Will Qatar’s Crisis Become Turkey’s Too?

by Giorgio Cafiero

The crisis unfolding in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is bad news for a host of countries around the world with vested interests in all six Arab Gulf monarchies. Turkey certainly sees the Qatar crisis as deeply unsettling and troubling. Turkish officials have, thus far, stood by Doha, which has established a ‘special relationship’ with Ankara that strengthened significantly after the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011.

The Syrian crisis has severely hindered Turkey’s agenda in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and highlighted Ankara’s limited capacity to influence events in the Arab world. At the same time, Turkey has started making foreign policy forays in East Africa. As Turkey seeks a more prominent and influential role in the global arena, it has come to see Qatar as its best friend in the region. Both countries placed bets on Islamists amid political openings across MENA states in 2011 and coordinated closely in Syria while taking similar positions on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster in 2013.

The increasingly chilly relationship between Turkey and its Western allies has also shaped Ankara and Doha’s deepening ties. US and European officials have grown increasingly critical of Turkey’s domestic political environment, especially in the aftermath of this year’s constitutional referendum and the question of the Syrian Kurds’ role in the struggle against the Islamic State. Turkey’s disagreements with several of its fellow NATO members have further prompted Ankara to look for new partnerships to counter-balance Ankara’s dependence on its traditional Western allies. The main geopolitical beneficiary of Turkey’s pivot to the East has been Russia. But China, Iran, and Pakistan, as well as Qatar and other GCC members, factor into Ankara’s plans to diversify its alliances.

Within the framework of such aligned interests, as well as Ankara and Doha’s wider strategic objectives that go beyond the MENA region, Turkey and Qatar signed an agreement in 2014, which Turkey’s parliament ratified the following year, to establish a joint military base in the Arab Gulf state. The base currently hosts 200 Turkish soldiers and has the capacity to accommodate as many as 5,000. One of Qatar’s interests in hosting Turkish military forces in the emirate pertains to security amid the FIFA World Cup 2022.

There is much symbolism behind the establishment of a Turkish military presence in Qatar given the history of Ottoman rule in the Persian Gulf’s southern shores. In more practical terms, however, the deepening of Ankara-Doha relations is important to Turkey for several reasons. The emirate is interested in lucrative arms deals with Turkish defense firms, and Qatari investment stands to boost Turkey’s economy. Ankara seeks to expand its military presence across Arab and African soil, while the Turkish construction conglomerates that dominate Turkey’s economy are hoping to secure larger contracts in the Arab Gulf country. Finally, Qatar, which signed a deal with Ankara in late 2015 to supply liquefied natural gas, is important for Turkey’s energy requirements.

Doha places much value on its ties with Ankara. Since the 1990s, Qatar has had problems with Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. A history of Saudi meddling in Qatari palace politics and deadly border clashes left officials in Doha with the view of Saudi Arabia as an overbearing neighbor that does not always respect the smaller GCC states’ sovereignty. In light of the ongoing crisis, this Qatari perspective will not change any time soon. Thus, Doha sees Turkey as a natural ally given its historically testy relations with neighboring Arab Gulf states.

Turkey has played an important role in Doha’s grander objective of diversifying its alliances and partnerships. Qatar has devised a foreign policy strategy largely aimed at ensuring its security through military cooperation, investment, and soft-power means such as media and sports. In addition to being home to USCENTCOM’s forward headquarters, the emirate has made major investments across the world via its $350 billion sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Investment Authority. Doha’s Al Jazeera and other successful media platforms broadcast to audiences in many countries. Qatar will also host the 2022 World Cup.

Turkey Responds to the GCC’s Crisis

On June 5, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated: “We see the stability in the Persian Gulf region as our own unity and solidarity … Countries may of course have some issues, but dialogue must continue … for problems to be resolved peacefully. We are saddened by the current picture and will give any support for its normalization.” Later, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan said that the GCC members must “resolve their differences through dialogue,” emphasizing that “efforts to isolate Qatar… will not solve any problem.” He praised Qatar’s “constructive approach” and “cool-headedness.” Turkey’s president also asserted, although without providing any details, that the states targeting Doha have ulterior motives and that Qatar is not a sponsor of terrorism.

On June 7, Turkey’s parliament fast-tracked legislation that will establish a Qatar-Turkey Tactical Division Headquarters that will host 500-600 soldiers and will be headed by a Qatari major general with assistance from a Turkish brigadier general. At this facility, the Turkish military will train 4,000 Qatari personnel. This legislation, which Turkish officials had drawn up before the Qatar crisis erupted, passed by a margin of 240 votes and received Erdogan’s stamp of approval. That same day, Turkey’s main exporting trade body stated that the country’s exporters are prepared to meet the emirate’s food-and-water demands after Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) closed most of Qatar’s land and maritime borders. The following day, Turkey decided to send up to 3,000 troops in addition to planes and warships to the emirate.

The Turks are attempting to show Ankara’s support for Doha while demonstrating their commitments to defending Qatar’s Al Thani royal family, thus encouraging the emirate to maintain its positions and not capitulate to foreign pressure. Yet it remains to be seen how Turkey’s decision to defend Qatar will impact Ankara’s relations with the states taking diplomatic and economic action against Doha, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Ideological Factors

With power heavily concentrated in the hands of Erdogan and his inner circle, ideological factors strongly shape the Turkish government’s view of the Qatar crisis. There is a view in Ankara that this ongoing action against Qatar is linked to former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s removal from power in 2013 and the July 15 failed coup in Turkey. Despite the fact all GCC members including the UAE have designated the Gülen Movement a terrorist organization, media outlets close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have accused Abu Dhabi of sponsoring its operatives prior to last year’s failed coup, referencing hacked emails from the UAE’s ambassador to Washington.

Amid the confusion of the July 2016 coup attempt, when Western leaders were (according to Ankara’s interpretation) hedging their bets by not calling Turkey’s civilian government leaders to offer them support, the emir of Qatar was the first foreign head of state to call Erdogan and pledge solidarity with the AKP-led government. Now with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and other anti-Muslim Brotherhood states taking action against Doha, which many observers believe may lead to a coup in Qatar, the AKP perceives such moves against Qatar as, by extension, directed against Turkey.

Many of Turkey’s pro-government social media users have taken to Twitter to express solidarity with Qatar. One Twitter user wrote, “we, Turks, never allow our brother to become alone, do not worry, Allah with us. #TuerkiyeKatarKardestir #TurkeyWithQatar.” Another tweeted: “Qatar, Turkey’s breathing valve. Turkey will not abandon Qatar. The main target is Turkey.” Such messages on social media are in line with Erdogan’s personal views of Qatar, which are highly emotional and based on the understanding that the country is Turkey’s closest friend in the GCC.

The Saudi Factor

A major risk for Turkey is that the Qatar crisis will reverse the recent deepening of Ankara’s relationship with Riyadh. After King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015, the kingdom began placing greater value on Turkey as an indispensable Sunni ally within the context of Riyadh’s increasingly sectarian and anti-Iranian foreign policy. Erdogan won much favor in Riyadh and other Arab Gulf states earlier this year when he called on Middle Eastern countries to “prevent the Persian nationalist expansion.”

In December 2015 and March 2016, King Salman welcomed Erdogan to the kingdom for two-day visits, and last year King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman both visited Turkey, where officials from Ankara and Riyadh established a bilateral “strategic cooperation council.” In January 2016, Ankara sided with Riyadh in the aftermath of attacks on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad. The following month, Riyadh deployed Saudi troops to southern Turkey for joint drills with Turkish forces, issuing threats to wage a ground invasion into Syria. Later that year, when Turkey’s government survived a failed coup plot, Riyadh voiced its support for the “constitutional legitimacy” of Turkey’s “elected government.” The kingdom displayed its commitment to the Turkish government by detaining Turkey’s military attaché to Kuwait at Dammam Airport only several days after the failed coup.

Ultimately, Saudi-Turkish military cooperation has grown because both countries believe that the relative decline of Washington’s influence in the Middle East created a power vacuum Iran and IS have filled at the expense of Ankara and Riyadh. Turkey views the kingdom much as it does Qatar, as a lucrative arms market. Indeed, Ankara seeks to deepen its military links with all GCC members. Given the stakes, Turkey has a lot to walk away from in terms of its deepening ties with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, in response to the Qatar crisis, officials in Ankara have defended Doha yet sought to do so without appearing to take an “anti-Saudi” position.

For Turks, the best-case scenario would be a diplomatic settlement that restores relations among all parties. Turkish diplomats, along with their Algerian, Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Indonesian, Iranian, Iraqi, Omani, Malaysian, and Tunisian counterparts, have tried to prevent an escalation of tension. After Qatar’s neighbors severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha, Erdogan attempted some telephone diplomacy to resolve the row. Given Ankara’s strong support for the emirate and the AKP’s interpretation of the action against Qatar as also targeting Turkey, Turkey is probably not in any position to play a mediating role.

The ongoing diplomatic row in the Persian Gulf poses a major threat to Turkey’s interests in the increasingly polarized Middle East by complicating the prospects for Ankara maintaining close relations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The worst-case scenario is that the Qatar crisis escalates into a military confrontation. If such a dangerous situation unfolds, we may soon learn whether the Turkish-Qatari relationship is a strategic partnership or a true alliance and what price Ankara would be willing to pay to stand by Doha.

Photo: Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.