Though the Middle East has hardly ever been an oasis of stability, the past few years have turned it into an unimaginably complex battleground with multiple rival blocs and players vying for hegemony. Traditionally, it was the Arab world under the leadership of Egypt and then Iraq versus Israel, both enjoying some support from global powers, but now it’s a whole matrix.
The emergence of Iran as a major force, looking to expand the influence of the Shiite block through proxies like Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia – flanked by the United Arab Emirates – doing the same via its non-state actors to export Wahabi Islam has become the main theme for conflict in the region. But then there is the Jewish state, backed by the US, looking to protect its interests and finally, the newest kid on the block: the Qatar-Turkey duo, sort of a split faction from the erstwhile Sunni pole, giving way to a multi-dimensional game of power politics.
And the outgoing week saw further strengthening of this latest pole when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan touched upon Doha for a single-day official visit on November 25 to attend the fifth meeting of Qatar-Turkey Higher Strategic Committee.
Erdogan was received by the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah and the event saw discussions on a range of bilateral and regional issues.
The Turkish head of state met Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and together signed seven agreements in areas of economy, urbanization, trade, industry, technology and standardization etc.
He later visited the newly completed Turkish base in Qatar, named after the legendary Islamic commander Khalid Bin Waleed, where some 5,000 troops are stationed and said: “It [Turkey-Qatar Combined Joint Force Command] serves stability and peace of not only Qatar but also the Gulf region,” Erdogan said.
A joint communique published by the official Qatar News Agency after the meetings “stressed the importance of the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially in light of the challenges surrounding the region and… mutual respect and full sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs”.
“We have also been discussing regional issues where Turkey and Qatar have the same position,” he continued, adding the two countries share “excellent cooperation” in areas such as the war in Syria, the Gulf region, and “even beyond,” Turkish foreign minister said.
Meanwhile, Erdogan remarked: “We have never left our friends alone in any period of history against threats and risks, and we never will,”
This was the second high-level meeting between the two countries just in November as Turkish Foreign Minister had visited Doha for the preparations of the summit and held discussions with Al Thani. And since the 2017 Saudi blockade, it was Erdogan’s third visit.
The increasingly close partnership between Ankara and Doha stemmed out of both necessity and ideological convergence. When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, joined by other smaller Muslim states, blockaded Qatar for its deviations from the regional policy, Turkey stepped up with humanitarian aid and backed Doha.
Beginning from their softer position Iran to support for Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both Ankara and Doha have found themselves at odds with the other bloc, led by Riyadh. While Qatar attracted the wrath of the opposite camp in 2017, the rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia was widened when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the latter’s territory.
Qatar also put its weight behind Turkey when it announced its military offensive against Syrian Kurdish militias even though the other Arab states lashed out at Ankara.
But to have a truly close and mutually beneficial relationship, the two states have to look beyond their current focus on defense and security needs – where geopolitical interests are always temporary. That fact is indicated by the minimal trade between the two states: Turkey merely exported some $632 million worth of goods to Qatar in 2017 while its imports were even fewer at a meagre $258 million.
In comparison, Turkey’s trade volume with Saudi Arabia exceeds $4 billion and almost $15 billion with the United Arab Emirates. To have a more reliable partnership, Ankara and Doha must expand their energies beyond military cooperation as well, which would enable them to further expand their influence in the region through economic opportunities. With Turkey’s large population and Qatar’s stacks of dollars, it shouldn’t be that hard.