Qatari silence reflects Erdoğan's vulnerability in Khashoggi crisis

The relative silence of Qatar’s leadership in the face of Turkey’s political crisis with Saudi Arabia over the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi underscores a key weakness of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – namely the country’s frail economy and embattled currency.

Back in August, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Erdoğan’s closest regional ally, promised $15 billion in investment, including $3 billion in currency swaps, to help stabilise the Turkish economy as the lira plunged to record lows during a crisis with Washington over an imprisoned pastor.

Then in September, news broke of Al Thani’s “gifting” of a luxury 747 private jet to Erdoğan. The Turkish president’s growing fleet of aircraft has become a symbol his ambitions to turn Turkey into a major regional and global power.

But despite disbursing the currency swaps in September and reportedly pledging financial backstops for Erdoğan, if needed, during his spat with Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s senior leadership has said little publicly since a political storm erupted over Khashoggi’s death in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Instead, the Gulf state has preferred to voice its criticism via relatively junior officials such as Lolwah Al-Khater, a spokeswoman for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

So where is Turkey’s closest regional ally when it is most needed?

Turkey and Qatar have enjoyed a resurgence in relations under Erdoğan, jointly supporting Muslim Brotherhood movements across the region in defiance of Saudi Arabia. They both offered strong support for Muhammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed politician who was elected president of Egypt in 2012 and was toppled by the military in 2013. They also began jointly sponsoring militant groups in Syria battling to topple President Bashar Assad after an armed insurgency began in 2011.

But in the years since, both Turkey and Qatar have become more internationally marginalised: Turkey becoming almost a pariah state due to Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and rights abuses, and Qatar being cut off by a boycott by neighbours including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt over charges that it supports terrorist groups.

Qatar’s political and economic isolation means it needs to tread carefully when it comes to the Khashoggi affair. Instead of stirring up more tensions with Riyadh by throwing its full political weight behind Turkey, it has preferred to use lesser officials and media outlets such as Al Jazeera to undermine Saudi Arabia’s global standing.

Bundling Khashoggi’s murder with Saudi Arabia’s detention of Lebanon’s prime minister late last year and its political spat with Canada over human rights, Al Khater said in London on Monday that the killing should now be a “wake-up call” for countries to rethink their relations with Riyadh.

Iran, perhaps Erdoğan’s second-closest regional ally and a major provider of oil and gas to Ankara, has also moved carefully as the political crisis unfolded. It was 20 days after Khashoggi’s death before a senior Iranian official spoke up. The hush was finally broken by the head of Iran’s judiciary – Sadegh Larijani – who predictably claimed that Saudi Arabia was seeking to cover up the crime with the help of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sought to drive a wedge into increasingly fraught relations between Erdoğan and the United States, has also tread softly when it came to criticising Riyadh and lending public support to Erdoğan. Evidence should be provided first, Putin said last week.

So it may have come as little surprise that Erdoğan, in a widely publicised televised address to his governing party in Ankara on Tuesday, refused to point the blame directly at the Saudi leadership for Khashoggi’s demise, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps his chief political rival in the region. Instead, he called for a full and transparent investigation and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and tried in Turkey.

Erdoğan spoke following contacts with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, whom he said he trusted, and a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump at the weekend. Foreign Minister Mehmet Çavuşoğİu also spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. CIA director Gina Haspel visited Ankara on Monday to study evidence in the case.

The top-level contacts with the United States come as the two countries seek to repair relations over the two-year detention, then eventual release of pastor Andrew Brunson earlier this month. They also occur as Turkey seeks waivers from U.S. sanctions so that it can keep buying oil from the Islamic Republic – Turkey imports 99 percent of the crude it consumes.

Turkey's ongoing economic weaknesses were revealed again on Tuesday, directly before Erdoğan's speech. The lira, which has dived about 35 percent against the dollar this year, prompting fears of a full-blown economic crisis, dropped more than 2 percent at one point as Erdoğan's main political ally appeared to pull back from plans for an alliance in local elections in March. It ended the day 1.2 percent weaker.

Erdoğan’s reluctance to further soil relations with Saudi Arabia and, consequently, Trump, who has urged political caution as the investigation into Khashoggi’s death continues, has prompted the main political opposition to accuse him of horse-trading with Riyadh.

Turkey had allowed 15 suspects implicated in the case to leave the country and conducted a belated search of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where the murder allegedly took place, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), asserted on Monday.

“I want answers to my questions. Are all these because of money?” he said. “This means playing with Turkey’s honour, dignity and self-respect.”

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