Turkey and Qatar: An Alliance Under the Saudi Sword
- The new U.S. leverage that emerged after the Saudi embarrassment is the same leverage that the U.S. can now use to broker an entente between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
- That there may be a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement might be bad news for Erdoğan. A future Saudi-Qatari deal would force Turkey militarily out of the Gulf and force Erdoğan entirely to recalibrate his quest for Turkish leadership in the Sunni ummah (global community).
- Qatar’s distance from Erdoğan regarding the Khashoggi murder signals a Qatari-Saudi entente. Qatar may well be breaking away from its alliance with Turkey.
- This will give the Saudis an upper hand in their rivalry with Erdoğan in Sunni leadership of the ummah. If Erdoğan loses Qatar to Saudi Arabia, he will be paying geostrategic price as well as an economic one.
A 21st century ideological kinship, based on political support for Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, has built a strong bond between Turkey’s elected leadership and Qatar’s family of sheiks, despite an unpleasant shared history a century earlier.
The Qataris, not knowing that a 21st version of Islamism — not yet born then — fought the Ottomans to gain their independence in 1915. This event ended the 44-year-long Ottoman rule on the peninsula.
Independence, however, lasted for only about a year, until 1916, when Qatar became a British protectorate, until 1971. Today, hydrocarbon-rich Qatar, often referred to as a family-run gas station, is the staunchest regional ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Both countries, Qatar and Turkey, pursue policies that are strongly anti-Israel (Erdoğan once remarked that “Zionism is a crime against humanity”) and share policies that are pro-Hamas and pro-Muslim Brotherhood.
This foreign policy blend, however, is deeply disliked by the House of Saud, a regional heavyweight, as well as by its Gulf and other regional allies: Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority — in addition to the Arab League.
The Sunni vs. Sunni division in the Gulf deepened further in 2017, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states imposed a blockade on Qatar. The coalition accused it of supporting terrorism and fostering ties with its rival, Iran.
Erdoğan immediately rushed to the aid of his Qatari friends. Turkey, in a show of solidarity, sent cargo ships and hundreds of planes loaded with food to break the blockade, and deployed more troops at its military base in Qatar.
Back in December 2014, both countries had penned a deal for the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar. The first batch of Turkish troops arrived in Doha in 2015, and a few days later, the Turkish flag was hoisted at a Turkish military base.
Today, many Qataris and some Turkish observers believe that the four-nation blockade in 2017 was actually a coup attempt against the sheikdom and that the Turkish military prevented a palace coup targeting Qatari sovereignty.
This year, when Turkey’s national currency lost 40% of its value in the face of U.S. sanctions, Qataris apparently wanted to thank their Turkish allies. Qatar pledged $15 billion in investment into Turkish banks and financial markets. The investment package was announced after Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani met Erdoğan, at a time when the Turkish lira was sliding and the country’s economy worsening.
The investment pledge was followed by an oriental gesture: Qatar’s Emir gave Erdoğan as a gift a Boeing 747-8 aircraft. The airplane is reportedly the world’s largest and most expensive private jet, the cost of which experts estimate at around $400 million.
Military ties have also been deepening further. A Qatari investment fund owns a 50% stake in BMC, a Turkish armored-vehicle manufacturer that recently won a four billion euro contract with the Turkish government to produce a new indigenous main battle tank, the Altay. Havelsan, a state-controlled military software company in Ankara, signed a partnership agreement with Al Mesned Holdings in Qatar for a joint venture that will specialize in cyber-security solutions for the sheikdom.
Nevertheless, the Turkish-Qatari comradeship is trying to progress under a Saudi sword — the same one that murdered the prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Like Turkey and Qatar, the Saudi journalist Khashoggi supported the Muslim Brotherhood. He had close ties with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. He lived in exile in Washington, DC, and was viewed as a threat to the Saudi royals, most notably by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who claimed that Khashoggi had been killed “at a brawl at the consulate building.”
Erdoğan did not miss the opportunity to corner his cold war rival, Saudi Arabia. Turkish security services worked tirelessly to prove that the killing had been a premeditated murder, a fact that Saudi Arabia later admitted. Erdoğan, in other words, mobilized the world to point the finger on the Saudi royals in attempts to show how ruthless the Saudis could be — even though Turkey itself is currently the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
In this subtle, anti-Saudi campaign, Erdoğan relied on the civilized West and his only Arab ally: Qatar. The “West” part worked to a certain degree: Erdoğan wanted to disgrace his Sunni rivals at the Saudi royal court. Some Turkish sources privately say, however, that Erdoğan felt betrayed and disappointed by Qatar’s relative silence on the Khashoggi affair.
The alliance is not only about Qatari money. Erdoğan needs Qatar as a “Turkish colony” in the Gulf: He needs it ideologically in his neo-Ottoman design.
One statement from the Qatari Press Center simply said that Doha hoped the Khashoggi investigation should be thoroughly carried out and the perpetrators should be handed over to the justice department.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman offered Qatar a rare compliment as international pressure on Saudi Arabia mounted over the murder: “Qatar, despite the differences we have, has a great economy and they will be doing a lot in the next five years,” he said.
Why is there a sudden Saudi-Qatari entente? Cristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said: “I think if the US government wants to end the Qatar crisis it can exert leverage over the Saudis as a bargaining chip in relation to Khashoggi’s death”.
The new U.S. leverage that emerged after the Saudi embarrassment is the same leverage that the U.S. can now use to broker an entente between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
That there may be a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement may be bad news for Erdoğan, and explains why he was allegedly furious about Qatar’s absence during his international PR campaign against the Saudi crown prince. A future Saudi-Qatari deal would force Turkey militarily out of the Gulf and force Erdoğan entirely to recalibrate his quest for Turkish leadership in the Sunni ummah (global community). The loss of Qatar, if it ever happened, could also spell economic disaster for Turkey’s ailing economy.
Qatar’s distance from Erdoğan regarding the Khashoggi murder signals a Qatari-Saudi entente. Qatar may well be breaking away from its alliance with Turkey.
This will give the Saudis an upper hand in their rivalry with Erdoğan in Sunni leadership of the ummah. If Erdoğan loses Qatar to Saudi Arabia, he will be paying geostrategic price as well as an economic one.