Qatar investment won’t save Turkey in Brunson crisis

Swift measures taken by the Turkish central bank have rallied the lira and held off a pending currency crisis after a tumultuous two weeks during which the United States imposed sanctions and raised metal tariffs to retaliate for Turkey’s arrest of U.S. citizens.

This is likely only to be a temporary respite, however, and concerns remain that U.S. President Donald Trump could send the lira back over a cliff-edge with a new round of sanctions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, has been calling in favours and playing on Turkey’s close relations with the rulers of wealthy Qatar in an effort to secure vital sources of funding to stave off a further downturn.

It was Turkey that rushed to Qatar’s aid in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain imposed a blockade on the small Gulf state, accusing it of harbouring and supporting outlawed Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey’s intervention secured food and medical supplies for Qatar, and joint military exercises organised by the countries and foundation of a Turkish military base on Qatari territory were strong displays of solidarity.

While the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani’s slow response to Turkey’s crisis provoked headlines accusing him of treachery, the sheikh could not avoid a visit to Ankara after Erdoğan’s phone call on Aug. 13.

Tamim discussed the possibility of securing funds for Turkey and increasing imports from the country during a meeting with Albayrak and the Qatari finance minister in Ankara. It did not take long for the Turkish Presidency to announce that Qatar would make direct investment in Turkey amounting to a value of $15 billion.

Qatar, which is already a partner of some of Erdoğan’s favoured businessmen in a range of fields including highly incentivised defence industry ventures, will purchase shares in the public institutions taken over by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, and make further investments in Turkish tourism.

But the $15 billion promised by Qatar of course will not be transplanted into the Turkish economy all at once, and at this juncture, when Turkey has a pressing need for cash, it comes as something more akin to moral support.

Yet what Turkey needs right now is a source of ready cash. For Qatar, which has an income from oil and gas in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and funds valued on the U.S. markets in excess of $200 billion, the majority of these held in U.S. banks, it would be nearly impossible to take sides with Turkey against the United States. That is, even if it had any real desire to back Turkey in the dispute.

Leaving its links to the United States aside, Qatar has already been on the wrong side in one of Turkey’s recent conflicts, collaborating with Greek Cyprus on gas exploration rights disputed by Turkey. Ankara strongly opposes gas exploration by the Republic of Cyprus, which it does not recognise, as it says this violates the rights of the island’s Turkish Cypriot population in northern Cyprus.

Qatar’s state energy company, however, has entered a deal to begin exploration in one of the disputed regions in partnership with the U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil.

The truth is that Qatar is in no position to contribute anything to Turkey, Hüseyin Bağcı, an international relations professor at Turkey’s renowned Middle East Technical University, told Ahval.

“Qatar can’t risk provoking Trump’s wrath by handing anything over to Turkey. They might offer three to five billion under the table, but that won’t do for Turkey,” said Bağcı.

Moreover, the United States could block Qatar’s access to its banks, where the majority of its funds lie, and in any case Qatar is in dire need of U.S. assistance as the Saudi-led blockade continues, Bağcı said.

For Bağcı, the only realistic outcome would be the release of Andrew Brunson, the U.S. pastor detained in Turkey since October 2016 who has become the face of the dispute and a popular cause in the United States.

Erdoğan’s recent overtures to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and the release this week of two Greek soldiers held since March, are merely been a prelude to that, he said.

Like the Greek soldiers and foreign journalists and activists imprisoned in Turkey, Brunson is facing espionage charges, for which there is an established procedure according to international law – the spy is declared persona non grata and deported.

Erdoğan’s policy with previous alleged spies, such as German journalist Deniz Yücel, who was held without charge until Merkel applied pressure on the Turkish president, has created the impression around the world of a country that has lost its rule of law and is engaging in diplomacy through the use of foreign hostages, said Bağcı.

“It’s clear how Turkey’s judicial system works ... Make a phone call to Erdoğan and have your hostage released. Trump will be asking why (Brunson) is being held while the others have been released,” he said.

And, though Erdoğan has been trying to create the impression that he stood against the might of the United States by imposing retaliatory tariff hikes on U.S. electronics and other goods, this is little more than posturing, according to the scholar.

Turkey’s economy is so inextricably tied to the United States that anything more than Erdoğan’s token call for a boycott of Apple products is inconceivable, and the president has stayed markedly quiet on the subject of his cronies’ vast holdings in dollars, Bağcı said.

“Erdoğan and the others are just playing with public opinion with their calls for a boycott on U.S. goods ... Every Turkish product that they call “native and national” contains imported parts from the United States and other countries,” said Hasan Köni, a professor of international law at Istanbul Kültür University.

Constricted by these deep economic ties, Turkey has little hope of making a clean break from the United States and NATO, meaning the country will be forced to return to diplomacy.

“I expect pastor Brunson to be released by Eid al-Adha (the Muslim feast of the sacrifice held this year Aug. 21-25), and certainly not long after then,” Köni said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.