Qatari crisis promises difficulties for Qatar and Turkey
The students of international politics of the Middle East often focus on the role of the major powers, paying less attention to the political dynamics that shape relations among countries of the region. The measures adopted by a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia against Qatar during the past week, therefore, came as a surprise to everyone. It is not that the disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Qatar were not known, rather no one expected the disagreements to break into such a dramatic rupture of relations. What went wrong and how will it affect regional politics? And equally significantly, how is the change likely to affect Turkey’s foreign relations since, during recent years, Qatar and Turkey had been developing close economic and political relations and pursuing coordinated policies in the region?
There are two areas where the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have clashed. First, seeing Iran as its major regional rival with designs to expand its influence in the Gulf and the Middle East, as evidenced by its support of the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria, Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its primary security concern. Iran’s pro- gram to develop nuclear capabilities has only helped intensify its fears, guiding it to search for external support. After President Barack Obama’s choice to negotiate with Iran, the virulent anti-Iranian spirit of President Donald Trump, has come as music to Saudi ears. They have also been sure that Israel, who shared fears of growing Iranian capabilities, constitute an ally. The Qatari approach to Iran was the opposite. Its government believed that cooperation and normalizing relations was a more assured way of ensuring security.
The second area of contention pertained to the differeent positions toward the driving forces of the Arab Spring. The Saudis viewed the Ikhwan as a destabilizing force that would eventually threaten the kingdom. They developed close relations with the government of President Sisi in Egypt whose own survival depended on his ability to suppress them and with Syrian groups closely linked to Ikhwan. Qatari leadership, on the other hand, envisioning the development of a regional Sunni Bloc, threw its support behind them, while denying them a safe haven in Qatar.
The uneasy cordiality between the two countries broke down, by tweeted remarks uttered by Qatar’s emir in a public speech, criticizing Saudi policies. Qatar government has said that the tweet is work of hackers, but to deaf ears. The haste with which the boycott of Qatar has proceeded suggests it may have been pre-meditated. Observers speculate that Trump’s expression of strong support for the Saudis and his anti-Iranian remarks during his recent visit are likely to have encouraged the Kingdom’s action. Whether the United States of America has encouraged the confrontation is unclear. America has been keeping a major base in Qatar and has used Qatar to communicate informally with Hizbullah, Hamas and the Ikhwan.
Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. The fact is that, intentionally or not, both have supported the spreading of strict Salafist interpretations of Islam that has constituted an environment in which radicalism festers. Even if they may not provide direct funding for terrorist movements, private sources in both are suspected of extending support to questionable groups. Saudi accusations do not mean that it does not support radical movements, it simply means that it does not approve of those Qataris support. Saudi intention is to force Qatar to adopt policies in harmony with theirs. Will Qatar be able to resist the pressures of Saudi Arabia and its allies? Probably not. It is too small a country, too weak to resist a strong neighbor. Iran is offering some help but it is too risky for it to get involved militarily.
Qatar had been developing close relations with Turkey. They had been united in their support for the Ikhwan and Hamas, opposition to the current Egyptian government and support for Sunni opposition groups to the Syrian regime. Economic relations between them were expanding. Turkey was the seventh largest recipient of Qatari investments. Finally, Turkey had undertaken to establish a military base in Qatar, offer training to its soldiers and gendarmerie. After the crisis came, to demonstrate that Turkey would maintain its commitments, Turkish goverment rushed through the parliament the approval of the military agreement about the base and military training. It is unlikely, however, Turkish support will change the fortunes of Qatar. It may be, however, that the failure of its Qatar policy will change the political and economic fortunes of Turkey, forcing it to review the policies it has been following in the Middle East.
Ilter TURAN Columnist