With Qatar crisis, cracks grow in Turkish-Saudi relations
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.”