Turkey-Qatar alliance a temporary marriage of necessity

The close ties between Turkey and Qatar in recent years have been borne more out of necessity than ideological affinity and will likely erode once Doha is able to end the standoff with its Gulf neighbours, which may happen in the next year.   

Turkey and Qatar have been friendly since the early 19th century, according to David Roberts, lecturer at King’s College London and author of the book “Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.”

“We can go back a century or more,” Roberts told Ahval in a podcast. “The Turks, the Ottomans, had boots on the ground in Doha for many decades back in the day.”

Roberts puts little stock in the fears expressed by Turkish pro-government outlet Daily Sabah this month that the Qatar-Turkey alliance was in trouble because of what it called negative coverage of Turkey’s offensive in Syria by the Al Jazeera English channel. 

Their current, supremely close ties began with the Arab spring, as both decided to support Islamist groups across the Middle East, Turkey because of its Islamist ruling party and Qatar because of links to Muslim Brotherhood figures like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has lived in Doha for decades and is said to be close to Qatari leaders. 

Qatar’s neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have detained and exiled Brotherhood members and labelled the organisation a terrorist group. In mid-2017, they and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states placed a blockade on Qatar due to its support for Islamists. Turkey came to its ally’s aid, delivering food and troops to cement the alliance. 

Bilateral trade by increased 80 percent last year, and many Turkish firms have been awarded construction contracts in Qatar, with some replacing Saudi and UAE firms forced to pull out after the blockade.

Ankara-based political analyst Dr. Ali Bakeer told Ahval in a podcast that the Qatar-Turkey alliance has ridden out several challenges, including the failed coup of 2016, the blockade and Turkey’s Syria offensive, and emerged stronger as a result.  

Since 2015 the duo has largely aligned regional foreign policies. In Syria, Qatar supported al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which evolved to become part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now has links to Turkey. In Sudan, Qatar has signed a $4 billion deal to manage the port on Suakin Island, where Turkey plans to restore an Ottoman fort and build a naval dock.

In the Gaza Strip, both have provided funding and material support to Brotherhood-linked Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the United States. In September, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several Turkey-related entities for continued support of Hamas. 

“All of the open-source information suggests Qatar still has a very close relationship with Hamas, a funding relationship with Hamas, and has had for a very long time,” said Roberts, adding that Israel tacitly approved of Ankara and Doha supporting Hamas. 

“If that does end then what will happen in Gaza, will a more peaceable group replace Hamas?” asked Roberts. “It will be Islamic Jihad or an even worse group. That’s the kind of logic that animates the Israelis.” 

In the past year, some analysts have argued that the Qatar-Turkey alliance has added a third member, Iran, mainly because all three have a common foe, Saudi Arabia. Roberts foresees some rhetorical statements and inconsequential gestures toward unity, but he does not think the trio would ever create a real alliance.

“I doubt the Qataris would be so bold as to find yet another way to antagonise the GCC states when they’re already in the midst of this Gulf crisis,” he said. “Qatar knows where its bread is buttered, and needs very much to focus on resolving the Gulf crisis.” 

Reports in recent weeks have said Qatar and Saudi Arabia have begun back-channel talks to resolve the dispute, and Saudi officials have said they have seen some encouraging signs from Doha. In addition, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all agreed to send their national football teams to compete in an upcoming tournament in Qatar. 

But as long as Qatar’s neighbours continue their blockade and trade embargo, Doha will need Ankara’s military backing. Roberts envisions the alliance remaining rock solid as long as the Gulf standoff continues. 

“Unless we see a resolution in the Gulf crisis in the next six or nine months, Qatar will still feel that an unusually close relationship with Turkey is really really important, such that it would not jeopardise its Turkish relations,” said Roberts. 

Though Roberts acknowledged that Qatar had ridden out the blockade better than anybody might have expected, he saw a resolution to the Gulf crisis as all but inevitable, as Qatar’s long-term interests are with its Gulf neighbours and with Arab states. 

“I do think geography will win out in the end,” said Roberts. “I think the GCC states will ultimately come to realise just how much they have in common, and that will overcome these smaller differences.”

This will likely to lead to a gradual downshift in relations between Turkey and Qatar, before the latter again reverts to increasingly close ties with its GCC neighbours. 

“The down slope can take a really really long time,” said Roberts. “We have seen such strikingly close Qatari-Turkish relations. We are at the peak, maybe slightly coming down from the peak. I mean, what more can you get than the deployment of troops in a time of crisis?” 

Resolving the Gulf crisis will not end the Turkey-Qatar alliance, but might make it less urgent, according to Bakeer. He also thinks a Gulf resolution could open the door to improved Turkey-Saudi relations, particularly if Riyadh allows a continued Turkish military presence in Qatar. 

“Saudi Arabia is in a weaker position than in 2017,” said Bakeer. “Saudi Arabia is not in a position to force Qatar to do anything right now. On the contrary, they will try to appease Qatar.”

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