Turkey opts for caution regarding Bahrain

04/03/2011

Ankara's relatively mild reaction contrasts with its earlier stance on the Egyptian crisis.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for Southeast European Times -- 04/03/11

photo

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Crown Prince of Bahrain Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa met in Ankara in early February. [Reuters]

As protestors in Bahrain call for ousting the country's ruling dynasty, Turkey has taken a cautious approach in voicing its concern.

"We appeal to all parties in Bahrain to refrain from violence," the foreign ministry said, avoiding direct criticism of the Bahraini government.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators, mostly Shia Muslims, have staged marches in the streets of the island nation, demanding the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty cede power and enable the formation of a constitutional monarchy.

A police clampdown has led to the deaths of several protesters and hundreds of injuries.

Turkey's position is adequate to the ongoing processes in Bahrain, an administration official told SETimes.

"We have witnessed Bahrain taking steps towards reforms, and have urged them first to listen to their people," said the chairman of the Turkey-Bahrain Friendship Group, MP Veysi Kaynak.

According to Celalettin Yavuz, an analyst at the Ankara-based Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, Turkey's views on Bahrain are shaped by trade ambitions in the Gulf and awareness of Bahrain's role in the Middle East.

"Turkish society is not interested in Bahrain protests that much, unlike in Egypt," he told SETimes. Ankara, he added, believes the ruling al-Khalifas will overcome the crisis.

"While these protests will pass, Ankara's relationship with Bahrain will remain," parliament member Kaynak notes.

Last month, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad al-Khalifa and two ministers visited Ankara, where they met with Turkish leaders to discuss improved diplomatic relations and commercial ties.

Trade volume between Turkey and Bahrain increased to $244m in 2010, from $150m in 2009.

"The difference in Turkey's approach to Bahrain may be rooted in reasonable fears," agrees Brian Mello, European specialist on social movements in the Middle East. These, he said, include concerns that instability could undermine important economic ties, "or that in Bahrain, unlike Egypt, sectarian social divisions might make any political transition more messy and uncertain".

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"This hesitance might also reflect an understanding that the regime in Bahrain is better able to survive than the former Egyptian regime, which would make strong statements ill-advised," he told SETimes.

Nevertheless, Mello said, the clear disparity between the approach to Egypt and Bahrain leaves the Turkish government open to criticism.

Raymond Ibrahim, associate director at the Washington-based Middle East Forum, said Turkey is also anxious about the possibility of a domino effect in the region.

"Ankara would not want to criticise the Bahraini government since it fears it may well find itself in a similar situation -- having to use force against the Turks, should they protest," Ibrahim told SETimes.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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