Erdogan under pressure after ‘gift’ of $500 million ‘flying palace’ from Qatar

Critics accuse Erdogan of centralising political power and of wasting taxpayer money on extravagance.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Ankara, on August 15. 						             (Reuters)
Royal trappings. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Ankara, on August 15. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is coming under pressure from a key political ally in Ankara after he accepted a $500 million luxury plane as a “gift” from Qatar in the middle of Turkey’s worsening financial crisis.

The arrival of the custom-fitted Boeing 747-8 boasting conference halls, bedrooms and a medical facility, dubbed a “flying palace” by Turkey’s opposition, came only weeks after the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani pledged to invest $15 billion into Turkey’s economy.

With the Turkish lira losing about 40% of its value against the US dollar since the start of the year and a deep crisis between Ankara and Washington, Turkey has been looking for help from partners in the Gulf region and Europe. Erdogan is to visit Berlin this month.

“By sending the plane to Erdogan himself on the heels of its $15 billion aid pledge, Doha is bolstering a relationship with a critical partner,” Owen Daniels, associate director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said via e-mail.

Turkey and Qatar, the world’s biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas, have been allies for years. Together with Iran, Turkey sent supplies to Qatar last year after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Doha and closed the land border, accusing Qatar of supporting extremists. Both Turkey and Qatar have angered the Saudi-led quartet by backing the Muslim Brotherhood but Doha denies that it is helping terrorist groups.

Erdogan sent troops to a Turkish military base in the emirate last year to prevent an expected military intervention by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The crisis has been lingering ever since.

Daniels said Turkish-Qatari cooperation had economic advantages for both sides. “Turkey, along with Iran, essentially has come to dominate Qatar’s import market, usurping Saudi dominance there,” he wrote. “Qatar does have a vested interest in Turkey’s financial success, given its high level of foreign direct investment there, though this isn’t unique among the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states.”

Even before the recent promise of $15 billion for Turkey’s economy, Qatar had invested around $20 billion in Turkey, Doha said. Some observers say that figure is exaggerated because several promised projects have not come through. More than 300 Turkish companies are active in Qatar, managing projects with a combined value of more than $11 billion.

Qatar’s promise of economic help for Turkey was seen as a gesture by the emirate to thank Ankara for the political support in the GCC crisis but a key Erdogan ally in Ankara and the opposition said it is wrong for Erdogan to accept the jet from Doha.

“The Turkish Republic does not accept presents or donations,” said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that forms an alliance with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in parliament. “If the Turkish presidency and the state government need a plane for international trips, they can buy it. If there is no need for it, one does not have to get one.” He added that Erdogan “should not have accepted” the plane.

 The opposition Republican People’s Party called on the MHP to support a bill calling for the return of the plane when the assembly returns from recess in October. “If you bought it, it’s a great shame,” opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said, addressing Erdogan. “If someone gave you a second hand plane as a gift, it’s an even bigger shame.”

Critics accuse Erdogan, who lives in a palace with 1,000 rooms in Ankara, of centralising political power and of wasting taxpayer money on extravagance. His fleet of government planes includes an Airbus A340 that belonged to former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Erdogan says money is not an issue when it comes to the prestige of the country.

Erdogan, speaking during a mid-September trip to Azerbaijan, said that the government had looked into buying the plane, which he said was worth about $500 million but Sheikh Tamim said he would present the jet to Turkey as a gift. Erdogan added: “He said: ‘I won’t take money from Turkey. I give this as a present to Turkey.’” There was no comment from the government in Doha.

Erdogan shrugged off criticism by saying the plane belonged to the state. Erdogan said the aeroplane was being repainted and, once it was finished, “we will travel with it but you will be getting on the plane of the Republic of Turkey, not my plane.” He said he started legal proceedings against opposition officials and parties that criticised him for accepting the plane.

Some critics said they do not believe the luxury jumbo was just a gift. “If you give something it means you expect something in return,” opposition politician Onur Oymen, a former Turkish ambassador, told the Cumhuriyet newspaper. “This should be discussed and cleared up in parliament.”

The opposition newspaper Sozcu speculated that Erdogan would give government shares of Turkish Airlines to Qatari businessmen in return for the plane. Erdogan recently appointed himself head of Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, which includes the government stake in the airline. Turkish media reports stated that Qatari companies are keen to buy real estate and factories in Turkey.