With Qatar crisis, cracks grow in Turkish-Saudi relations

Sunday 25/06/2017
Ideological affinity. Turkish troops at their military base in Doha, on June 23. (Reuters)

Istanbul- The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf has left Turkey in a delicate position and its relationship with Saudi Arabia unravelling over the Ankara’s decision to throw its full support behind Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, several other Gulf countries and Egypt severed diplo­matic ties and transportation links with Qatar over Doha’s alleged support for Islamic extremism and criticism that it maintains an inap­propriately close relationship with Iran. Qatar dismissed the accusa­tions as “unjustified.” Sanctions included trade bans and the with­drawal of ambassadors.

Turkey has criticised the sanc­tions against Qatar and vowed its support. The countries share a close relationship, partly over their backing of the Muslim Brother­hood, a group classified as a ter­rorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and others, and similar goals in Syria.

Tensions increased after Turkey rejected the call to close its military base in Qatar, a demand included in a list compiled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. The 13-point list included a 10-day ultimatum for Qatar to shut broadcaster Al Jazeera, scale down ties with Iran and cease sup­port for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said he was “aggrieved” by the dispute in the Gulf but added that Turkey would not renegotiate its position on the military base in Qa­tar. “The Turkish military base in Qatar was established for the mili­tary training of Qatari soldiers and for the security of Qatar and the re­gion,” Isik told Turkish broadcaster NTV. “Nobody should be disturbed by this.”

Turkey’s Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP) government has shipped 5,000 tonnes of food to Qatar and Turkish Economy Min­ister Nihat Zeybekci promised at least 11,000 tonnes more. The Turkish parliament fast-tracked legislation allowing for the deploy­ment of Turkish troops on Qatari soil and 23 Turkish troops arrived in Qatar on June 22.

While these agreements were drawn up before the outbreak of the crisis between Qatar and Tur­key’s other Gulf allies, analysts warned that the timing of the ex­traordinary session, which was convened to push the bills through parliament, gave the strong signal that Turkey took sides against Qa­tar’s critics.

This has left Turkey in an in­creasingly precarious position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. The countries stepped up economic and military cooperation since 2015 after they had frayed under King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s predecessor over Turkey’s support for the Mus­lim Brotherhood during the “Arab spring” uprisings. Saudi Arabia is an important investor in Turkey and as many as 250,000 Saudis vis­ited Turkey in 2016.

The risk of upsetting its other Gulf ally is one of the reasons that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tone has been unusually mild but signs of strains in the re­cently mended Saudi-Turkish rela­tionship are hard to ignore.

Erdogan, who criticised the sanc­tions against Qatar as “inhumane” and “un-Islamic,” called on King Salman to find a solution to the cri­sis. “We are talking about a country for that something like the death penalty has been decided,” Erdog­an told AKP members. “As the lead­ing figure in the Gulf, the king of Saudi Arabia has to find a solution to this problem and take the first steps towards that end.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mev­lut Cavusoglu visited Saudi Ara­bia on June 16 to negotiate a way out of the stalemate but returned empty-handed. While throwing its support behind Qatar, Ankara kept its official posture of pushing for stronger ties with the small Gulf country’s opponents, setting itself up for an almost impossible diplo­matic mission.

Erdogan complicated matters by making a surprising claim on televi­sion that the Saudi king had agreed to consider the Turkish offer of set­ting up a military base in Saudi Ara­bia, alongside the one Turkey has been building in Qatar since 2014. The rejection of his claim from the kingdom was swift: “Saudi Arabia cannot allow Turkey to establish military bases on its territory,” a statement by the state Saudi Press Agency read. Saudi Arabia has “no need for such a thing.”

In what can be seen as an addi­tional slight against Turkey, two journalists working for the Turkish state broadcaster TRT World were detained in Mecca while reporting on Cavusoglu’s visit. The men were released ten hours later after Cavu­soglu intervened. Analysts warned that Turkey needs to abstain from alienating the Saudis if it did not want to risk another foreign policy fiasco and trigger further isolation in the region.

Ankara’s ambiguous attitude in the Qatari-Gulf crisis is fuelling security-related concerns among experts in Turkey. Retired Turkish diplomat Oguz Demiralp criticised the Turkish government’s claims of “neutrality” in the Gulf crisis.

“Everybody is aware of the strong ties between Turkey and Qatar,” he wrote for the Turkish news website T24. “We have to do this without antagonising the Sau­dis and their supporters. We should not allow Qatar to use us to show that they are in the right.”

Referring to the decision to send Turkish troops to Qatar, Demir­alp asked: “So what if the Saudis find a legal pretext to enter Qatar? Will Turkish soldiers fight against them?”

In a column written for the pro-government Daily Sabah, Er­dogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin dismissed claims of Turkey taking sides against Saudi Arabia as the work of “propagandists who seek to take advantage of the crisis to damage Turkish-Arab relations.”

There are high economic stakes for Turkey. Economist Mustafa Sonmez warned that Turkey does not have the luxury of rupturing ties with either Qatar or its other partners in the Gulf. Pointing to trade links and potential contracts for Turkish businesses in Qatar and its opponents in the crisis, Turkey, he wrote, “has an equal number of eggs in either basket.”