By Bertrand Viala*
One day before the December 19 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in an Ankara art gallery, Turkish and Qatari officials held the second meeting of the Qatar-Turkish Supreme Strategic Committee in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon. This meeting, held under the auspices of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ended with officials from both countries signing memoranda of understanding, declarations, agreements, and action plans addressing a wide range of sectors, including agriculture, communication, culture, education, finance, and sports.
The meeting demonstrates how the Ankara-Doha partnership has grown increasingly sound, and, at this point, should perhaps be labeled an alliance. Analysts, diplomats, and observers of the Middle East are ever more aware of the deepening of Qatari-Turkish relations. But what is this really all about?
In February 2016, Robert Kennedy wrote a controversial article for Politico, entitled “Why the Arabs Don’t Want Us in Syria”, opening a discussion about the Doha-Ankara axis. Kennedy argued that a key component at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War was the U.S.-backed Qatar-Turkey pipeline project, which would have had to pass through Syria. Indeed, in 2009, Doha and Turkey discussed such a plan (within the larger framework of the failed Nabucco project) that would enable Europe to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, while providing Qatar and Turkey highly profitable opportunities as supplier and transit countries, respectively. The article leads one to conclude that the Syrian crisis and the struggle to remove Bashar al-Assad from power originated with the Syrian leader’s decision, backed by Iran and Russia, to refuse the option.
This interpretation clearly oversimplifies the complex reality of Middle Eastern politics. It reduces Qatar and Turkey to pure instruments of Western interventionism in what appears, in his argument, to be merely an extended oil war. Nevertheless, Kennedy is correct in demonstrating, albeit indirectly, the discreet but increasing influence of Qatari-Turkish relations in the region. His underlying reference to the paradigm of Western post-colonial interventionism is also relevant, as it does indeed lie at the heart of this partnership. The difference, however, is that in this ever-deepening relationship, Qatar and Turkey do not perceive themselves as pawns of Western powers. On the contrary, officials in Doha and Ankara view their relationship as a means to achieve greater autonomy from traditional Western powers, particularly from Washington. At a moment when Western diplomats are in complete disarray over the failure of their initial strategies in Syria, and as they witness Russia establishing a strong military presence in the region, this sense of empowerment, especially for Turkey, is vital.
Qatari-Turkish relations have distinguished themselves only recently from the other bilateral relations that Turkey maintains with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The partnership is deeper and more pervasive, not based solely on the strategic factors of trade relations and common diplomatic moves. What may now be considered an alliance was developed extensively after the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and became tangible under the Erdoğan presidency during the summer of 2014.
An Incremental Partnership?
Turkey and Qatar signed their first treaty for technical and economic cooperation in 1985, followed by five more in 2001, shortly before the AKP came to power in 2002. What followed was a focus on turning these broad-base agreements into substantial opportunities, both bilaterally and with other GCC countries. The most significant measure was a ten-year military treaty, signed on December 19, 2014, that would facilitate the opening of a military Turkish base in Qatar as well as implement collaboration in the armament industry. A multitude of mutual gestures of cooperation and investments followed in 2015. Officials from Doha and Ankara held their first meeting of the joint High Strategy committee, paving the way for 15 agreements covering a wide array of areas from the environment to energy and education.
These joint efforts were accompanied by a series of massive mergers and acquisitions by Qatari companies and investors in key symbolic ventures in Turkey, including the buy-out of online TV and telecom distributor Digiturk by Qatari BeIN and Finansbank by QNB. Qatari investments in Turkey in 2015 amounted to USD 20 billion. Turkish companies such as construction conglomerate Tekfen and energy company BOTAS inked massive deals in Qatar. Turkish Minister of Development Lutfi Elvan announced at a September 2016 meeting in Qatar that Turkish companies had won over USD 2.5 billion in contracts during 2015 alone.
But are these mergers and agreements signs of a sustainable alliance or merely evidence of commercial and strategic developments that match a set of current opportunities? After all, Turkey has also opened a military base in Azerbaijan, another gas-rich country much closer to Turkey both culturally and linguistically than Qatar. Investors from other GCC countries abound in Turkey, too, although with less visibility.
Influential Saudi businessman Abdullatif Jameel owns Toyota cars in Turkey and Saudi firms have invested in the Turkish defense industry. Despite the investments of highly visible Qatari firms in Turkey, bilateral trade relations remain rather limited. Per the Statistical Institute of the Turkish Republic (TUIK), Qatar ranked only 65 as trade partner with Turkey, with a decreasing volume of USD 572 million for the January to October 2016 period, far from the top 3 trade partners of Turkey: Germany with USD 29 billion over the same period; China with USD 23 billion; and the U.S. with close to USD 15 billion.
Indeed, Qatar and Turkey’s diplomatic alignment, particularly with respect to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s fall in 2013 or the Libyan and Syrian crises, could be seen as completely opportunistic and not based on anything in the bilateral relationship that makes Qatari-Turkish ties distinguishable from other partnerships/alliances in the region. In Syria, for example, Saudi Arabia has largely been on the same page as Qatar and Turkey, and other GCC states have supported Doha and Ankara’s position that Assad must relinquish power. The Qataris and Turks along with other Arab Gulf states have strongly supported Libya’s Tripoli-based government in Libya. Thus, it is legitimate to ask what is so unique about Qatari-Turkish relations compared to the ties that Ankara maintains with Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, both of which trade more with Turkey than Qatar does.
It Is Not All About the Money
Qatar and Turkey currently share the feeling that something unique is happening, unseen (at least from a Turkish perspective) in other bilateral relations in the region. A high-level Qatari investor dealing with massive investment projects in Turkey recently declared, “We are at home in Turkey. We have mutual unprecedented and privileged access to the highest level of government and we act in mutual complete atmosphere of trust.” What distinguishes the Ankara-Doha relationship is its symbolic significance. The text of Ankara’s highly strategic military agreement with Qatar states that the two countries are set on “developing their friendly relationships”. Though the pipeline project, as mentioned in Kennedy’s article, can be considered as milestone, the relations between the two countries grew even more assertive and visible since the end of 2014.
Talk of an accelerated pace certainly reflects the perception held by a great number of local political and economic observers in Turkey. An example is the reaction of Aytug Atici, Republican People’s Party (CHP) Member of Parliament from Mersin, who addressed the Prime Minister on March 19, 2015, regarding the speed at which the 2015 treaty was brought to ratification: “Dear friends, I have been on the Foreign Relations Committee [of the parliament] for two years. It is the first time that I see such a situation. Usually agreements and treaties take years and we even have arguments about their order of priority and then Qatar comes and says ‘Hey, bring this over, let’s get this done’, and you are able in 72 days to discuss it with the Commission and move forward […]”. This led him to question sarcastically what he perceived as an urge to develop closer relations with Qatar: “Where is this love coming from? What is the source of this affection, this friendship?”
The coincidence of this agenda with Erdoğan’s shift from PM to President of the Turkish Republic is not casual. Qatar has also shown a strong commitment to the Turkish government. This loyalty is evidenced by investments in key sectors of the Turkish economy, on which the current government depends on to implement its socio-economic and development agenda, topping infrastructure, housing, finance, and energy. Qatari authorities have clearly stated this in their discussions for a USD 14 billion investment in the Afsin Elbistan thermic central project, which has been ongoing since 2014.
Mutual visits at the highest levels have been more frequent than ever, providing numerous opportunities for President Erdoğan and Qatari Emir Al Thani to meet on a personal level. Qatar has been one of the first countries to stand by Turkey amid recent jihadist and Kurdish attacks on its territory, and arguably no capital in the world expressed more support for President Erdoğan than Doha following the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt. This support contrasted with what was perceived in Turkey as lukewarm reactions from traditional Western allies, with whom mutual distrust had been mounting on numerous issues relevant to Turkey’s domestic and homeland security measures. Qatar’s commitment to the Turkish president and civilian government strengthened Doha’s ties with Ankara.
A Strong Narrative
As Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah Bin Nasir Al Thani received Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar in Doha in August 2016, stating that he would support Turkey “in all forums”, Ambassador Ahmet Demirok said that “Qatar was Turkey’s true friend”. He used the Turkish word dost for friend, implying a deep and long lasting relationship. A strong narrative, which reinforces the psychological and historical dimensions of this relationship, supports the Qatari-Turkish friendship. The November/December 2015 edition of Cerceve Dergisi, a publication of MUSIAD (a conservative association of leading businessmen) presents a glimpse of this special relationship. The publication focused on celebrating the “centennial strengthening of relationships” between Qatar and Turkey. The key to the narrative delivered can be summarized in two points.
First, both countries were victims of British/Western colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries. The text points to Qatar joining the Ottoman Empire in 1835 and mentions that it was “forced to separate from the Ottoman Empire in 1915” following World War I. Another paragraph states that “the British tried for years to attract Sheikh Muhamad Djasim bin Sani, loyal to the Ottomans, by different methods and threats”. The text details at length the 1893 attack of British warships on Qatari coasts: “As Qatar refused to cede, British warships, in 1893, bombed the Qatari coasts, for four days and nights pretexting a problem, leading to the deaths of many Qataris.”
Second, the current renewed relationship is about both mutual empowerment and the reestablishment of direct continuity with the greatness of Ottoman glory, allowing both Turkey and Qatar to reassert their national identities. The MUSIAD text emphasizes that the ruling Qatari family was “running the Valilik (Protectorate) of the Ottomans” in the territory. Contrary to other GCC countries, Qatar is not perceived to have been rebellious toward the Ottoman Empire, and this historical fact remains relevant today in the unique level of trust between Ankara and Doha. Ambassador Demirok stated in the attempted coup aftermath: “We have a very strong relationship. We don’t have any problems in our history with Qatar.”
Clearly both countries have built on this narrative to develop a series of opportunities to achieve mutual empowerment in the Middle East on industrial and regional political levels. Current investment figures and the intensification since 2015 of commercial deals and cooperation show that implementation is on the way.
The relationship between Turkey and Qatar is about more than temporary financial, commercial, and strategic interests. The Ankara-Doha partnership is rooted in shared values and historical bonds. Turkey’s bilateral ties with Qatar go beyond Ankara’s relationship with virtually all other countries, even Azerbaijan, with which Turkey has maintained a close connection.
In 2017, Turkey and Qatar will further invest in their bilateral relationship because doing so mutually empowers both Ankara and Doha. A series of fast-paced actions and sizable investments will continue to strengthen the symbolic and historical dimensions of their relations. While Turkey’s relationship with the West has been experiencing turbulence on a variety of issues, Ankara’s interests in developing closer ties with the Arab Gulf emirate will likely increase. Russia’s rising influence in the Middle East prompted Turkey to broker a draft nationwide ceasefire in Syria with Moscow on December 28 following the fall of Aleppo to Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army forces. This is a role that Turkey has always been willing to play to maximize Ankara’s intermediary position. The strength of Qatar’s financial diplomacy may well help Ankara to achieve this objective as the Turks strive for an increasingly independent foreign policy following years of challenges.
Gulf State Analytics published this article on January 10, 2017.
*Bertrand Viala is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Based in the United Arab Emirates, Viala, who started his career at the French Ministry of Defense, has over 15 years of continuous research experience in Turkey and the Middle East. An expert in competitive intelligence, he has worked as the regional director of the French strategic intelligence firm Serenus Conseil (Amarante Group), after which he created his own strategy consulting business in the UAE and Turkey. Viala has also collaborated for two years with Dubai based strategic intelligence firm Five Dimensions, as an expert on Turkish foreign policy and research director on market intelligence projects. Viala is a regular commentator on Turkish public policy and regional developments on Phoenix TV (China). He publishes regularly in France’s Les Echos newspaper. A member of the French Academy of Competitive Intelligence (Academie d’Intelligence Economique), the SYNFIE (Syndicat Francais de l’Intelligence Economique), he has also served for two years as elected board member of the French Business Council of Dubai & the Northern Emirates.