Turkey and Qatar: An asymmetric partnership that harms Ankara

Aykan Erdemir, Emre Caliskan , Monday 3 Aug 2015

Turkey’s partnership with Qatar has not only failed to deliver economic benefits to the country but has also brought security risks to its doorsteps

Until a few years ago, many analysts considered Turkey a rising star. With its booming economy, “zero problems with neighbours” policy, and active role in mediating the region’s disputes, they viewed Ankara as a potential model for the Muslim world.

Today’s Turkey bears little resemblance to that country. A series of foreign policy missteps have left Turkey increasingly isolated, with no friends except one: Qatar.

The meeting that Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani held in mid-July with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the latest in a round of seventy high-level bilateral visits that have taken place since the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Qatar seems to be the most popular destination for Turkish officials – Erdoğan alone has had seven visits as prime minister, and made it a priority to visit Doha within weeks of assuming the presidency.

Although Turkey is vying for European Union membership, EU members, including neighbours Bulgaria and Greece, do not receive the same attention in Ankara.

Al-Thani’s visit coincided with the announcement that Qatar's beIN Media Group had closed a deal, under a questionable arrangement, to buy Turkey's leading pay-television network Digiturk. Soon after, rumors circulated about a potential Qatari acquisition of Bank Asya, Turkey's largest Islamic bank.

Economic and political interests are intertwined in the Turkish-Qatari axis. Both countries are strongly committed to pan-Islamist policies and support illiberal allies including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and armed Islamist militants in Syria and Libya, sparking accusations of funding and supporting terrorism.

Turkey and Qatar are also united in their opposition to the so-called Friendship Pipeline planned in 2011 to go through Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The project poses a threat to Qatari plans to become a key supplier of natural gas to European markets via Turkey, as well as Ankara’s ambitions to become the leading energy hub in the region. Furthermore, both of these Sunni powers see the idea of a Shi’ite pipeline controlled by their regional adversaries as most unacceptable.

The Turkish-Qatari partnership entered a new phase in December 2014 with the signing of a comprehensive military agreement.

The deal, which came into effect the day after Turkey's national elections, will allow Turkish troops back in Qatar on the centennial of having left the peninsula at the close of the Ottoman era. The two countries will be able to deploy forces in each other's territory – Turkey will even set up a base in Qatar, its first overseas – and conduct joint military exercises.

Turkey and Qatar have an asymmetric security arrangement: the former, after all, has nearly three times the number of military personnel as the other's total number of citizens. Qatar, therefore, would be the real beneficiary of the budding partnership.

Stuck between the "Shia Crescent" and threats from its perennial rival Saudi Arabia, Doha seems to be making yet another attempt to punch above its diplomatic weight.

For Erdoğan and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief architects of the Turkish-Qatari axis, this could be an opportune moment to prove to Turkish citizens the worth of partnering with Doha.

Many Turks believe the partnership has not only failed to deliver economic results but also brought security risks due to Turkey and Qatar’s cooperation with Islamists in the Syrian conflict. ISIS's July attack on Turkey’s Syrian border, for example, claimed 32 lives and injured more than 100.

Turkey now has fewer friends in the international arena than at any time since the 1980 coup d’état. Instead of "zero problems with neighbors," it currently has no ambassadors in Egypt, Israel, Libya, Syria or Yemen, and its relations with longtime ally the United States are strained.

Qatar, for its part, has been called a "permissive terrorist financing environment" by the US, is part of an FBI investigation over allegations that it bribed its way to hosting the World Cup, and is home to the Hamas leadership and a branch of the Taliban.

Turkey should ask itself whether it truly benefits from its alliance with Qatar, or whether this asymmetric partnership is only deepening its isolation.

*Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a nonresident fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him on Twitter @ aykan_erdemir

*Emre Caliskan is a journalist and PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. He is the co-author of the upcoming book, The "New Turkey" and its Discontents. You can follow him on Twitter @ calemre

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