Turkey-Qatar: the reasons behind an alliance

Turkey-Qatar on one side, Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other, competition between them tilts power within Sunni Islam and the Middle East. The third player, the West, has little to say

Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, with Turkish ForeignMinister Mevlut Cavusoglu during a meeting in Doha. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon/Contrast
Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, with Turkish ForeignMinister Mevlut Cavusoglu during a meeting in Doha. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon/Contrast

«Peace in one's country, peace in the world». This motto summed up Turkey's foreign policy during Kemal Ataturk's reign and the days of Cold War, when the country clearly opted to stand with the Western block. The rise to power of the AKP in 2002, among other things, has also affected Turkey's vision of its international role, currently formally still very much a part of NATO and an ally of the West, but now seemingly bent on gaining more political clout on a regional level, in line with this new approach which has been referred to as "Neo-Ottomanism".

In achieving this goal, Turkey must however take into account the presence of potential rivals and their positions with regard to global dynamics. Turkey's ambitions are mainly hindered by Saudi Arabia, which has always claimed to be the only true representative of Wahhabism on an international level thanks to a concerted propaganda effort and regional security policies by which it has effectively become a privileged ally of the United States and Israel. For some time now these three states have been working on setting up a Middle East Strategic Alliance, an alliance that somehow mirrors NATO and is designed to contain Iranian expansion and which has already enabled Israel, whose terms and conditions of participation are still being ironed out, to obtain Saudi support – along with that of the USA – over the issue of Jerusalem and the redefinition of the Palestinian territories. United States backing, in exchange for the largest US military base in the region, has also turned out to be fundamental to the rise of Sheik Hamad in Qatar, the creator of the "Qatar" brand and Al-Jazeera, which in 1996 secured the assistance of the legal firm Patton Boggs in Washington to obtain a freeze on the assets owned by his father, Sheik Khalifa, as a way of consolidating his own succession. Qatar's decision, despite its Wahhabi majority, not to pursue policies based on this particular religious bias, has undermined the Saudi's attempt to become the global Sunni representative and has not in addition to thwarting the United States's attempts to broker an alliance between the two countries, it has instead thrown the Qatari emirate into the arms of Turkey.

Relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have actually produced a number of different interactions and scenarios ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. While the alliance with Israel had meant that the Saudi and Turkish positions had drawn closer during the Nineties, complications have arisen owing to the divergent views on the role played by Syria, and despite the détente marked by the reciprocal visits between King Abdullah and Erdogan between 2001 and 2011 (King Abdullah's visit to Turkey was the first visit by an Arab leader since 1966) which led to the trade agreements that mean that Saudi Arabia is currently still the main investor in Turkey, the Arab Spring movements caused a very profound rift, especially with regard to the situation in Egypt. The success of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was welcomed by some sectors of the AKP which see them as an expression of political Islam, was instead viewed with disappointment by Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates), which consider it a terrorist group on a par with al-Qaeda and Daesh and for this reason they were prepared to fund general al-Sisi military coup in 2013. The fact that Turkey and Qatar decided to provide exiled Egyptian Muslim Brothers with a safe haven then gave rise to a political face off that explains Saudi Arabia's veto of Turkey's candidacy to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the contemporary stationing of Turkish troops in Qatar, the first contingent of which set foot in Doha in 2015.

This is the background that gave rise to the splintering into factions that took place at the time of the crisis of Sunni states in the region in 2017. By levelling accusations against Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brethren, welcoming members of Hamas and entertaining political and especially economic ties with Iran – with which Qatar shares the management of the "South Pars" natural gas field – during the month of Ramadam of 2017 (June), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen put in place a trade blockade restricting food supply imports to the country, causing serious distress to the population; they also called for the immediate repatriation of Qatari citizens who, for whatever reason, found themselves in these various countries,  blocked all Al-Jazeera broadcasts and denied Qatar Airways fly over rights across these country's air-zones.

During these troubled times, the Emir Tamin bin Hamid al-Thani, who came to power in 2013 with a bloodless coup, could rely on the solid alliance of the Turkish Republic, which thanks to an airlift and naval expeditions from the port of Izmir, supplied the Emirate with approximately 4000 tons of food supplies; at the same time, the size of the Turkish military contingent in Doha was increased. Thus a relationship was consolidated that goes well beyond the celebrations which in  2018 led to the emission of a stamp by the Qatari Embassy in Turkey paying homage to the relationship between the two countries. It also justified the help that Qatar provided to Turkey during its recent financial crisis caused by the depreciation of the Turkish lira. Ankara as it turns out, besides benefitting from a currency swap agreement, has also been able to rely on the launch of an investment plan by Qatar worth 15 billion dollars, which was further ratified by al-Thani's gift to Erdogan of a Boeing 747-8 worth a further 400 million, considered to this day the largest and most expensive private jet in the world.

This then looks like a very sturdy alliance, that has even resisted Qatar's 'soft' reaction following the horrendous murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a blogger close to the reformist wing of the Saudi Royal family, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Qatar dismissed this business by hoping that the enquiry could get to the bottom of the matter and that those responsible were brought to trial: a reaction that was very much appreciated by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful defence minister, who on this occasion praised Qatar's noteworthy economic growth. Despite even the Turkish authorities being initially not too keen to point the finger at the Saudi royal family, the appeasement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was followed with great interest by Turkey, in the fear that this opening could translate into a loss of Turkish influence in Qatar which is essential for its economic revival but also plays a key role in the Neo-Ottoman design that opposes the Saudi project which aims to expand its own version of Wahhabism.

In actual fact, this is once again where we see the influence of the West at work in the region. Qatar is well aware that by playing down the tensions with Saudi Arabia it will see improvement in its relations with the US and Israel and less risk that the major events it is about to host be mired by failure, such as the Expo World Fair in 2020 and the Football World Cup in 2022. Turkey on the other hand, cannot show too much disappointment as it needs Qatari backing to solve a few issues related to its own national security. In the first place, Qatari mediation could be used in the Syrian dispute, which sees Turkey's interests at odds with American ones particularly in its relations with the Kurdish brigades of the YPG, closely allied to the PKK. While the US government has been very generous in providing both material and political support to these groups, Ankara considers them a risk for the security of its borders and the integrity of its state and for this reason has launched the military operations Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Olive Branch in January 2018. Secondarily, the close ties with Qatar would enable Turkey not to lose influence in important international scenarios such as Libya, where Turkish support for Serraj has to come to terms with the opinion of the Saudi axis, which sees the rise to power of General Haftar as the only solution to the ongoing crisis in the country.

It is therefore a very complex and controversial state of affairs, over which it is difficult to make predictions for the future but certainly points to how the various internal factions within Sunni Islam also carry different political visions and a different way of facing up to the West, which in its turn is proving to be increasingly less compact in its management of international affairs.

This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.

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