This week Monday, on 25 November Turkish President Erdoğan arrived to Qatar. This has been his ninth official visit, and the third since the outbreak of the Gulf crisis to the small gulf country, which in time became one of the firmest Turkish ally in the region. While the visit reaffirmed the mutually fruitful bilateral ties and the strong commitment for each other, and also witnessed the inauguration of a new Turkish military base in the peninsula state, economic matters were clearly topping the agenda.
Were they not, however, there had been plenty of reasons for the high level meeting, since this is the first of its kind since the Turkish military operation in Syria, after which unprecedentedly Qatar opposed – officially sustained – a unanimous Arab League resolution to condemn Turkey for the aggression. Which shows that the relations have already stepped over the so far held view, where Turkey is giving muscle and supplies for Qatari finances. This is a not a utilitarian relationship anymore, but by many signs, as we shall see, it has turned into a functioning strategic alliance.
The visit, however, came right at the time, when there are major protests in a number of Arab countries. And by now even Iran witnesses its worst protests since 2009. As we recently dealt with, these protests, though have a huge amount of accumulated inner stress blowing up now, come conveniently in a time, when Saudi Arabia is trying its best to hit back to Iran after the humiliation in the Aramco hit. Not like Iran was not accusing the usual suspects behind these, and rapidly arrested eight CIA operatives working on the protests, after the last attack by a mob on the Iranian Consulate in the holy city of an-Nağaf, Iraq, the Saudi state openly admitted support for these events and promised even more.
That is important, because Iran plays a key role in the Turkey-Qatar tandem’s sustainability. After the blockade Qatar has become much less accessible country, forcing the stabile Turkish supplies to come through Iran. Which Tehran not only allowed to irk Riyadh, but even boosted its own support for Qatar. Not because it has any hope to surpass Turkey there, but to keep the Saudis busy. In such a context Riyadh automatically suspected that the visit has an edge against it, might even be sharpened from Iran. But the fury that broke out of it in the media showed some rather serious signs just how misplaced Saudi worldview can be sometimes. Seeing through this relatively plain and simple case this week as out topic, we can extrapolate Saudis standpoint to other, more controversial matters for the sake of clarity.
Qatar and Turkey
To see the rather complex web of overlapping trenches in the Turkish-Egyptian-Gulf relations and what this visit really meant for the two sides, we have to see the Turkish-Qatari relations a bit closer now.
Ever since AKP took power in Turkey in 2002, it has been constantly trying to find firm supporters in the Gulf. In one hand to find financial backers for its new economic policies – which eventually did indeed work – outside of the Western sphere of influence, but even more importantly, to find moral supporters for its new, more religion-oriented inner policies. And what is better than the birthplace of Islam in that matter? At that time Saudi Arabia and Qatar were both promising partners, especially that at that time the two were very close allies. Turning formerly secular states in the Middle East into their spiritual vassals was state policy both in Riyadh and Doha. That even lead the partners to the ill-fated quest to change the government in Syria, which regardless of its failure did not cause tension until 2013. That is the time when the first major crisis started between Qatar and its GCC allies, which lead to the complete governmental change in Doha. And here Turkey, though for long tried to balance out its steps, had to choose between the two sides. Which very soon was not its own choice anymore, as Riyadh started to rapidly distance itself from Ankara. But it was not until 2017, when the Gulf crisis started, four states started to blockade Qatar, and a military intervention by Saudi, Emirati and possibly Egyptian troops was imminent. That is when Turkey, though already had troops in Qatar for more than a year by than, sent relief forces to its allies and prevented takeover. That solidified the alliance, and since than relations skyrocketed.
Both were taking advantage from the situation and in a number of ways. The strong alliance showed even before the blockade against Qatar. In the summer of 2016, when the failed military coup took place in Turkey and loyalty was deeply shaken in the Turkish elite it is suggested that Qatar provided special forces for the protection of Erdoğan personally. It is claimed that documents prove the dispatch of these special forces at the very night of the coup. Such a favor cannot be taken lightly, so no wonder that the very year Turkey started placing troops in Qatar in exchange, already preparing for the worst. And that is why Turkey hastily sent troops to Qatar once the blockade started.
Beyond the strategic and military considerations, however, there are way bigger economic reasons for this alliance. After the blockade Turkey became one of the biggest trade partners of Qatar. By Turkish statistics only in 2018 Turkish export to Qatar grew with 69% to $1,1 billion. At the same time Qatari exports also grew with 27% to some $335 million. That might not be a huge number, but Qatari companies at the same given time started to fund huge projects in Turkey, with the volume of some $17 billion. That recently rose to some $22 billion. When Turkey started to experience American economic pressure and the Turkish lira started to plummet there was a whole campaign in Qatar to support the Turkish currency. That might not have been more than a symbolic gesture, but the fact that Qatar agreed to conduct trade in Turkish lira dropping the dollar, is a serious support. In a number of times the Qatari cash injections proved to be a lifeline to the Turkish economy, much the same way the Turkish military was for the Qatari state.
On the other hand, Turkey never enjoyed such fruitful relations with Saudi Arabia, or its blockading allies. All economic bridgeheads in Egypt were lost right after as-Sīsī’s coup. There is still an ongoing animosity, so it is impossible to envision such gains to be recovered in Egypt. Riyadh was even a smaller partner, mostly importing Turkish military equipment. Even that, however, started deteriorate in 2017. Not like winning support from the ruler of Mecca and Medina would not have benne a key priority for the Turkish leadership, but it was not in their hands anymore. In May 2017, so even before the blockade against Qatar, Saudi revoked its order for 4 Turkish military vessels in the value of $1 billion, which was a serious blow. In such terms it is not a surprise that Turkey without much thinking chose to support Qatar to the farthest limits. While Ankara could not have won anything by siding with the blockading side, since no one offered conciliation with Egypt, Qatar could offer a lot. And the numbers prove that it did deliver. Only in the military field, Qatar agreed this March to buy 100 new Turkish tanks.
That is how the link started and solidified, and that is why the partners joint forces in number of strategic decisions. Like the Turkish bid for the Sudanese port of Suwākin, probably from Qatari money, and a number of similar bids. That is a mutual defense project in every sense of the word and a very functional one. Which by now reached very cheesy symbolic levels. The first Turkish military base in Qatar was named Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, after the Muslim warrior, who conquered Spain for the Arabs, while the new, only recently opened second base is named after Hālid ibn Walīd, the Arab warrior, who conquered Syria of Islam. And it is surely not a light message that Erdoğan visited a Combined Joint Force Command in the base. These might be very touchy symbolic messages, just like Erdoğan’s speech in the base’s inauguration, which might work well to frustrate Riyadh, but the magnitude of 5000 Turkish troops is a clear indication of defense measure, not an expansionist project. Turkey is protecting its investor, and the economic concerns dominate, no matter how colorful is the act.
“How would you feel…?”
As mentioned before, Saudi political attention became obsessed with the Turkish visit. Opinions ranged from the mildly suspicious to the extreme with the wildest accusations, all being absolutely convinced that the meeting was intended against Riyadh, and Iran might even has something to do with this in the background. Even though the Emirati press both in Arabic and in English, while still criticizing and downplaying the event, clearly saw a way more realistic picture. Which is that regardless the great titles, the visit is a business matter, as both partners seriously need each other.
Amidst this climate came one of the most twisted Saudi viewpoints in the RT Arabic’s Is’al Aktar (Ask More) program. And since it came from the retired Major-General dr. Ḥasan aš-Šahrī, one of the most interviewed Saudi strategical experts, this shows a whole mindset to be seriously misplaced. Reacting to a notion by the Turkish debate partner, aš-Šahrī suggested: “How would Turkey feel, if there would be a Saudi or Egyptian military base with 30, or 50 thousand troops in Cyprus, Armenia, or Bulgaria on the Turkish borders?”
Putting aside the guess that Ankara would not even bother to react, and the fact that this is a share impossibly, the suggestion is flawed in so many ways that it is even hard to account. First of all it is seriously misplaced for a Saudi expert, who regularly advises the Saudi leadership to talk in the name of the Egyptian military, or foreign policy. Egypt hastily pulled out from Yemen, and never tried to establish a base nor there, nor in Libya, while these are way more pressing and way less problematic matters. So how far is the possibility of Cyprus, or Armenia? The very idea, however, to hide behind Egyptian military involvement shows serious weakness. Which in the light of the Saudis’ Yemeni campaign is understandable, but still a very serious flaw in the thinking. And the same weakness is shown by the comparison of some 5000 Turkish troops in Qatar with 30 to 50 thousand Saudi troops on the Turkish border.
Secondly, it is an impossible suggestion, which shows that the Saudi thinkers have very limited understanding of the world. There are serious and long-lasting cultural, religious and economical ties between Turkey and Qatar. The military base was not created overnight. Yet Saudi Arabia, or Egypt for that matter, has no such ties with any of the mentioned countries. So how could it establish any base in any of these states? Also, Qatar is a country with considerably wide range of foreign policy options, and with practically no limitations. That is not the case at all in the mentioned countries. It is common knowledge that in the Caucasus all three states have their specific mentors, which look after them and safeguard their matters. For Georgia it is the US, for Azerbaijan it is Turkey and for Armenia it is Russia. So if ever Riyadh would even try to establish a base in Armenia, Turkey would have to stand in line to object, since Russia, which already has military bases there, would prevent such scenario way before Ankara would have any chance to react. Bulgaria is an EU country, so hosting a Saudi or Egyptian base there would meet serious objections from the EU way before Turkey. The same applies to Cyprus, with the addition that there is a major British military enclave there, so probably London would stop such track way before Ankara. And here we haven’t even mentioned the fact that these states would in no way benefit from such developments, unlike Qatar, which itself invited the Turkish troops for its own safety. Nor the fact that Armenia for example enjoys specifically warm ties with Syria, so in no way would do any favor for the Saudis.
Let us, however, assume that for some unbelievable miracle the Saudis managed to put a base in any of these countries. Would Turkey to fear that? In the light of the Saudi campaign in Yemen that is very doubtful. And here comes the calculation, which is impossibly flawed from a retired general and a strategic expert. How would Riyadh resupply such bases? To Bulgaria or to Cyprus over Egypt that is possible, but would need such logistical support, which would greatly exceed the Saudi possibilities even in peace, not to mention in war. And in war such supply line can be cut easily by Turkey, especially now, possessing the S-400 systems. The bigger the amount of troops the bigger is the logistical burden for supply, which cannot be secured, while the smaller the number of the troops the easier is the resupply, but the smaller is the threat. Which would be applied against the second biggest army of NATO. Armenia is even a funnier suggestion, since the only way the Saudis could reach there would be over Iran. And no one should doubt how much Iran would give a green light to such a quest. That is the very secret of the Turkish-Qatari tandem that they secured the Iranian consent beforehand, and Tehran is even willing to give additional support should the time call for it.
Lastly, should Turkey fear such a threat, even if by some miracle the bases are placed on its border? Turkey is a NATO member and even a very significant one. Should Riyadh or Cairo to cause trouble there is not an isolated matter, but a common NATO issue. Especially if from these bases the Saudis would try to threat Turkey in any way. While the same equation is not applicable in the Gulf.
Yet the worst of all in this idea is that it shows how desperately Riyadh failed to grasp what the Turkish-Qatari tandem actually means.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia
Regardless the humiliation in the Hašoqğī case, which was beautifully played out by the Turks, Erdoğan has not real intention to antagonize relations with Riyadh. It is very noticeable that while Turkey time and again lashes out against Egypt and the Emirates, with whom it has conflicting agendas in Libya, Sudan and a number of other places, it is very restrained with the Saudis. Having framed them in the Hašoqğī case was a golden opportunity and a political necessity, but given the size of the matter, Ankara visibly showed restraint. Simply because for Turkey that is not personal. Unlike for the Saudis, to whom now it became a personal vendetta to avenge their Crown Prince. And that is a key element in the Gulf mindset, especially for the Saudis.
The same obsession drives the Saudis against Iran for four decades by now. And recently from one shameful blunter to the other. Have the Saudis decided to show the same commitment to Turkey now, that might foreshadow a new era of hostilities.
Which might not be easy as Turkey is way less isolated from the West as Iran, but the signs are already there. And it is becoming a recurring theme in the Gulf opinions to view two major intrusions into the Arab world. The Iranians, which is an old mania, and recently Turkey. That is exactly, what came up here in this example again by aš-Šahrī. That theme first came up officially in this year’s Arab League summit in Tunis, but by now it became supplemented. As by the new claims the two are not only intruding into the Arab internal affairs, which in the Saudi vocabulary means Gulf affairs, but they are doing so based on religious-ideological bases. Which has some merit in it, but quite a statement from the Saudis. Strangely, however, these voices never mention a third intruder, which for decades was the biggest enemy: Israel.
Egypt and Daḥlān
In fact, while Turkey is not specifically interested in the Gulf other than its fruitful ties with Qatar, it is being dragged into the matter by its conflict with Egypt. Egypt and the Emirates are tied together much the same way as Turkey and Qatar. While Turkey originally had not much against Abū Zabī and the other way is the same, both Egypt and Turkey has many problems with each other, both Qatar and the Emirates. As much Turkey is supporting Qatar against all odds, Egypt just as much does favors to the Emirates, when it can cause trouble for Turkey.
One specific card in this game is a person, a certain Palestinian, called Muḥammad Daḥlān, strongly tied to the Abū Zabī Crown Prince, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid. He is regularly accused by the Turkish media, just like the government, to had supported the failed coup in 2016, and in a number of similar projects in a the region. He was once a close friend and associate of the late Yāsir ‘Arafāt, but by accusations he had much to do with his assassination. Once head of the Palestinian inner security, though have developed perfect ties with the Israelis, he had to leave Palestine, after which he became a proud Serbian citizen, than the right-hand man of the Emirati Crown Prince. Since than, Daḥlān is one of Ibn Zāyid’s most trusted advisors, who even the Israeli media acknowledged that carried out assassination missions with Mossad agents all over the region. He has far reaching connections, mostly in the Arab world, but even in the West, which is regularly utilized by the Emirati leader.
Turkey regularly points this out as one of the biggest issues between the two states, while the Emiratis in every forum claim that Daḥlān is a simple citizen, only living in the Emirates. Recently, however, in early November, responding to the accusations Daḥlān gave long interview in an Egyptian channel to a well-known anchor, ‘Amr Adīb. The interesting part in the interview is that while he maintains that he is just a humble citizen, he gave detailed information about how the Turkish authorities provided shelter to a number of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood radicals, and gave them Turkish papers under new names. He similarly accused the Turkish state to support militias in Libya, and claimed to be able to provide details about the Turkish military agents there and their movements. Which is quite a feat from an “ordinary citizen”.
These claims by Daḥlān are probably not unfounded. But fact the Emirates clearly uses such a dangerous figure against Turkey, and that Egypt happily airs his voice in the media, despite being one of the most media repressive states in the region, shows that the Abū Zabī is determined to help Egypt in its fight with the Turks. In a very serious level. The reason for that is less the irritation from the Turkish base in Qatar. That is less of a matter for them, as it is clear from their very mild reactions. Much rather a similar commitment causes this with the Egyptian, as the Turks and the Qataris have.
Losing on every horse
It is not hard to see that far above Syria and the Irani-Gulf rifts, there are two competing tandems in the region. The Emirati-Egyptian one, and the Qatari-Turkish. Saudi does not strongly sticks to either of them, but that is why it should not go that far with the animosity. Ideas, like Turkey is the same enemy as Iran for them, which is a clear threat, or that they should troops on the Turkish borders are so far fetched that borders delusions. These notions might be found funny, or regarded as small isolated examples, but the same mentality took the Saudis to Yemen. They started as it would be a few week campaign and a huge number of states supported them, but by now they are abandoned even by the Emirates and losing a war, which has dragged for years.
Ten years ago a six Arab Gulf states were in a very effective collective, the GCC, which was heading for common currency and a partial union. And Saudi was at the helm. By now the rifts within the Gulf itself are bigger than ever, and Riyadh can barely keep its control over Bahrain, while starting more and more campaigns all over the region. That is why such notions tell much more about the Saudi mindset than a few bad sentences from a retired general.
Many now praise Muḥammad bin Salmān as a big reformer and the harbinger of great changes. His record, however, both in inner and regional policies are less promising. If he really takes over the kingdom, which is widely opposed even in the inner circles, than he will hopefully use better advisers. Because launching another obsession against Turkey, like the one against Iran, can have very negative effects.