Understanding Turkey’s influential role in the Gulf crisis

Since the recent fall-out between Qatar and a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia, portraits of Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan have been paraded in the Qatari capital alongside those of the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The sight reflected Turkey’s growing significance in the Arab political scene amid the simmering tensions in the Gulf.

The resurgence of Turkish influence in the Middle East coincided with the rise to power of President Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP), although the process to re-engage with the region began as early as 1983, under Prime Minister Turgut Özal. In 2001, Ahmet Davutoğlu – who would later serve as Erdoğan’s foreign minister – published a book entitled “Strategic Depth,” which called for more Turkish involvement in the Middle East’s politics. Erdoğan embraced the doctrine upon coming to power, and worked to exert soft power in Arab countries.

From 2002 and 2011 this strategy met with considerable success, endearing Erdoğan to Arab masses and rulers alike. His persona was also lauded in Western political circles, where he became a symbol of moderation and modernity. Islamists, for their part, interpreted AKP-ruled Turkey as a living example of Islam’s compatibility with democracy. Most of all, the Turkish economy reached a high point during this period, and with more resources at hand Turkey was well positioned to assume a central position in Middle Eastern politics.

But after the Arab Spring of 2010-11, Turkish engagement went through a transition, as did Erdoğan’s image in the international arena. Turkey’s attempt to use hard power to influence events in troubled states like Iraq and Syria backfired. Critics accused Turkey of over-extending its authority, with some claiming it aimed to resurrect the lost glory of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey was also chastised for supporting Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine and Egypt, respectively.

Critiques of Turkey’s Middle East policy notwithstanding, Ankara’s involvement in the Arab world is actually fixed in recent history, and is made visible through its relationship with Qatar. An influential non-governmental body in Turkey, the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MUSIAD), aptly summarized the historical background of the Turko-Qatari relationship in a December 2015 publication. While praising Qatar’s founder Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammad Al Thani, it underscored his loyalty to the Ottomans in the pre-World War I period. Similarly, in August 2016, the Turkish Ambassador to Qatar remarked, “We don’t have any problems in our history with Qatar. There are cultural and policy similarities and the people are very close and the relationship between our leaders is excellent.”

On the other end of political spectrum, Saudi Arabia, which has taken the lead in ostracizing Qatar and justifying the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) economic sanctions against it, has been a keen observer of Turkey’s international relationships. In particular, the Saudi government has criticized Turkey for its relatively dovish stance towards Iran, although Turko-Iranian relations today are in some ways an extension of a deep historical tradition. For centuries, Turkey’s and Iran’s predecessors, the Ottomans and Safavids respectively, competed for control of the Middle East through proxies, avoiding direct conflict with each other. Both countries’ governments are also adept at separating geopolitical issues from economic interests, keeping their diplomatic channels open. This partnership was on full display when, within the first few hours of the Qatari crisis, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif went to Ankara to assess the situation.

At times, Turkey has been able to make use of the Saudi obsession with Iran to its own advantage. For example, after signing a defense agreement with Qatar in December 2014, which allowed the Turkish military to establish a base in Qatar, Ankara tried to neutralize the GCC’s apprehensions by claiming the agreement would help curb growing Iranian influence. All along, Turkey has tried to avoid portraying itself as a competitor to the Saudis. One reason is Turkey’s already acrimonious relationships with Syria and Egypt; maintaining another conflict would likely be untenable. Another reason is Turkey’s desire to maintain a channel of engagement with Washington through Riyadh. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has so far responded in kind, shying away from bracketing Turkey with Qatar.

For Qatar itself, the mutually empowering relationship with Ankara has been central in its foreign policy calculus over the last few years. The tiny emirate possesses considerable economic strength due to its huge natural gas reserves. Between 1995 and 2014, the Qatari economy expanded from $8.1 billion to $210 billion. Embracing Turkey provides Doha an opportunity to flex its foreign policy muscle, and “punch above its weight” in a region characterized by vague and unstable alliances.

Qatar’s commitment to Turkey was on display after a Russian jet was shot down by Turkish forces as it flew through Turkish airspace in November 2015. Doha offered to contribute $3 billion to the Turkish economy, and extended gas supply guarantees to make up for the potential loss of tourism and natural gas supplies from Russia. The Qatari emir was also the first foreign leader to express solidarity with Erdoğan after the failed Turkish coup, underscoring Qatar’s shared interests with the AKP government.

The latest crisis in the Gulf has allowed Turkey to strengthen its presence in the Middle East. It has been able to take sides without making any outright enemies. But this strategy might not not be sustainable for very long. It is difficult to imagine how Ankara will maintain cordial relations with Saudi Arabia on one hand and Qatar and Iran on the other.

Although the current spat in the Gulf is not expected to turn violent, it is adding to the instability in the broader Middle East, which has already been torn apart by conflict. Turkey might not have the necessary clout to single-handedly pull the region out of its current quagmire, but it does possess the required geopolitical, economic, and military strength to shape the Gulf’s political landscape.