Turkey eyes more opportunities in the Middle East as Qatar’s isolation ends

As Qatar sees the end of its nearly four-year-long isolation by its Gulf neighbours, Turkey is considering the opportunities created by the thawing diplomatic relations.

On Monday evening, Saudi Arabia announced it would reopen its airspace and land border with Qatar ahead of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting in the Saudi city of Al-Ula the following day. Embracing Qatar’s emir on the runway was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was widely blamed for instigating the campaign to isolate Doha. Later that day, a communiqué was released by the GCC that underlined a commitment to “confront common challenges”.   

Shortly after Riyadh ended its restrictions against Qatar, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry released a statement in support of the decision. It went on to praise the mediation efforts by international actors, particularly Kuwait, for working to end the dispute between the Gulf nations and expressed hope that the embargo would come to a complete end.

“Our hope is that this conflict will be resolved comprehensively and permanently on the basis of mutual respect for the sovereignty of the countries and that other sanctions against the people of Qatar will be lifted as soon as possible,” read the ministry’s press release on Monday.

For Turkey, Qatar’s return to the GCC fold in many ways is a victory. After the embargo was launched in June 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared his support for Doha and the Turkish parliament fast-tracked a deployment of troops to a base in Qatar. Removing this base was one of 13 demands from Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies that Qatar refused to comply with.

Even before the embargo, Qatar and Turkey found common ground in their support for political Islamist groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a deeper partnership on security, diplomacy and trade. Now that Doha has emerged intact, it enables Ankara to more freely chart a fresh diplomatic course in the Middle East.

In the last month, it has been reported that Turkey was seeking to rebuild relations that frayed in recent years including with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

After nearly coming to blows over the summer in Libya, Turkey and Egypt have been assisting the diplomatic process play out between the opposite sides they support in the war-torn nation. Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey maintained intelligence and diplomatic contacts to mend ties, something Erdoğan also insisted he has “no problem with”.

The Turkish president has extended similar sentiments to Israel. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s intelligence chief, reportedly met with Israeli officials in November, and other Turkish officials insist they see normalisation with the Jewish state as desirable. 

However, it is the warming relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that is most directly affected by resolving the diplomatic crisis.

Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C, said that Qatar’s reintegration into the GCC bodes well for Turkey as it seeks to improve ties with Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia’s de facto abandonment of the 13 demands from 2017 serves Turkey’s interests, especially considering that one of the demands was closure of the Turkish-Qatari military base,” Cafiero said.

“With Turkey wanting to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the easing of friction in Saudi-Qatari relations will enable Ankara to pursue a rapprochement with Riyadh without by default harming the Turkish-Qatari alliance.”  

Another reason why reconciliation within the GCC is important for Turkey is the possibility of weakening its main regional rival, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Although Riyadh and its crown prince captured much of the blame for isolating Qatar, the embargo was believed to be orchestrated by Abu Dhabi. Even as Saudi Arabia hinted at a resolution, the Emiratis at times undercut Riyadh; but they appeared to have been persuaded to accept the bid to rebuild bridges with Qatar. At the GCC summit this week, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash accepted the move but cautioned “more work needs to be done”. 

Turkey and the UAE have also locked horns in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, East Africa and over the Muslim Brotherhood. Hostility towards Ankara is part of what drove the Emiratis to pursue the Abraham Accords with Israel in September and even seek normalisation with Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad.

Turkey's support of Qatar in its hour of need will ensure the partnership’s strength, which can create complications that the UAE will be cautious of, said Samuel Ramani, a researcher at Oxford University.

“The Qatari public will have deep distrust for Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the foreseeable future, and will not forget Turkey’s loyalty to Qatar at a moment of crisis,” Ramani told Ahval. Between the two however, Riyadh is more likely to accept the Turkish-Qatari partnership than Abu Dhabi, he said.

“The UAE will continue to view Turkey-Qatar collaboration in Libya and the Horn of Africa with suspicion.”

Improving relations within the GCC may not be entirely in Turkey’s favour though. Caroline Rose, a former Europe and Middle East analyst for the forecasting firm Geopolitical Futures, warned that any rehabilitation for Qatar carries the risk of isolating Turkey further, depending on how deeply its relations within the Gulf, particularly on trade, are restored.

“One of the reasons Qatar was able to avoid a major economic impact from the blockade was the fact that Turkey was a willing and eager trade partner,” Rose said.

Qatari investments have helped cushion the Turkish economy in recent years from the contractions it experienced with a weakening currency. In November, the two signed a raft of new agreements that saw assets in water administration, defence production, and the Istanbul stock exchange sold to Qatari investors. Bilateral trade short of financial investment stands at $1.5 billion, still lower than the nearly $3 billion Doha had with Abu Dhabi before 2017. 

Rose said that Qatar will not drift far away from Turkey in favour of renewed ties with its neighbours, but cautioned that it will increase the urgency for Ankara to continue its quest to find additional partners.

“I think that this essentially pressures Turkey to seek new ways around the emerging East Mediterranean Gas Forum-Gulf alliance, which has blossomed as an informal anti-Turkey political coalition,” she said.