Of all of the non-Arab countries which publicly proclaimed neutrality over the current Qatar crisis, Turkey’s stated neutrality is the most difficult to swallow. Even Iran whose alleged steps towards semi-normalisation (and even that’s a stretch) with Qatar is a stated proximate cause of the Saudi led dispute, has taken a more neutral position, criticising the act rather than the states who enacted the total shutting off of Qatar from its neighbours and much of the wider Arab world.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu gave a somewhat bold statement on the issue in comparison to the more nuanced ones coming from Russia, Iran and the United States. He said that the “unity and togetherness” of the Gulf is as important to Turkey as its own unity, a unity which one could be forgiven for saying is more fragile than that of the Gulf has generally been.
He then stated,
“Turkey, as a responsible actor in its region and as term president of the Organization of Islamic Conference, is ready to do its best for resolving this disagreement between friendly and brotherly countries as soon as possible”.
In this sense Turkey has volunteered, albeit subtly to act as a mediator in the dispute, though at this point it is doubtful that two Arab kingdoms would want to take Turkey up on such an offer. If the dispute is prolonged however, this could perhaps change.
One could even imagine the US ‘outsourcing’ such a responsibility to Turkey in spite of Donald Trump’s frosty relationship with Turkish President Erdogan. Russia and Iran have wisely stayed well above the fray in every respect of this particular issue as of course has China.
But Turkey’s preference for Qatar over Saudi Arabia is clear. It’s preference for Qatar over Egypt is likewise clear, but for subtly different reasons.
In both Libya and Syria Turkey and Qatar are backing many of the same jihadist terrorist factions. Indeed,Qatar’s modest investments into Turkey’s economy have expanded into funding some of the jihadist groups in Syria which are under the putative wing of Erdogan.
Qatar’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood has been stressed as one of Saudi’s justifications for breaking off all connections with its small neighbour. However, Saudi’s disdain for the Brotherhood is less ideological than it is systematic and strategic.
Saudi sees the Brotherhood as better organised and older competition for influence in the theocratic political spectrum of the Sunni Arab world. Saudi as the Qatar row demonstrates, does not like any competition, in many ways Saudi hates competition more than it hates polar opposite political systems such as that of Iran. Of course the Saudis would deny this for the obvious reasons of wanting to save face. By contrast, Qatar has embraced the Brotherhood for the same reasons that Saudi shuns it. Qatar is happy to fund a group whose organisational and doctrinal structure needs no additional support from Qatar–they merely need Qatari money.
Turkey’s relationship with the Brotherhood at this point is the opposite of pragmatic. Erdogan’s political beliefs and instincts are very much in line with that of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Egypt was briefly ruled by the once again outlawed group, Turkish-Egyptian relations improved. Now that secular rule has been restored to Egypt, President Sisi will not forgive Erdogan any time soon, nor will he forgive the Qatari’s whose relationship with the Brotherhood reached a zenith during the rule of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi.
However much the pro-Qatari factions in Turkey want to see Egypt as an ‘ally’ of Saudi Arabia, the reality is that Egypt is rightly angry at Qatar and Turkey for their support of the hated Brotherhood regime, whereas Saudi dollars are plentiful and don’t come with this particular baggage of Qatari dollars, let alone the baggage of President Ergodan’s ideology or ego.
This didn’t stop the Turkish mainstream media paper Hurriyet from speaking of a ‘Saudi-Egyptian Axis’.
An opinion piece in the generally reasonable Al-Monitor speaks of Erdogan fearing that he could be the next Morsi or even more strangely the next Qatar.
First of all, Turkey is not part of the Arab sphere of influence much though Erdgoan often wants to be. In many ways Turkey is far more distant to Sunni Arab countries than Iran is with Shi’a movements, parties and countries in the Arab world.
Erdogan’s position is indeed far more precarious than his followers would care to admit but none of these reasons have to do with the Gulf. They have to do with Erdogan’s disastrous interventions in Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish issue that Erdogan’s involvement in Syria and Iraq has inflamed both domestically and internationally and this is all compounded by Turkey’s own experiences with Salafist blow-back from Turkey’s neighbours as well as disgruntled secular Kemalists who are hating Erdogan more by the day in spite of their increased marginalisation at the hands of Erdogan. This has only made them more angry in many cases.
Erdogan’s followers see the same forces that are ‘undermining’ Qatar as the kinds of forces loyal to exiled Turkish Islamist Fethullah Gülen who Erdogan still blames for the attempted coup in 2016. It’s a strange comparison but it is indeed playing on the minds of some in Erdgoan’s party.
The only similarities between these two disputes are academic. Saudi and Qatar have similar political systems and broadly a similar geo-political position. Much the same can be said about Erdogan’s relationship with Fethullah Gülen, a former ally turned supreme enemy. Saudi and Qatar are drawn into hatred because of their similarities rather than their differences and the same scenario rightly applies to Erdogan and Gülen.
But beyond this, Turkey has nothing directly to fear from the Qatar political conflicts…for now.
If Turkey gets more deeply involved and knowing Erdogan, if Turkey does, Ankara’s pro-Qatari stance will show and Erdogan will alienate Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others perhaps permanently.
This is very much in Erdogan’s hands. If he truly remains neutral, his rule in Turkey will remain as safe is it otherwise would be and he could even quietly step up business with an isolated Qatar that could use Turkey as a still open door to the region and the wider world. If he instead cooks his own goose by stepping into the situation with bravado he could get totally isolated from the remaining parts of the Arab world that aren’t all ready sick and tired of him.