Ankara’s Ambiguous Policy toward a Divided GCC

Entrenched divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continue to deepen. Since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt decided to blockade Qatar, leading to the current crisis, mediation efforts have been futile. As a key player in the crisis, Turkey has tried to support Qatar while avoiding potential deterioration in Ankara-GCC relations, which would result in negative financial consequences. Turkish policy seems to be effective so far, as Ankara has managed to save its economic ties with the Gulf and, simultaneously, provided invaluable help to Doha.

The longevity of the crisis, however, presents challenges to Turkey’s regional policy. First, Ankara’s strong support of Qatar makes Turkey a party to the conflict rather than a mediator, further diminishing its soft power capacity on the Arab street. Second, Turkey’s long-term goals, such as reaching a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC and cooperating in the Gulf defense sector, look unrealistic now, unless the parties involved can reach a durable resolution. Third, a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement is further strengthened as the Qatar crisis becomes more enduring. Turkey’s long-term interests in Iraq, however, strongly overlap with Saudi interests, thus demanding Ankara-Riyadh cooperation.

Turkey’s Ever Strong Ties with Qatar

Turkish and Qatari officials recently held the third meeting of the Turkey-Qatar Supreme Strategic Committee—which was originally formed in 2014 to facilitate a closer bilateral partnership after Doha was under diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain due to its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting ushered even stronger ties between Turkey and Qatar. The Turkish media reported that Qatar was prepared to make its biggest investment yet in Turkey in 2018, signaling an additional $19 billion in investments, of which $4 billion was a direct investment to target sectors such as energy, health, telecommunications, insurance, and defense. Qatari officials declared that Doha’s venture is “the second highest value of investments by any country in Turkey.” Turkish companies are already handling projects that are worth about $11.6 billion, most of them related to initiatives related to the 2022 World Cup that Qatar is hosting.

In the past few years, Qatar’s growing isolation has also translated into stronger relations between Ankara and Doha. Based on earlier defense industry cooperation contracts in 2007 and 2012, Turkey and Qatar signed a military agreement for Turkish troop deployment on Qatari soil in December 2014. Within 48 hours after the blockade of Qatar on June 5, 2017, the Turkish parliament swiftly implemented the 2014 agreement, including authorization for the assignment of military personnel—as many as needed to train Qatari forces in “internal security, in combating smuggling and organized crime, and to control mass public protests.” This was interpreted as a strong Turkish willingness to defend Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, against a potential coup d’état. Turkey’s bold support for Qatar may be seen as a reciprocal gesture: Qatari special forces comprising 150 elite soldiers came to Ankara to provide protection for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of the July 15th coup attempt in 2016.

Although the quartet countries’ list of 13 points that constituted an ultimatum to Doha included the closure of Turkey’s military base, the revised list of requests—with six demands—does not make a reference to the issue. Turkey has sent additional armed personnel and armored vehicles with plans to keep a brigade in Qatar, potentially increasing the number of its troops to 3,000. Although Turkey’s lack of direct air, land, and sea access to Qatar limits military cooperation, the Ankara-Doha security alliance marks a new era in bilateral relations. Turkish media outlets circulated unconfirmed reports that Qatar provided remarkable financial assistance for Turkey’s largest overseas military base that is recently set up in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Such activism in the Horn of Africa may be interpreted as a geostrategic counterbalance to Egyptian-Emirati cooperation in the region. Not surprisingly, Turkey’s military deployments have triggered fears of a neo-Ottomanism that re-creates old glories. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that Turkey has lost its earlier soft power capabilities in the Middle East—compared to the pre-Arab Spring era—and that the Qatar crisis has further limited Ankara’s maneuvering capacity. Perhaps that is why President Erdoğan thought there was an “international conspiracy” behind the crisis, himself being “the target” together with Qatar.

Moreover, as the blockade has become the “new normal” in Qatar, Ankara plans to institutionalize its support for Qatar’s food security by improving bilateral trade. The new land trade route via Iran, for example, is expected to reduce the cost of transportation by about 80 percent.

Turkey’s Relations with the GCC: An Ambiguous Picture

Given Turkey’s economic ties to the GCC, Ankara perceives a major threat to its own interests in the GCC’s fragmentation. Erdoğan’s easy access to Gulf cash and investment has long been an alternative source of stability for the Turkish economy in turbulent times. Since the July 2016 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s economy has suffered from serious setbacks with increasing inflation rates. The Turkish lira continues to lose value since its sharp decline of 17 percent last year—a trend that led Erdoğan to declare himself as the “enemy” of high interest rates. Thus, for the near future, Turkey will continue to see the Gulf primarily through the regional financial prism.

Before the crisis, the GCC promised Turkey that it would sign a free trade agreement by the end of 2017. Moreover, the Saudi-US commitment for an additional $20 billion of investment in Turkey seems implausible after the blockade of Qatar. Unless the crisis is resolved, Ankara’s hopes to sign a lucrative defense export contract with Riyadh appear not to be realistic anymore.

Turkey’s repeated efforts at reconciliation, however, have proven to be futile. Erdoğan’s appeal to King Salman for leadership to lower the GCC tension level and his emphasis on Islamic brotherhood did not prevent Saudi tourists from canceling their visits to Turkey in the early days of the crisis. Nonetheless, the Saudi leadership indicated a willingness to maintain ties with Turkey, given the number of crises it already faces at home and Ankara’s importance in the kingdom’s overall geostrategic considerations.

Despite being cautious about not antagonizing the Saudi royal family, Turkey’s pro-government media blasted the UAE’s role in the crisis. Allegations in the Turkish media even included accusing the UAE of providing financial support to the July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. The UAE, in return, signaled its intention to escalate tensions with Ankara. For example, the UAE increased its support for Israeli-Greek cooperation to bypass Turkey in defense and energy cooperation. Moreover, the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, provoked Ankara’s ire when he visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia. UAE officials also did not attend the Turkish-organized meeting with Iraqi Sunni leaders in Ankara despite the fact that a Saudi representative was present at the convention. The Ankara-Abu Dhabi row does not appear to have affected bilateral trade relations yet.

Turkey is aware that the GCC may experience severe internal divisions if the blockade against Qatar persists. A Kuwait-Turkey rapprochement is notable in this regard. Although the GCC leadership at the core—Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain—may remain strong, Kuwait and Oman will likely challenge unilateral attempts that are imposed on member states. Most tellingly, in his joint press conference with Donald Trump, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al Sabah, explained how the threat of military action against Qatar was stopped; the blockading quartet then responded with a statement to protest the emir’s remarks. Following the crisis, Kuwait also signed several security agreements with Turkey in September 2017.

Turkish-Iranian Rapprochement: A Key Dynamic

The GCC crisis has raised the question of the efficacy of the Trump Administration’s policy to isolate Iran, given that Tehran and Ankara have increased cooperation as a result. In the early days of the crisis, Erdoğan continued to mention “Persian expansionism”—a discourse he began to employ after the Syrian civil war’s fateful turn in favor of the Assad regime—in hopes of reaching Saudi Arabia as well as Washington. Weeks and months, however, have witnessed greater Turkish-Iranian collaboration, as the crisis appears to be deep-rooted. The Iraqi Kurdish referendum, of course, has accelerated the Ankara-Tehran rapprochement in the past few weeks.

The limits of Turkish-Iranian cooperation in Iraq and Syria, however, will remain as the key geostrategic calculation in Turkey-GCC relations. Riyadh still views Ankara as a strategic partner in Iraq. Despite Turkey’s approval of the Popular Mobilization Forces’s (PMF)—better known as the Shia militias—participation in facing the Kurds after the Kurdish referendum, Ankara earlier called the PMF a “terror group.” Emboldened by recent gains, certain PMF factions have threatened Turkish soldiers stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul, demanding their retreat from Iraqi soil. Hence, Turkey’s long-term concerns about the future of Iraq and protection of its interests necessitate strong cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

The future of Ankara-Tehran interactions as well as Ankara-Riyadh cooperation in Iraq will also depend on the trajectory of the Ankara-Washington relations. The recent diplomatic furor after Turkey’s arrest of a US consulate officer, and US suspension of all non-immigrant visa services to Turkey in return, is a new low; indeed, it is an unprecedented development in the recent history of the bilateral relationship. Interestingly enough, the forthcoming US court case on Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab may even further escalate tensions between Ankara and Washington while strengthening Ankara-Tehran cooperation. Jailed in New York, Zarrab is accused of evading US sanctions on Iran—a fraud case that involves billions of dollars—with the help of high echelons in the Turkish government under Erdoğan’s premiership a few years ago. Despite the fact that Erdoğan has sought to reach deals with the Trump Administration, the case is likely to bring severe penalties to Turkish banks that were involved in the scheme. To Tehran’s pleasure, the Turkish president declared in September that Turkey had never agreed to comply with international sanctions on Iran.

The Influence at Washington’s Periphery

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has recently joined the anti-Qatar chorus, revealing the ideological posture behind the Qatar crisis. For Bannon, Qatar is a “threat” as significant as North Korea and “the single most important thing that’s happening in the world” is how Qatar “had to be called to account for the continual funding for the Muslim Brotherhood, continual funding for Hamas.” Bannon also puts Ankara in the axis of evil, claiming that Turkey is “the biggest danger for us” in such a way “not even close” to the danger posed by Iran.

Bannon’s ideas do not represent mainstream perceptions in Washington. However, considering that the Trump Administration has been susceptible to the influence of even small lobbying groups, his views may approach those wanting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood. In his first 100 days in office, Trump was called to support a Senate bill titled the “Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act.” If the bill is passed, Qatar and Turkey, long considered friendly with the organization, would be on the hook right away.

The major paradox for the White House now is how to reconcile its policy to contain Iran’s influence. It also would be wise to reconsider its current stance on the GCC crisis, which causes greater cooperation among Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. Potential disruption in Turkish-Saudi relations will not help to advance US interests in Iraq as a murky future of PMF militias presents real challenges to the country. Given US-Turkey divisions over the Syrian Kurds and the nature of long-term instability in Syria, the Qatar crisis sets an unnecessary burden for Washington. The White House’s balancing act—by not taking a strong position—has enabled the deepening of the crisis with unintended consequences. In the words of an astute US State Department official, “This dispute does not get any better with the passage of time.”