The political storm in the Gulf caught Turkey off guard. However, Ankara, which for the past decade and a half has been trying to establish itself as the leader of the Middle East’s Muslim nations, was quick to respond to the crisis that erupted when several Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, launched an attempt to isolate Qatar, severing diplomatic links and blockading the small peninsular by land, sea and air.
The alliance of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations lined up against Doha have pointed the finger at the gas-rich Qatari regime for backing radical Islamist groups accused of terrorism, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and for collaborating with Iran.
Qatar is something of a wildcard when it comes to its alliances in the Middle East and some analysts believe that the crisis is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to make it choose sides between Riyadh and Tehran. The terrorism charges are a red herring, they say – Saudi Arabia itself has plenty of questions to answer when it comes to ideological and financial support for terrorists that can allegedly be traced back to Saudi elements – because it is actually the economic rise of post-nuclear sanctions Iran that has the Saudis truly worried.
But whatever the real roots of what is the worst diplomatic crisis in the Middle East in decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has wasted no time. He has been engaged in intense “phone diplomacy”, discussing matters with the leaders of Qatar, Bahrain, Indonesia, Lebanon, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as well as with French President Emmanuel Macron. Meanwhile, the Iranian foreign minister has been in town, discussing the situation with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara.
Erdogan stated on June 6 that isolating Qatar “would not resolve any problems”. He then declared that Turkey would be doing everything in its power to end the crisis, but that it would also be applying itself to maintaining and even improving ties with Doha.
In a show of support, Turkey’s parliament on June 7 even approved bills allowing for a troop deployment to Qatar. The lira weakened nearly 1% against the dollar and the main Istanbul stock exchange index, the BIST-100, sank 0.73% after the vote.
The fact that Ankara has simultaneously offered mediation to help diffuse the tension and support for the Doha regime underline the complexity of the situation for Turkey as the shifting Middle East political landscape, already upset by the intractable Syrian conflict, becomes increasingly complex.
Caught in the middle
Since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Erdogan has tried hard to boost Turkey’s image across the Middle East. While maintaining increasingly fraught relations with the West, Ankara has established strong ties with the GCC nations, building relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (the players in the diplomatic standoff, along with Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives).
Ankara’s relations with Cairo, however, turned sour when Erdogan denounced the military coup in Egypt led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which toppled Mohamed Morsi and ejected his Muslim Brotherhood from power.
“The Turkish government got carried away with the winds of the [2010-2012] Arab Spring, thinking it could lead to Islamist thought dominating in Muslim-majority countries through democratic elections, like the example of the AKP which had support from the US and the EU in its early stages,” political commentator Murat Yetkin wrote in a June 7 article for Hurriyet Daily News.
“It drew a connection between itself and the Muslim Brotherhood with its tradition of staying away from terrorism and its grassroots support in certain Muslim countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria,” Yetkin noted.
According to fellow political commentator Semiz Idiz, Turkey’s main dilemma is that it has excellent political and economic ties with Qatar, a country with which it shares common views on issues like the Syrian crisis and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time it is trying to develop strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.
Qatar is one of the top 20 investors in Turkey, as are Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatari direct investment in Turkey between 2002 and March 2017 amounted to $1.5bn, representing a 1.1% share of total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows. Saudi Arabia invested $1.95bn in the same period, while investors from the UAE poured in $4.2bn.
In return, Turkish contractors have enjoyed lucrative deals in all three countries. For instance, Turkish companies undertook 128 projects worth $14.2bn between 1972 and March 2017 in Qatar alone, according to data from the Contractors’ Association of Turkey (TMB). Turkish construction firms, meanwhile, have been eagerly pursuing a share of the $170bn of work required in advance of the FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar in 2022.
The corresponding 1972 to March 2017 figures for Turkish contractors working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are 310 projects worth $18.05bn and 108 projects worth $9.8bn, respectively.
“His [Erdogan’s] efforts are expected to bear few results, given the animosity toward Qatar among the countries that have fallen in line behind Saudi Arabia and Egypt and appear determined to politically and economically isolate Qatar because [according to their stance] it aids Islamic terrorism and leans toward Iran,” Idiz wrote in Al-Monitor on June 6.
Idiz’s conviction that “Turkey cannot afford to take sides in Qatar crisis” exactly reflects the mood among Turkish analysts such as Yetkin who believe that for its own sake Ankara should not be further drawn into the diplomatic set-to between Qatar and the other Arab nations.
“It’s time for Ankara to make a new assessment of the changing balances in Turkey and to take careful steps in order to not jeopardise the national interest,” Yetkin said. “It is no secret that there is a certain sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology within the AKP, but the stance of Erdogan and the government over the last two days perhaps shows that they will not get carried away with their sentiments. That is certainly the way it should continue.”
Suspicions of a more sinister plot
However, pro-government analysts and some of Erdogan’s advisers suspect that a more sinister plot is perhaps being cooked up behind the scenes by those attacking Qatar. If it exists and succeeds, it could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey and the entire region. Turkey must therefore stand at Qatar’s side and foil the plot, they say.
Ufuk Ulutas, director of the foreign policy department at the Ankara-based Political Economic and Social Research Foundation (SETA), argues that the offensive against Doha is clearly a calculated and concerted operation also aimed at isolating and cornering Turkey by forcing Ankara into some difficult choices.
In an article for Aksam newspaper, Ulutas suggested that the main forces of the status quo in the Gulf region, represented by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a struggle to undermine countries like Qatar that have supported an array of anti-establishment Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cemil Ertem, one of Erdogan’s aides, appears to share Ulutas’s views. But he offers a political-economy framework for putting the showdown in the Gulf into a much broader context. According to Ertem, the Qatar conflict is about creating a new order in the Middle East. “The de facto change in Turkey's system under Erdogan’s leadership signals the end of the petrodollar system in political terms which was created back in the 1970s,” he argues in a June 7 article published in the Daily Sabah.
Yigit Bulut, another top aide to Erdogan, suggests that it was the independent foreign policies of Qatar and Turkey that precipitated the present turmoil. They, he notes, do not conform to the agenda of imperialist powers. Qatar and Turkey are thus now fighting against imperialism, Bulut declared on June 6 on state-run broadcaster TRT.
According to Bulut and like-minded analysts, it all boils down to Turkey having disturbed the regional balance of power; in doing so it has become an object of hate in certain circles.
Erdogan, too, sees a plot behind the Qatar crisis. “Here a different game is being staged but we have failed to determine those behind this game,” he said on June 6, Hurriyet Daily News reported.
The situation is still fluid and developing. And it is difficult to predict whether the Qatar showdown could escalate in a way that could leave Turkey in a terrible bind.
US President Donald Trump, who wasted little time in throwing his support behind the Saudis in this crisis, has stepped in, saying he wishes to ease tensions. “The president offered to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary,” the Trump administration said in a statement on June 7, following a phone conversation between Trump and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The Qatar crisis is taking place at a time when Turkey’s relations with the US, as well as the EU, are going through a difficult period. Erdogan was hoping to have much better ties with the Trump administration than he had with the Obama White House. But this has not yet happened, with key differences between Ankara and Washington still unresolved.
Trump, like his predecessor, has not acceded to Ankara’s request for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, the exiled preacher the Turkish government holds responsible for last year’s failed coup attempt, despite his strenuous denials of any involvement and condemnation of the attempted putsch that left more than 200 people dead.
And to the great disquiet and disappointment of Turkey, Washington has lately started arming the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria in preparation for the Raqqa offensive against Islamic State, despite Ankara’s angry objections that this is tantamount to handing weapons to terrorist separatists who pose a threat to Turkish national security.
The US is yet to make any comment on Turkey’s stance in relation to the Qatar standoff. But there is no doubt that these are testing times for Turkey’s foreign policy. It will be fascinating to see whether Ankara can succeed in walking a fine line between backing its good friend Qatar and maintaining at least workable relations with other major Arab countries. A collision course cannot be ruled out.