The unscheduled arrival of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, in the Turkish capital Ankara throws a new light on regional links
Trust Turkey’s Recep Erdogan to have had a game plan when he challenged the Trump administration and promised that the latter will regret its “unilateralist” policies.
Some pundits thought Russia and China have been inciting him and are lurking in the shadows to escort Erdogan to a brave new world.
Others fancied that the Eurasian integration processes would now take a great leap forward as Turkey embraced Russia, while a few forecast that Turkey would now sell itself cheap for Chinese money.
And then, there is the ubiquitous prediction in such situations that whoever defied the lone super power would come a cropper and Turkey’s fate is going to be miserable.
All these apocalyptic predictions overlooked the fact that Turkey may have a ‘third way’ forward – by strengthening even further its strategic autonomy and optimally exploiting its foreign policy options.
This path opened dramatically on Wednesday with the unscheduled arrival of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, in the Turkish capital Ankara.
Economic projects, investments, deposits
Qatar’s royal court has announced in a statement that Al-Thani “issued directives that will see the State of Qatar to provide a host of economic projects, investments and deposits” worth $15 billion to support the Turkish economy.
A government source in Ankara told Reuters that the investments would be channeled into Turkish banks and financial markets. Al-Thani confirmed the direct investment plans in Turkey, which he described as having a “productive, strong and solid economy.” He tweeted: “We are together with Turkey and our brothers there, who stand by Qatar and problems of the Ummah.”
Erdogan responded, saying his meeting with al-Thani was “very productive and positive.” Erdogan thanked the emir and Qatari people for standing with Turkey. “Our relations with friendly and brotherly country Qatar will continue to strengthen in many areas,” he tweeted.
At its most obvious level, we may locate the historic Qatari gesture toward Turkey in the matrix of the strong convergence that has accrued in their relationship in recent years in the backdrop of the emergent power dynamic in the Middle East. The axis works on many planes.
On the ideological plane, importantly, the ruling elites in both countries share a unique affinity toward Islamism and in visualizing the Muslim Brotherhood as the vehicle for the democratic transformation of the region. As a result, both have been targeted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and Egypt.
Joint military exercises
Until the retreat of Qatar from the Syrian killing fields in recent years, it was collaborating closely with Turkey in the failed project to overthrow the Assad regime. Of course, both countries are strong supporters of Hamas, too.
Turkey keeps a military base in Qatar, which may seem symbolic in comparison with the Western bases, but turned out to be an important lifeline for Doha for pushing back at Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the past couple of years. Turkey and Qatar are also planning to hold joint military exercises this year.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi resent Erdogan’s projection of power through Qatar into the GCC territory, which they regard as their playpen. The Turks in turn suspect that Emiratis had a hand in the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016.
Meanwhile, there is great complementarity in the economic sphere between Turkey and Qatar. Turkey has a dynamic export industry and an economy that has registered impressive growth in the last decade, while Qatar has a huge surplus of capital for investment.
One consideration for Doha will be that the Turkish construction industry, which is affected by the present financial crisis in Turkey, is involved in preparing the infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup 2022, which Qatar is hosting.
Fundamentally, therefore, the planned Qatari investment in the Turkish economy holds big resonance for the geopolitics of the Middle East. No doubt, it proclaims the adulthood of the Turkish-Qatari axis. Regional states ranging from Iran to Israel will carefully take note that Al-Thani has come to Erdogan’s help at a critical moment.
Some spice in a heady brew
Yet, the Qatar-Turkey axis will not project itself as a strategic defiance of the United States – although the Qatari emir is well aware of Erdogan’s face-off with the Trump administration. Nonetheless, what adds some spice to this heady brew is that the Trump administration has been unabashedly partial toward the Saudi-Emirati line-up in the Gulf region.
A recent American report even claimed that former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his job because he stood in the way of a Saudi-Emirati plan to attack Qatar.
At any rate, the apt description for the Turkish-Qatari axis is that it is a manifestation of the arrival of multipolarity in the politics of the Middle East. Both Turkey and Qatar have good relations with Iran.
Although US Central Command is headquartered in Doha, Al-Thani also has a warm relationship Russian President Vladimir Putin, too.
In the power dynamic of the Middle East, the trend toward multipolarity is poised to accelerate. As time passes, conceivably, even Saudi Arabia and the UAE will see the attraction in strengthening their strategic autonomy.
It will be a fallacy, therefore, to continue viewing the Middle East through the Cold War prism, as most US analysts do, as an area of contestation between the big powers – as if the regional states don’t have a mind of their own or multiple options in developing their policies.
Simply put, Turkey or Iran may lean toward Russia, but can never forge a strategic alliance with Moscow. With a view to pushing back at US pressure, they may lean decidedly toward Moscow from time to time, but they have no intentions of surrendering their strategic autonomy.
But to caricature these countries as passive participants in Russia’s Eurasian integration processes will be delusional.
Russia understands this complicated reality, which is not surprising, given Moscow’s historical memory of its highly problematic relationships with Turkey and Iran through centuries in its imperial history. Thus, the Russian policy is not unduly demanding and is willing to accept their nationalist mindset.
On the other hand, the failure of the US policies lies in Washington’s inability to accept equal relationships and its obsession, ‘You’re either with us, or are against us.’
Make no mistake, the European capitals watch with exasperation the Trump administration’s handling of Erdogan – although he is by no means an easy customer to handle. The point is, European countries are closer to Russia in their appreciation of the complexities of the Middle East. Nor are European countries inclined to view Turkey through the Israeli prism.
Therefore, a concerted Western strategy toward Erdogan under US leadership will remain elusive. Germany’s decision to lift its sanctions against Turkey can be seen in this light. Equally, Erdogan is due to pay a state visit to Germany in September.