Another meeting followed in October between their general staff delegations.

According to Turkey’s ambassador in Kuwait, Kuwait expressed interest in cooperating in pilot training. Moreover, Ankara has already sold Kuwait 80 armored personnel carriers and 12 anti-riot water-cannon vehicles. To modernize its army and weapons systems, oil-rich Kuwait has added $10 billion over the next 10 years to its military spending.

The small Gulf country is particularly interested lately in buying tanks, jets, helicopters, armored vehicles and other defense weapons systems from foreign countries. This can be good news for Turkey, as it seeks to secure more foreign customers for its national defense industry.

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